By JOSEPH MARTIN
ONE FEATHER STAFF
For many years among the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, being gay, lesbian or transgender was something that was either hidden or something that wasn’t discussed. There was a stigma attached to it, and many just don’t want to discuss it. One organization on the Boundary hopes to change that.
The group We Belong is a support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) residents of the Qualla Boundary and Haywood, Jackson, Swain and Macon counties. The group on its Facebook page says it provides LGBTQ people with a sober and safe environment where they’ll be heard, understood and respected.
One of the leaders of the group Jose Guerrero, said it started with just a couple of people meeting and talking. Guerrero, a recovering addict, laughed, “I need something here to keep me busy.”
The LGBTQ community also deals with a mentality that mirrors the existing homophobia in society in general, and the group regularly has to monitor their page for hateful remarks. The Reservation’s acceptance of LGBTQ people isn’t different from the rest of the country. Some accept it. Some don’t, and there are those who will harass and antagonize.
Some oppose the lifestyle based upon Biblical beliefs. The Rev. Ben Reed was one of four preachers who submitted the prohibition on same-sex marriage in 2014 that is now part of tribal code. With one abstention, and two absent, the ordinance passed with one vote opposed.
Reed said, “I hope that people will attempt to understand, there’s no hatred in my heart. It’s not about people. To me it’s about what God said is right and wrong.” Reed, along with the Revs. Denny Crowe, Bo Parris and Gilbert Breedlove, references Romans 1:26 in that ordinance: “And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.”
Reed said his position on this issue doesn’t mean he hates the LGBTQ community. “All of us sin and come up short. I love folks. I love everybody.” He said, however, that doesn’t make it right. “Not everyone believes this way, but I do. I believe it.” Reed also said he’s willing to meet with the We Belong group. “If they want me to share this in person, I’d be glad to. I love each and every one of you. We can’t pick and choose what we say is right and wrong. God’s the judge.”
Guerrero attends services at Yellowhill Baptist Church and Christ Fellowship. He says those who cite the Bible as justification for refusing to accept LGBTQ community members are overlooking parts of scripture that call for love and to reject judgment. “There’s no reason to hide for me. We’re all sinners. It also says love thy neighbor. Christians are taught to love one another.” He said not everyone is accepting. “To them, I don’t throw it up in their faces.”
We Belong seeks to be the support for tribal members and community members who struggle with the LGBTQ identity. It’s one that Guerrero understands. “I didn’t come out (disclosing LGBTQ identity) until my freshman year of high school.” And Guerrero said his mother wasn’t initially accepting when he did. Ultimately it was his grandmother who stepped in and help the acceptance along. “She’s always been my biggest supporter.”
While Guerrero describes himself as quiet and shy, with only a few of his friends knowing before he came out. He said, “I wanted to be known for something. I want to make a difference here on the reservation.”
The group maintains a sober environment, which was part of the attraction for Guerrero. He, for a time, gravitated towards gay-friendly clubs in Asheville and found himself coping through the use of drugs and alcohol. He said of We Belong, “There’s always been a need for it,” but he said for many years that need was pushed into the closet (a term meant to keep an LGBTQ identity secret).
Guerrero urges LGBTQ people and their supporters to attend meetings at the Analenisgi building 375 Sequoyah Trail, Wednesdays at 5 p.m. The group said they are anonymous. “We’re not looking to make people gay. We just want people to be o.k. with it. I’m just tired of hiding. I want people to see us as regular, normal folk.”