GRAND FORKS — When the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa’s Tribal Council on Aug. 6 voted to recognize same-sex marriages, Belcourt Police Investigator Duran Parisien was alone in his squad car, listening to the council meeting on the radio.
It had been a long, emotional day for the LGBTQIA people of the Turtle Mountain Tribe. When tribal council members announced they would consider recognizing same-sex marriages a month prior, it invited vocal shows of support, but also shows of opposition. Hours before the vote, about 200 supporters of marriage equality gathered on the reservation for a march, and the meeting itself, which lasted more than two hours, featured several emotional testimonies from people who are LGBTQIA or two-spirit, an umbrella term used by some Indigenous communities to mean genderqueer or gender nonconforming.
When the vote passed 6-2, and his tribal nation became the first in North Dakota to recognize marriage equality, Parisien, a gay man, said he was overwhelmed with joy.
But it did little to change his mind about leaving.
Though creating laws that recognize and protect LGBTQIA people is an important step in the right direction, Parisien said, it’s difficult to legislate away the isolation that often comes with being an LGBTQIA North Dakotan. And after years of living with a sneaking suspicion that the shifted gazes, changed subjects and an attack in a bar bathroom had something to do with his sexuality, Parisien first knew he wanted to leave North Dakota in 2017.
“I’ve never had a boyfriend, and I’ve been out of the closet since 2013. … It’s something I’m inexperienced around, but I am kind of excited,” he said. “I have been applying for jobs out of state to continue my law enforcement career. I know that one thing to look forward to is finding a group that more or less understands me.”
When he does leave, Parisien won’t be the first LGBTQIA North Dakotan to do so. Data shows that while about 9% of North Dakota youth report being lesbian, gay or bisexual, the number drops to about 6% among university students in the state, and drops again to below 3% in North Dakota adults.
Faye Seidler, a trans activist and the administrator of Harbor Health Clinic in Fargo, says those numbers reflect a trend that has long been known among LGBTQIA North Dakotans: In a state that is at best frigidly indifferent and at worst openly hostile to its queer population, many young LGBTQIA people realize early that opportunity, safety and community are better found somewhere else.
“There is a reason we have the lowest trans population and one of the lowest LGB populations within the United States, and I don't think it would be a stretch to suggests that it is both because our queer youth are leaving and queer adults are not coming here,” Seidler said. “I'd wager every queer person in this state knows somebody who left because they didn't think they had a future here.”
LGBTQIA stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual. Acknowledging that the acronym can be cumbersome and confusing, Seidler said she prefers the word “queer,” which has been reclaimed in recent decades to become a common catch-all term for a diverse range of gender identities and sexual orientations.
A shrinking population
When state Rep. Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, attempted to learn more about North Dakota’s LGBTQIA populations, he ran into the same issue many before him had: Almost no one is gathering data on queer people in the state, and the numbers that are available are likely vast underestimates.
“I think back to when I was in high school,” said Boschee, the state’s only openly gay legislator. “Had I filled that out, I wouldn’t have filled that out accurately, in terms of identification, just because of fear, and lack of trust in the system — where’s this information going?”
Here’s the data that is available: Youth Risk Behavior Surveys are administered every other year by the state to more than 10,000 middle and high school-aged students to gauge issues like bullying and substance use in schools. The 2019 survey shows that about 9.5% of students report being gay, lesbian or bisexual, a number that has remained fairly consistent over the past two surveys. In the Grand Forks area in 2019, that number was 8.9%, the lowest in the state.
A similar survey is administered by the North Dakota University System: the NDUS Student Wellness and Perception Survey is administered every two years. In 2018, out of 3,961 student responses, about 6.1% reported being lesbian, gay or bisexual, and 0.8% were transgender or nonbinary. At UND, those numbers were about 6.6% and 0.6%.
A statewide estimate is calculated by The Williams Institute, a public policy research institute at the UCLA School of Law that tracks LGBTQIA populations in every state. Based on data from the Gallup Daily Tracking survey, The Williams Institute estimates that about 2.7% of adults in North Dakota are LGBTQIA. That’s the lowest percentage of the population of any other state. Just ahead of North Dakota, in ascending order, are Idaho, Montana and South Dakota, with Alabama rounding out the bottom five at 3.1%. The national average is about 6%.
There are some wrinkles in the data. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey has the largest pool of respondents and therefore is considered the most accurate estimation of queer people in the state. However, for unclear reasons, the survey asks only about sexual orientation, and not gender identity, unlike NDUS and The Williams Institute, which consider both.
Seidler also noted that the cultures of acceptance are different among younger versus older generations, which likely affects the numbers.
Still, both Boschee and Seidler, who each have spent a significant amount of time parsing data on the subject, agree that even with some of the data’s problems, it’s fair to chart a clear trend of the state’s queer population shrinking between high school and adulthood.
Every LGBTQIA person interviewed for this article said this was a trend of which they are well aware. Each knew of at least one young queer person who had moved out of the state, and most said they had at some point themselves at least considered moving.
Adrienne MacDonald is one person who has witnessed the trend firsthand. MacDonald, who uses the pronouns “they,” “them” and “theirs,” is the lead facilitator of Kaleidoscope, a Fargo-based queer youth support group, one of a small handful in the state.
MacDonald said that for many of the 12- to 18-year-olds involved in Kaleidoscope, it’s often one of the only spaces in their life where they feel safe being open about their sexual orientation or gender identity. It’s not uncommon for teens to go into the bathroom after school, change into the clothes they feel align with their gender, attend Kaleidoscope, and then go change back out of their clothes before going home, MacDonald said.
When faced with an unwelcoming environment, some older LGBTQIA people might have the desire to try to create change where they are, but MacDonald said that’s not really how teens tend to think about the issue.
“They may have kind of a hard time seeing like, ‘Oh, if I work really hard to help my family be more accepting, maybe I’ll stay,’ they don’t think of it that way,” they said. “They think of it more like, ‘my family doesn’t accept me, and I want to get ... out of here.’”
A lack of support
Kyle Thorson now lives in Grand Forks, and is the organizer of Grand Forks Pride and owner of Archives Coffee Shop. But growing up in Bottineau, N.D., he said that it was largely a quirk of polite Midwestern society that kept him in the closet throughout his high school years: Nobody talked about gender or sexuality.
“It’s really a desire to not get engaged in conflict, if you will,” he said. “I think most people don’t want to acknowledge something they may or may not disagree with. … I think people just tend to avoid topics they don’t know a lot about or are kind of contentious. North Dakotans are amazing people, they really do want to make sure people that are taken care of and have a good community, but it’s something that has been so vilified by conservative religions and the like, that it makes it harder to talk about.”
Fewer people talking about it can have multiple effects on young queer people. Some who feel like they’re not welcome in the state leave. Others who stay are less likely to broadcast their gender identity or sexual orientation. Those left who are struggling with their identity for the first time are often left feeling isolated.
“I truly, truly believe that’s one of the biggest reasons people leave the state,” Thorson said. “They don’t find people who either support them or make them feel welcome, and it’s super hard to build community.”
In a recent conversation with the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition on the state of North Dakota’s queer youth, Seidler compared a person’s sense of gender to their sense of balance. If everything is the way it should be, you never have to think about your sense of balance — but if something is wrong, you can feel it.
“If you get knocked off balance once, that’s OK,” she said. “But if it’s every single day, that’s motion sickness.”
Young people who have a supportive environment are more likely to have positive outcomes.
When that doesn’t happen, Seidler said most people she speaks to are already aware of the statistics: according to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveys, half of North Dakota’s queer student population seriously considers suicide, 39% have created a suicide plan, 27% have attempted suicide, and overall, they are three times more likely to be suicidal than straight students.
Queer students are also 77% more likely to experience bullying and 86% more likely to feel unsafe in school. Further, 86% report feeling uncomfortable talking to their parents about their feelings. They run away or are kicked out of their homes twice as often as straight students, and they make up more than half of North Dakota’s youth homeless population. Between the 2017 and 2019 surveys, there was very little movement in those numbers.
“This is how hopeless they feel,” Seidler said. “This is how unsafe they feel. This is the result of that.”
She said that to her, it’s clear North Dakota is failing its queer youth, and if that’s going to be turned around change needs to happen both legislatively and culturally. She noted that legislative change without cultural change would be less effective, because the attitudes that made the state unsafe for queer people in the first place would still exist. However, without legislative change, North Dakota will continue to struggle to retain its queer young people.
Seidler said that’s why she left the state a few years ago: moving a few miles across the river from Fargo to Moorhead provided her increased protections from the state of Minnesota.
“It would be absolutely insane to continue living in a state where I could be killed without it being considered a hate crime, have health insurance that doesn’t cover my medical needs, evicted regardless of my ability to pay, and fired regardless of my performance at work,” Seidler said. “Some of those issues have changed since I left, not because of North Dakota government, but because of federal regulations. While I may have some protections there now, the culture that denied those protections for decades has not yet changed.”
“Regardless,” she continued. “Even living in Minnesota, I consider North Dakota my home and my state.”
MacDonald said that for the most part, queer kids and teens want the same thing as any other young person: to be loved and accepted the way they are.
“At the end of the day, they don't want to be judged or called names or laughed at,” they said. “They want to be able to kiss their partner in public, and do that safely. They want to get married. They want all the same things that everybody else wants, they just want to do it in the same way that everybody else does.”
It’s not uncommon for parents of queer teens to reach out to MacDonald to tell them that their LGBTQIA child is struggling and they don’t know how to help. MacDonald said the best thing a parent can do is be there for their child, and make it clear that their love isn’t conditional on the child’s gender or sexual orientation. They added that many parents make the mistake of waiting for their child to come out to them: MacDonald said that more often than not, children and teens struggling with their sexuality or gender for the first time would be relieved if their parent brought it up first.
MacDonald added that queer people learn early to gauge the cues of people around them to determine how safe it is for them to be out in any given situation, so parents should be conscious of the cues they give their child, particularly with how they speak about LGBTQIA people.
And for queer teens, MacDonald encouraged them to reach out to their local LGBTQIA groups, whether it’s the Gender and Sexuality Alliance at their school if there is one, Pride Centers at their local universities, or independently-run groups like Kaleidoscope.
Thorson said those groups are becoming increasingly common in North Dakota, which he says is evidence that the state is already becoming more welcoming.
“There would never in a million years have been a (Gender and Sexuality Alliance) at my high school,” he said. “I’m seeing now that both high schools and middle schools have an alliance, and that’s huge. That’s something that 100% can change the dynamic of somebody’s life.”
For more rural teens who might not have access to those groups, MacDonald encouraged them to do what queer people have done for decades: Seek out a community online, through social media.
In the meantime, people around the state are working to improve the culture for LGBTQIA people in North Dakota. Seidler has begun developing what she hopes will be a three-year plan to help North Dakota become a safer and more supportive state for its LGBTQIA residents by addressing the state’s hostile culture, creating tools for educators and connecting queer youth with support.
That process likely won’t be a quick one, but Chenoa Laducer and Shannon Gunville agreed with Thorson that it has already started.
While Parisien was listening in on the Turtle Mountain Tribal Council meeting from the parking lot of the Belcourt Police Department, Laducer and Gunville were listening from the room next to the meeting. The two women, who are two-spirit, were traditionally married in a sweat lodge last year, and on the day of the march — the day of their first anniversary — they gathered their children and went out to show support for marriage equality.
Laducer said she was brought to tears by the number of people who showed up.
“It has gotten way better from 1990 to 2000, and from 2001 now to 2020, but I couldn’t believe all the people who were there for their people, for the gays, for the bisexuals, for the (transgenders),” she said. “I couldn’t believe all the people that were there to be supportive, because in reality, I didn’t think there were that many people.”
Parisien had a similar experience: shortly after members of the Turtle Mountain Tribal Council announced they would consider marriage equality, he said a local church pastor posted a statement on social media condemning same-sex attraction and urging the council to vote against making the change.
Parisien said seeing homophobia in his community stung, but he quickly realized that opponents of marriage equality were in the minority. In the weeks leading up to the vote, he said he received an extraordinary amount of support from his friends, community and fellow Belcourt Police officers. Meanwhile, a petition that circulated in Belcourt in opposition of the recognition of same-sex marriages received 44 signatures.
“That, compared to however many thousands of people … that’s pretty small,” he said.
It’s easy to understand why queer people leave North Dakota, Laducer said. But every queer person interviewed for this article emphatically agreed: While some people may choose to leave, it’s possible for any LGBTQIA person to thrive in North Dakota if they choose to.
Laducer said she has never considered leaving the state. She grew up here, and her family and friends live here. Whatever happens, she said, she and Gunville are North Dakotans for the long haul.
“It’s home,” she said.
Editor’s note: If you are a young person in crisis, feeling suicidal, or in need of a safe and judgment-free place to talk, call The Trevor Project’s 24-hour LGBTQ+ youth crisis line at 1-866-488-7386. For more information and resources about LGBTQ+ youth suicide prevention, visit thetrevorproject.org.