Rainbow pinwheels twirled fast in the wind, and pastor of Fire Mountain Ministries, Tonnie Keith, watched as members from Shawnee and beyond wore rainbow shirts and waved rainbow flags to celebrate the LBGTQ+ community at Pottawatomie County's Pride event Saturday at Shawnee Twin Lakes.
According to Keith, who also organized the event, many people told her this Pride was the first of its kind in the county and they were happy to gather together.
"It (was) nice to see all the rainbow flags and the rainbow stickers and necklaces and buttons and just all the excitement people (had) about making new friends," Keith said. "That's what it's all about, connecting with people and celebrating who we are, not staying in the closet...and carrying equality further for our city."
Keith explained two years ago she started Fire Mountain Ministries, which is an affirming LGBTQ+ church that meets every Sunday in the Health Market conference room at the Shawnee Mall.
"An affirming church is different from traditional churches in that we don’t just allow LGBTQ+ people to come to the church, that is an accepting church, but we fully affirm LGBTQ+ people for who they are and they can be on the ministerial staff, they can lead music, they can teach classes and so that gives them complete affirmation as a person,” Keith said.
Fire Mountain sponsored Pride and Keith said she wanted to give those in the Shawnee and surrounding areas LGBTQ+ community a place to meet and have fun.
About 20-30 people attended the event, ate hot dogs and listened to the musical stylings of Shades of Gray.
For many attendees Pride was a chance for them to meet likeminded people and appreciate what Pride month (June) represents.
Mark Studier, 55, and his partner Anthony Dix, 54, currently live in Maud but Studier said they plan to move to Shawnee. The couple is from Tennessee and Dix said there's not much of an LGBTQ+ community, so it's nice to be in a place where someone is trying to build one.
"We're just going to buy a house and...if there are any teens that are LGBT that are kicked out of their homes and need a place to stay for a little while we're going to take them in...(and) help them transition into the world," Studier said.
Both Studier and Dix said though they've seen some support from Shawnee and surrounding areas, there needs to be more.
This is something Keith is working on in the community and hopes to change in the future as well.
“Shawnee has been a place where people in the past...realize their gender identity and who they love is different and so they move away...as soon as they graduate from high school just to be who they are or love who they love," Keith said. "So for us we’re trying to make it a safe place that once you reach graduating from high school you have a place to stay not move away from."
The pastor said she’s visited schools, businesses and churches throughout the area and talked with counselors, owners and other pastors to explain that being LGBTQ+ isn’t a choice.
“We want to stop bullying. We want to stop harassment. We want to help you in any way if you have someone that’s having emotional issues or someone that’s struggling with their sexual identity. We want to be able to help them get through that because too many in our community have lost their lives because no one has understood them,” Keith said.
Ashley Wooten and Krystal Duncan, a couple and Shawnee residents for about 30 years, have five children and they said they're happy there was a Pride event in their hometown not only for them, but their children as well.
"It keeps all the kids educated. It keeps them open-minded. It keeps bullying down," Wooten said. "It makes me excited and it means we're actually moving forward and not backwards."
Kelly Tucker-Montgomery, Michelle Montgomery and Trish Kuper make up Shades of Gray and they performed at Pride.
According to Tucker-Montgomery, this event makes her hopeful for the future because should this event continue, then the LGBTQ+ community in Shawnee and surrounding areas will grow.
"It will be a place where Shawnee people and the areas around Shawnee feel that there's people that support them." Tucker-Montgomery said.
Shelley and Mark Holland are the parents of 19-year-old Jesse Holland who came out a few years ago. The family lives outside of Pottawatomie County in the small town of Davenport.
According to Shelley, having events such as Pott. County Pride shows people that being LGBTQ+ isn't something to fear but celebrate and it gives her son the opportunity to be near people like him.
"The community needs to be normalized. People think of them as monsters or scary or they don't know what to think at all," Shelley said. "It's exciting because my son doesn't really have a community...so stuff like this is great and I was hoping people would come and we got a pretty good turnout."
The family is also part of Free Mom Hugs, an organization that provides parental support to LGBTQ+ youth and others.
Jesse said it's nice to see a community so close to home being built for those who may not have one.
"It's really inspiring because it's getting a smaller community together and just bringing the awareness and the visibility," Jesse said. "I hope that it'll make (Shawnee and surrounding areas) more loving and more accepting of people that are LGBTQ+."
Keith explained Fire Mountain is a part of the Covenant Network and members of these churches are treated as equals whether they be LGBTQ+ or Allies.
She said she wanted to bring that same sort of inclusion to Pottawatomie County and she feels she was successful in her mission.
"I personally feel so much gratification in trying to help people connect and to feel okay in their skin...and my motto is 'hearts not parts,' so we definitely celebrated hearts (at Pride). Hearts that connect with each other, hearts that enjoy life and hearts that are not afraid."