‘Just know that we’re here:’ Eagle County Pride offers new peer support groups | VailDaily.com

‘Just know that we’re here:’ Eagle County Pride offers new peer support groups

Group welcomes LGBTQ individuals and allies into four new support groups offered in partnership with Eagle Valley Behavioral Health

Orlando Ortiz, left, and Madison Partridge celebrate the start of Eagle Valley Pride’s four new peer support groups offered for the LGBTQ community through a partnership with Eagle Valley Behavioral Health. Ortiz is the vice president of the local group, and Partridge is the president.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

All we desire in this life is to be known, needed, and cared for, a wise woman once said. The known piece is something that some LGBTQ individuals spend their whole lives searching for — a thirst that can be even more difficult to quench in small mountain communities like Eagle County.

Among LGBTQ youth, 71% reported feeling sad or hopeless for at least two weeks out of the year and 39% seriously considered attempting suicide in the preceding year. That second statistic is over 50% for transgender or non-binary youth, according to a 2019 survey conducted by The Trevor Project.

But when these young people had at least one supportive adult in their life, something magical happens — they were 40% less likely to report a suicide attempt in the preceding year.

In the world of mental health, where nothing is simple, these statistics illustrate a massive issue with a uniquely straightforward solution that may not ease the pain entirely but has the potential for “a lifetime of impact,” said Madison Partridge, the president of Eagle County Pride.

“Having a supportive person in my life when I was young would have helped my mental health tremendously,” Partridge said. “If I had one person telling me that it was OK that I was who I wanted to be and nothing was wrong with me, I would not have had the mental health issues, the eating disorders, and the general lack of self-esteem about myself.”

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While she had not heard these statistics, one local parent said she felt this power when her child came out as non-binary for the first time a few months ago. After months of worrying as her child became increasingly withdrawn, the mother finally saw them for the first time that day and the profound impact this had is something she will never forget.

“When my kiddo came to this conclusion … you could almost see this physical weight lifting off of their shoulders and the smile on their face and I knew — everything made sense,” the parent said.

The desire to be seen, to be known, does not dissipate as we enter adulthood. The need for community remains a powerful one, Partridge said. That is why Eagle County Pride has partnered with Eagle Valley Behavioral Health to offer four support groups for LGBTQ individuals and allies of all ages.

A new avenue for support

The peer support groups are broken out to give participants opportunities to form deep connections based on similar lived experiences, Partridge said.

Partridge and Orlando Ortiz, the vice president of Eagle County Pride, received training from Eagle Valley Behavioral Health to serve as “peer leads,” overseeing the four groups that meet once a month.

The groups are not meant to replace specialized mental or behavioral health care but can be a great place to start and learn about other resources available, Ortiz said.

Many Eagle County residents, particularly migrant populations and seasonal workers, are un- or under-insured, making therapy less easily accessible, he said. LGBTQ individuals often have an even harder time finding mental health professionals that can provide care that is relevant to their experience.

“There’s a stigma with asking for help and going to a psychologist or a therapist, you know, just going into that office, might seem daunting,” he added. “So that’s where the peer support program comes in … It’s basically another way to seek help.”

Flags fly during the Pride in the Park parade in Avon on Saturday, June 12, 2021. The parade went on the bike path around Nottingham Lake.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

The first support group to be formed is called “gay, straight or anywhere in between.” This group is a kind of “catch-all,” facilitating the exchange of ideas and support between anyone from the loud-and-proud who have been out for decades to those just starting to explore their sexuality or gender identity, Partridge said.

Next, Partridge decided to start a support group for parents, loved ones and allies searching for answers on how to better support the LGBTQ individuals in their lives.

The mother of a non-binary youth who spoke with the Vail Daily Tuesday – who requested to remain anonymous for the privacy of her child – said the support of the local LGBTQ community has meant the world to her.

‘We’re going to be just fine’

In the mother’s experience, her child’s coming out brought more answers than questions and, above all else, it brought relief for both her and her child.

“For so long, I was very concerned about my kid. I thought that there was something seriously, seriously wrong because they wouldn’t talk to me or open up and I had no idea what was really happening,” she said. “And then once I found out it was non-binary, I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, thank God!’ … I feel like, OK, now we can start our life and our journey and we’re going to be just fine.”

When educating parents and allies, pronouns and language is often one of the first questions that comes up, Partridge said. She and the mom agreed that it’s alright to slip up from time to time in adjusting to gender-neutral language as long as your loved one feels that you are trying to see and honor their true self.

“One of the biggest lessons that I have learned is that if you don’t use the correct pronoun, it’s not a big deal, at least for my child … but what I noticed with my child is that when I do use the correct pronoun, I see something in my child,” she said. “I see my kid being recognized for who they are and being happy about that.”

Her child attends the third peer support group led by Partridge, specifically for transgender and non-binary youth. For a mom with a 10-year-old kiddo only a few months into an exciting new journey, she said the group has brought her peace of mind knowing that her child has a support network to lean on.

“They’re still just trying to figure themselves out and to not know who you are has got to be a very difficult thing,” she said.

There are more transgender and non-binary people in the Eagle River Valley than people may think, the mother said. She encouraged parents of LGBTQ youth to reach out, ask questions and get their kids the support they need.

Flags fly during Pride in the Park in Avon on Saturday, June 12, 2021. The event drew a couple hundred people to watch the drag show and parade.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

The local LGBTQ community is tight-knit and growing stronger every day, Partridge said. Eagle County Pride is excited to be a part of this growth, extending LGBTQ visibility beyond the annual Pride in the Park event.

“We really hope that these peer support groups, and these events help build community, foster friendships in our community and address the isolation that people feel here that affects our mental health,” Partridge said. “I want people to see Eagle County Pride as an LGBTQ resource” for education, advocacy, celebration and anything in between.

Navigating cultural norms

The final peer support group run by Eagle County Pride is specifically for LGBTQ individuals who identify as Hispanic/Latino, Ortiz said. The group is called “Comunidad Hispana LGBT+” and meets every third Wednesday of the month.

Ortiz started the group because he wanted to use his experience growing up as a gay, Latino man in El Paso, Texas, to help others in navigating the cultural and linguistic differences that can make it more difficult to come out and to access support services.

“The language is a huge part and even if you might know English to a certain point … to feel comfortable, to speak, to open your heart in your native tongue is important,” Ortiz said.

LGBTQ Latinos are not the only ones who face cultural challenges like traditional family structures, religion or “machismo” (male chauvinism), but Hispanic/Latino people may experience them differently, he said.

“All of these norms, they are very heavily present in our community and so I think that’s what makes it harder for us — at least for me it was — growing up,” Ortiz said.

Eagle County Pride Vice President Orlando Ortiz is leading a new peer support group for LGBTQ individuals who identify as Hispanic/Latino. The group meets every third Wednesday of the month.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

“It’s hard to get that support and sometimes we have to find it outside of our home,” he continued. “Some of us … we end up fleeing our country so we can live a life in freedom.”

As a proudly gay man in his 40s, Miguel Aguirre said he joined the group because he, too, feels he is in a place in his life where he can use his experiences to help others harness the power that comes from truly embracing who you are.

He benefited from such a mentor when he first came out and went to live with his brother in his late teens/early 20s, Aguirre said. His brother’s friend, who was also gay, approached him one day and said something simple, yet profound.

“He told me, ‘Miguel, don’t feel guilty (about) who you are … It’s you. You have a nice heart, you are a good guy. … So, don’t be afraid,’” Aguirre recalled. “And this, for me, was the person who made the most impact on me.”

To see and be seen

Aguirre knows the power of having just one person look him in the eyes, see him for who he is and tell him that he is enough, that he is worthy of love and respect. Now, he said he feels it is his time to do the same for someone else.

“I think if I could be one of those persons who can support and can transform a life, just one, it’s a lot…” Aguirre said. “It’s just huge.”

This kind of love and acceptance has a ripple effect, he said. These support groups could inspire people to see and be seen. He asked himself what this might look like if it extended out to whole families, or whole communities, seeing one another clearly for the first time and forming deeper connections as a result.

“To leave behind old beliefs and old structures to begin to create a new world,” Aguirre said in Spanish. “A world where there is acceptance, where there is not discrimination, where everything is — maybe not perfect — but where we can all live together in harmony.”

Anyone interested in joining a peer support group can visit EagleValleybh.org/get-help-now/peer-support and click on “search for a peer support group” to sign up. People can also learn more and ask questions by reaching out to Eagle County Pride at eaglecopride@gmail.com.

For those who are not quite ready to take this step yet, “the advice I would give is take your time, do what you need to do for yourself, but just know that we’re here and we support you and we love you,” Partridge said. “You are who you are and we’re thankful that you are here.”

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