The power went out the morning of Dec. 9 in Sterling. Tammie Willis headed outside to see if it was just her place, or if her neighbors were dark, too. Outside her garage door, she met a man with a knife. The altercation left her with cuts on her arms and chest and bruises on her face and body. In the dark, she didn’t get a good look at the man.
Willis doesn’t know if it’s the same person who left a threatening note on her truck Nov. 11. She doesn’t know if it’s the same person who threw something at her windshield as she was driving Nov. 22. She doesn’t know if these incidents are because she is gay and an advocate for the local LGBTQ community. She does know it’s awfully difficult to feel otherwise.
Her fellow organizers are likewise concerned for the safety of the LGBTQ community. They’ve scheduled a town hall meeting for 2:30 p.m. Jan. 4 at the Soldotna library to bring awareness to this situation.
Audre Hickey, along with Willis and Leslie Byrd, organize the annual Two Spirits March and Pride in the Park gathering in Soldotna, held in June to coincide with LGBTQ Pride Month. The Pride in the Park planning committee is putting together the town hall. Hickey says it’s a way to raise awareness and support.
“We think that’s it’s important to start healing from it that we start discussing it and talk about how to make community accepting and welcoming and feel safe for all members of our community,” Hickey said. “… The forum is going to be a place for us to have real, authentic conversations. We’re asking members of the LGBT community to come and share their experiences in our community, both positive and negative. And to identify places where they feel safe and places where they feel unsafe.”
Hickey, Byrd and Willis have all been public figures in LGBTQ issues on the central peninsula. Hickey says she and Byrd haven’t received threats or been made to feel unsafe for their involvement. Then again, she says she and Byrd are allies, rather than being gay, themselves.
The note on Willis’ truck, containing homophobic slurs and a threat to her safety, showed up a few days after a Pride in the Park planning meeting had been announced. Her windshield was shattered the day after that planning meeting occurred. The assault happened two days after the next Pride planning meeting was announced. That could all be unrelated, but it’s enough of a connection to make people in the LGBTQ community concerned.
Hickey says it breaks her heart to think of Willis being attacked in this way.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “When she first told me about the letter, I just sat in her office and cried because it’s so sad to see this in our community, to somebody that’s such an active member of our community and does so much to help other people. And to see somebody targeted in our community with that level of hate is heartbreaking and it’s scary and it makes me scared for her. It makes me scared for the other people that I know that are LGBTQ members in our community. It’s really easy to bounce back and forth between anger and fear.”
Overall, Hickey says she feels like the central peninsula has become a more accepting place for the LGBTQ community over the years. That’s part of why Willis’ experience is such a shock.
“The support that we’ve seen and the community involvement has just grown exponentially,” Hickey said. “Our community seems to be very accepting and growing for the most part. There are the protesters that we have and then, after this incident, there is still some underlying tension. But I think, overall, I think our community is more accepting today than it was five years ago or 10 years ago.”
The Jan. 4 forum is open to everyone. Hickey hopes to see elected officials, community leaders and business owners in attendance to talk about creating safe spaces for LGBTQ people. The organization is planning to offer Safe Zone training in February and will take signups at the Jan. 4 forum.
Alaska State Troopers and Soldotna Police are investigating the attack and harassment incidents against Willis. No arrests have been made.