Reaching Out 

How Idaho's gay media might lead a new statewide movement

Travis Riggs cups a phone to his ear, listening to a ring on the other line, and wonders aloud how to introduce himself.

"Am I Diversity News? Or just Diversity?" he asks the ceiling. The line picks up, and he chooses the former.

Riggs, 26, is really a measure of both. As a gay man in Idaho, he's an example of the sort of diversity Idaho is still struggling to accept. As the editor of a newly revamped gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender magazine based in Boise, he's at the forefront of a new form of activism in Idaho.

Instead of more traditional Boise-based movements on behalf of gay and lesbian issues, activists from across the state are now putting their resources into a new group that, they hope, will push back against further legislative action against gay and lesbian rights. Younger activists like Riggs, 26, are leading the push. When he took over the editor's role at Diversity this year, Riggs knew he wanted to shake up the publication's focus and purpose. His idea is to make the publication reach out well past Boise's safer borders, and draw in readers and contributors statewide, and use them to build a movement.

"It's a tool, to help all the groups in Idaho work together," Riggs said.

Doing so wouldn't be a first, but it would be something relatively new to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender movement in Idaho, which typically takes its marching orders from Boise, to the extent that it does so at all.

Just one year ago, I wrote in these pages that a new ballot initiative banning any form of nontraditional marriage in Idaho was likely to spark a new gay movement in Idaho.

And I was wrong. House Joint Resolution 2, proposed by social conservatives in the Idaho Legislature, passed handily.

At the time, gay activists, who said they were rallying the troops, also readily admitted they were likely to lose.

"If it is put on the ballot," said Rep. Nicole LeFavour, Idaho's only openly gay lawmaker, "it will pass."

She was right. This surprised no one. This is still Idaho, after all. Outside of Boise's progressive tilt, the state still leans hard to the right. Conservative politicians—and their causes—have ready adherents here.

"There was a strong campaign in Boise," LeFavour said. "But people realized at the outset that we didn't have a statewide organization to pull it off."

Many of those who were working to oppose the passage of HJR2, as it came to be called, acknowledged that their efforts against it were fractured and weak. Instead of using their own base, whatever that may be, gay-rights proponents leaned heavily on more established, and more mainstream, organizations for money and resources to fight the battle against HJR2.

"Queer organizing in Idaho has always lacked capacity," said Andrea Shipley, who works with Your Family, Friends and Neighbors, a Boise-based gay-rights group. "But that's what we're hoping to change."

During the campaign, Shipley and others within Your Family, Friends and Neighbors wrote a grant proposal to help fund organizing efforts within Idaho. They succeeded and began traveling around the state, meeting with small groups in Moscow, Lewiston and Idaho Falls, to name a few communities. Their living-room campaign was designed to identify new leaders statewide who could help push their issues in new ways.

"Really, what we're functioning as right now is as messengers," Shipley said. "This is long-term work."

They took reams of notes. They jotted down long lists of names. And they drew up a short, but comprehensive, to-do list. First on the list: Create effective communication. Second: Break the isolation that gay and lesbian people in more rural and remote areas feel. And three: Mobilize the newly aggregated gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community

"This is really base-building," Shipley said. "Doing queer organizing in Idaho is hard. This is not easy stuff."

Like many other movements, gay and lesbian groups turned to media to help spread the word. Diversity is one example of that.

Another is an innovative Web site built by Jody May-Chang, a Boise Web developer who moved to Idaho from California in 1999. PrideDepot.com, May-Chang's Web site, has a national feel to it, but it's built and maintained in Boise as a labor of love and a necessity, May-Chang said.

She and her partner wanted to raise her young son in a place that was more quiet and peaceful than Santa Barbara, Calif., where she'd lived since 1978. They moved to Boise, and although they loved their new home, its political and social situation were a far cry from California's liberal centers.

"It was really culture shock, coming here," May-Chang said.

May-Chang had been an activist in California, where the gay and lesbian movement is a vibrant and accepted part of the social whirl. Not so in Idaho. So, when the lesbian couple and their son moved in, they peeled the provocative political stickers from their car and tried to settle comfortably into their new, pleasant life in Idaho. May-Chang was happy as a mother, and her son thrived here.

"Parenting really is a form of activism, if you think about it," May-Chang said. "I take that as a deep form of social responsibility."

But over time, May-Chang said, she began to notice a number of limitations in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community here, not the least of which was its apparently small size.

"It was very fragmented," May-Chang said. "It's nobody's fault. But it felt like I stepped back 10 years."

Her reaction is traditional in two ways. As a parent, she wanted a better place for her child.

"Every parent has instincts to make it a better world for your kid," she said. "Society's going to judge him for who his parents are."

And like many lesbians, she said, she did what those who perceive that resources aren't available do: She made her own.

"My activist juices got stirred a little bit," she said.

She bought the domain name, PrideDepot.com, in 1998. The site began, she said, as an e-commerce site for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Web surfers. But she soon wanted it to become something more than that.

"If nothing else, it's a place to find that these people are just like me," she said.

She began gathering news articles about gay rights and issues. It was hugely labor-intensive, and traffic was spotty.

Then in 2006, during Pride Month, she re-launched the site, now re-worked with better information behind it, and with more database support. Now PrideDepot.com had more information and was easier to use. Traffic has surged ever since. May-Chang estimates she gets thousands of hits to the site per day, and estimates that in May, she received between 80,000 and 100,000 visitors.

"Our mission is to create an independent media source that is focused on activism," May-Chang said.

She and Riggs both struggle with the concept of a news source that attempts to ape a journalist's objectivity but infuses it with activism, inspiring readers and contributors to make a difference.

"There has to be a fair blend of activism and objectivity," May-Chang said. "We're a bridge between the grass-roots blogosphere and the mainstream media."

Riggs grapples with this concept, too, but with a more pointed sense of attitude and irony. Riggs spent years working with HIV and AIDS issues, but became frustrated, he said, by the constraints those groups have to work under as a result of getting government funding.

"If you piss someone off, your funding disappears," Riggs said. "There are multiple agencies that would happily take your contract."

He turned to the more strictly gay-rights activism world and felt at home. Earlier this year, he was convinced by The Community Center to take the helm of Diversity as a volunteer editor.

"Travis will turn Diversity into a powerhouse of Idaho state news," said Christine Boyles, the director of The Community Center, which publishes Diversity. Her comments are taken from a letter to the editor in the first issue.

As Riggs went into the final weeks of his publication cycle, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a vigorous opponent of gay rights, died on May 15. The first revamped issue of Diversity was set to go to the printers.

"We couldn't exactly ignore that," Riggs said, who makes a tongue-in-cheek criticism of Falwell for dying on deadline.

"I'm not ashamed to say I'm happy that he's dead," Riggs said. "I'm happier about that than I was when Sadaam Hussein was captured."

Riggs is very careful not to disparage the efforts of editors before him, but he is vigorous about making Diversity look, and read, differently than before. First, aside from Falwell's death, he got rid of all national news. He got rid of syndicated comic strips. And, he said, he stopped running news releases from various groups, insisting on having articles written locally, even if it meant he might have to do much of that work. Where Diversity used to resemble a newsletter put out by a nonprofit group, which it was, it now looks more like a newsprint magazine, with large-format pictures, albeit grainy, and articles and information from across the state. The monthly magazine prints 2,000 copies per month, a figure Riggs hopes to double during his year-long tenure. He also hopes to make it a bimonthly publication.

And, where before the paper included mostly Boise advertisements and announcements, Riggs has begun pushing to include information from around the state.

"He's really brought to it a sense of what a modern publication can look like," LeFavour said. "He's done his homework."

Riggs was partially inspired to take the job, he said, because of the changes wrought by HJR2 and because he and Shipley agreed that Diversity could become the voice of the new statewide push to involve more gay-rights activists.

"HJR2 was enormously helpful to the gay community," Riggs said. "Sometimes you need a good kick in the ass to get something done."

Shipley agrees. Even as they faced overwhelming support for the marriage initiative, activists began working to develop what they now call Idaho Equality.

"We knew that while we might not win the campaign, there were benchmarks that we could achieve," said Andrea Shipley.

It's not yet clear how Idaho Equality will take shape. Riggs envisions something that may work as a political action committee.

Shipley said she and others involved hope to make it easier for far-flung gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people to participate in the state's political and social movements. Rural areas, of which Idaho has many, are the group's greatest challenges.

"That's a big issue for us," said May-Chang. "People tend to be very isolated. We feel that's a very strong connection to make."

It certainly won't be easy. Idaho's remote nature presents natural obstacles to organizing. So does the nature of the gay community itself. During last year's push back against the marriage amendment, gay activists found unity, but not enough. It's much harder to keep everyone on the same page, and pushing for the same goals, when that threat isn't looming.

"Every community that struggles to overcome oppression operates under different levels of cohesion," said LeFavour. "When we're not fighting things together, some peculiarities come into play."

Riggs and Shipley hope Diversity will pull people together. May-Chang hopes the same for PrideDepot.com.

Their work may be tested again soon, as they face other possible legislative efforts to further restrict gay rights in Idaho. By that time, they hope that Idaho Equality, and the far-flung satellites that make up its growing base, will be ready.

"This is the front lines, doing blue work in a red state," May-Chang said. "This is where the rubber meets the road."

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