Southern Arizona transplant Jerry Gardner knows firsthand the apprehension that comes with moving to a new place.

“So many people are in the same boat – you’re moving here, you’re relocating away from friends and family, and you might not really know anybody to begin with,” Gardner said.

But for individuals like Gardner who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ), that big move can sometimes be a “double-whammy.”

“If you’re gay, there might be this feeling of isolation that’s not just moving away from that support network, it’s also this apprehension in thinking about what the community will be like. You might question how you’ll be able to connect with other people, or, am I going to be the only one in my area?”

After moving from Seattle to Quail Creek three years ago, with a husband who began working in the development’s sales department, Gardner connected with more LGBTQ couples who shared his feelings. Then he decided to act.

“We started to say hey, we’re seeing we’ve got a community here, and it’s attracting people to come live here,” Gardner said. “So, we were sitting around one day and said it seems like we could create a club here to create some kind of unity, so people feel like they aren’t isolated or the only ones.”

The Rainbow Club at Quail Creek officially formed in 2020, providing a social outlet for connection and conversation for LGBTQ individuals and allies in the community.

The club’s presence has also helped reignite Green Valley Recreation’s LGBTQ and Friends Club, which was started in 2016, but had been experiencing a lack of participation amid leadership transitions and the pandemic.

Michael Karl, who moved from Milwaukee to Green Valley with his husband about two years ago, said connecting with an LGBTQ community here was also a big factor in their decision.

Now, after a few months of test-running events as the incoming social chair for LGBTQ and Friends, Karl said the community response has exceeded expectations.

“We’ve been amazed at the amount of people reaching out to us. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve just exploded with people wanting information and wanting to be involved and just excited about getting together,” he said.

‘Always coming out’

Last week marked the 33rd anniversary of National Coming Out Day, which was founded in 1988 by gay rights activists Richard Eichberg and Jason O’Leary to raise awareness of the LGBTQ community and its civil rights movement.

The founders chose the date Oct. 11 to commemorate the anniversary of the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights – a march the reportedly drew a half-million attendees.

In the spirit of the day, both LGBTQ clubs got together to share reflections on coming out.

For some, the journey was a smooth transition, filled with love and support. Lin Holmquist, who lives in Green Valley with her wife, Kathy Arendsen, said she feels “very fortunate” about her experience coming out to her mother when she was 18.

“I got the nerve to say, ‘Mom, my roommate and I...we’re more than just friends.’ And without skipping a beat, still looking in the mirror and twirling her hair, she just said, ‘I know.’ I said, ‘You know? Why didn’t you tell me?’ And she said, ‘Well what if you weren’t ready?’ So, my whole family has always been very supportive,” Holmquist said.

But for others, the journey was marked with challenges. When Arendsen came out to her family in her late-20s, her mother didn’t talk to her for a year.

“I think she thought my life would be very difficult, and in some regards it was, but I also think it was embarrassing for her to deal with the judgment of other families and friends and people at church, instead of just telling me to be happy,” Arendsen said.

“She came around before she passed, and said she wished she could have been at our wedding, but it was really bad for years, and I’m hoping fewer folks are dealing with that,” she said.

Many attendees said it wasn’t until they saw other LGBTQ individuals confidently proclaim their identities that they felt the courage to claim theirs.

“My biggest fear was that I was going to get caught on camera and that people at work would see me. I remember seeing the Channel 4 News camera spanning the group, and just ducking down behind the crowd,” said Tim Greene, who traveled from Milwaukee to Washington, D.C., for the 1987 March on Washington with a few friends.

At the time, Greene was in the process of coming out to his wife and two children, and though attending the march was nerve-wracking, it ultimately helped him in his own journey.

“Just seeing how many people were there for support, that pride just pumped me up. It really helped me move forward, and it really just was like mind-opening,” Greene said.

Most agreed, however, that to live openly isn’t something someone will do once. It’s a decision a person makes every single day – with doctors, neighbors or strangers at the grocery store.

“Every time you think about it – am I going to say husband or wife or partner? We’re always coming out,” Gardner said.

Growing community

Though many attendees at last week’s event said they’ve felt little or no discrimination for living openly in Green Valley, the continuous nature of coming out can be emotionally taxing, says Gardner, which is one of the reasons LGBTQ individuals may join a dedicated club.

“There’s a certain kind of camaraderie with each other, I think especially because we all have felt like outsiders at some point in our lives,” Karl added.

“This is a group of people, I feel, who have been down those roads in one way or another, and now feel that sense of connectedness in areas that we have had to feel more guarded or cautious about in the greater community, especially with older people, who have lived through times where they have had to be more careful of how they present themselves,” he said.

According to an analysis by a University of Washington researcher, the number of LGBTQ seniors in America is expected to reach more than 4 million by 2030. According to the study, these seniors may face increased risk of social isolation, putting them at a greater risk for mental and physical health problems, and many will not have children to help them as they age.

Arendsen said this has played a role in her choice to participate in local LGBTQ groups.

“A lot of us want to have a community because we don’t have kids, and the thought is we’re surrounded by friends that can help as life changes, and for older folks here, the hope is that we can support them and their partners as life goes on,” she said.

It’s this sense of community that Gardner and Karl hope to foster with further collaborations and joint events between the two clubs moving forward.

And with interest in the clubs already pouring in from neighboring communities like Amado, Vail and Sahuarita, Karl said he hopes the organizations can help the LGBTQ community across Southern Arizona blossom.

“My vision is helping LGBTQ people find the support they need, especially as you grow older, but also that a community like Green Valley is aware that those people are out there and, I know it’s cliche, but that we are just like everybody else,” Karl said.

“And I’m hoping that, with more visibility, more communication and things like that, more people will look at that and see it’s OK. It’s OK to come out,” Gardner said.

Mary Glen Hatcher | 520-547-9740

Mary Glen is a North Carolina native who's excited to explore the Tucson area through her reporting with Green Valley News. She graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media in 2019.

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