Gay people share stories of growing up in North Dakota, Minnesota

Retired professor has collected interviews from 100 people for project.

Diane Gira and Valerie Nelson and their son, Madison, were invited to a White House reception with President Obama in 2013 in what they described as one of the highlights of their lives. Obama sent the family an autographed photo. Submitted photo from Facebook

FARGO — Retired professor Larry Peterson has hit the two-year mark on collecting stories from gay people who grew up in North Dakota and northern Minnesota and the number has reached 100.

Another 150 are on a list to be interviewed in a project called "Breaking Barriers: Harvesting LGBTQ Stories from the Northern Plains."

Together with about 10 other interviewers, Peterson said they have mostly talked to people in their 50s to their 80s who shared their stories of coming out, interactions with their parents and other family members, discrimination, job losses and dealing with the religious aspects of being gay.

"Most have emerged with stories of strength and resilience," Peterson told a small crowd at the Fargo Public Library on Wednesday, Nov. 13.

They have learned of sad stories, too, though, as an interviewee who grew up in Osakis, Minn., talked about being bullied all the way through school with his parents also being attacked, as well having to deal with damage to his vehicle.


Another story his team has gathered is from the boyfriend of a Fargo gay man who was murdered in 1992, sending a frightening message through the area gay community.

However, Peterson in his presentation shared a few stories of happiness, which he said were found in the majority of the interviews so far.

One involved a lesbian couple from Wahpeton-Breckenridge who adopted a baby at birth and had one of the ultimate experiences in life as they were invited by President Barack Obama to the White House in 2013 to a gay pride reception.

The couple, Diane Gira and Valerie Nelson, and their son, Madison, were even recognized by Obama in the speech he gave after they had sent a letter to him thanking him for all he had done for the gay community. They were one of seven gay couples who wrote letters that were invited.

The two shared their stories, too, in an audio-visual presentation by Peterson about their fears of growing up gay in the 1970s in the Red River Valley, where they both felt the need to "hide" their identities from people, including their families.

After being together 17 years, Nelson said after her father died in 1991, she finally had the talk with her mother, who told her that her father and her had always known she was gay and they both "always loved her" and her partner.

The couple also told of their religious journey as they were welcomed into a Wahpeton-Breckenridge Methodist church in the early 1990s by the pastor and where they became very involved in church activities. However, when a new pastor came along, the story changed as he was "negative" about their sexuality. In 1998, when they adopted their son, the pastor refused to baptize him and they said that was the "last straw" and they found a Lutheran church that once again welcomed them.

In another story, Randy Mann, who was born and raised in Dickinson, N.D., as a "good Catholic boy," talked about how he was told in Catholic school to quit being a "limp-wristed little girl" and to man up. He went on to become a teacher and married a woman at age 22 and moved to Japan to teach.


It was there he said he determined he "couldn't do the lie anymore every day." He said his marriage wasn't loveless and he did have a daughter. But he met his future husband, Yasu Horita, in Japan and they eventually moved back to the United States.

Now living in Fargo, Mann believes "discrimination won't disappear" but added that "we're not going back to being invisible."

He also told his story of how his mother was "won over" by his husband after he cared for her while Mann was recovering from open heart surgery and she was suffering from pancreatic cancer.

In his story, he ended by saying how he was "more honest now" after having to tell lies all the time in his earlier years.

Peterson, meanwhile, said the stories are being offered to the public on a Prairie Public Radio podcast and are being transcribed to be stored in the North Dakota State University archives. He also said he hopes to share some of the stories at libraries across North Dakota. He said the Red River Rainbow Seniors organization is the group behind the project and has about 40 active members with many others on an email list.

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