President Obama's recent mandate that hospitals extend visitation rights to same-sex partners was essential to stanching the flow of distressing stories of gay and lesbian couples, many together for decades, shut out from crucial medical discussions.

In the Twin Cities, members of Blaine High School's Gay Straight Alliance took a vow of silence last Friday to draw attention to students still harassed because of their sexual orientation.

But neither was the most intriguing story on the topic last week. A rural story was.

On Saturday, about 50 people gathered for a one-day seminar at Bemidji State University, titled "Creating Inclusive and Welcoming Communities." It was funded by a $3,000 PFund Foundation grant and sponsored by the Hospitality Initiative of Servant Hearts, a nonprofit agency supporting at-risk GLBT youths in northern Minnesota.

People came from as far away as Brainerd and the Twin Cities, and the group included mental health and law enforcement professionals, teachers, students, social workers, parents and leaders in various faith communities, all converging to create a more inclusive environment way Up North.

"We didn't have huge numbers," said conference organizer Cathy Perry, "but to have 50 participants who want us to come back is good news."

Interest in this conference has been building, said Perry, who moved from San Francisco to Bemidji three years ago to be with her partner and Servant Hearts founder, Tandy Bowman. Perry quickly realized she wasn't in Kansas anymore.

Bowman was kicked out of two churches after coming out. Perry was invited to a party for professional women, most of them lesbian, but was asked to please "not acknowledge them in public." And a neighbor of Perry and Bowman's asked: "Are you mother and daughter?" And, "Do you know where your property lines are?"

"Not the warm plate of cookies I expected," Perry said.

A keener concern, though, is the well-being of young people growing up gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender in rural areas, Perry said. Families and faith communities may reject them, and support services are few, leaving young people vulnerable to school violence, homelessness, addiction, depression and suicide.

Representatives of Twin Cities-based OutFront Minnesota offered an interactive presentation on violence toward GLBT youths and how to create safe and supportive school climates. Cheryl Yarnott, a registered nurse and case manager for Rural AIDS Action Network (, based in Little Falls, Minn., spoke about disparities in health care among those living with HIV-AIDS, some as young as age 8. "The geographic isolation can be problematic," she said.

Panelists included a transgender Bemidji High School teacher, a bisexual Bemidji State University student, and a rural gay man who came out in high school and still struggles with family relationships.

Andria Strano, a sociology graduate student at the University of Minnesota, wouldn't have missed it.

Strano, 24, is writing her doctoral dissertation on the unique challenges of growing up lesbian or gay, specifically on the Iron Range. Traveling to the area regularly for more than a year, she's spoken to more than 60 GLBT community members and their allies, spending time in their homes, neighborhoods and churches "to try to get a sense of what it is like to live there."

Strano, who grew up in Rochester, N.Y., plans to move to the Iron Range at the end of May.

While challenges persist, Strano was struck by unexpected advantages of the rural experience. "There is a sense of community," she said. "People tell me, 'Some may not like me being GLBT, but I have friends and family who care about me and who stand by me.'"

Through Facebook and other media, more "sympathetic" information is trickling down, she said. Rural gay-straight alliances are growing. People are starting to talk to their children. Older people, forced to leave decades ago because of their sexual orientation, are returning because they feel safer doing so. "It's about family, community, the beauty of the land," Strano said, "and the sense that this is home."

Perry is assessing feedback and hoping to take the conference on the road to Brainerd and other cities that could benefit from similar outreach. Like Strano, she is heartened by positive shifts.

"What gives me the greatest hope is how global the rural GLBT youths are, how comfortable they are with their sexuality, and how engaged they are in asking astute questions."

Even better, Perry said, are small but measurable shifts among those desiring to support them. "We engaged a rich group of people who really were hungry to know more."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 •