Joe Marshall has pretty much always known his gender didn’t match the sex he was assigned at birth.
“I was very aware of gender by age 3,” Marshall, a 27-year-old trans man who lives in Camas and graduated from Camas High in 2010, explains. “I think my third birthday party was the last time I wore a dress.”
Although his immediate family supported Marshall when he told them he was male, not female — and most people in his close circles had always thought of him as a boy, anyway — Marshall balked at the idea of coming out as a trans teen at Camas High School.
“There was really no support network in the area (in the early 2000s) … and I struggled to find books that felt relatable,” Marshall says.
As a 15-year-old just starting his gender transition journey, Marshall was eager to immerse himself in the region’s young LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) community and meet other teens questioning gender constructs and sexuality.
With no resources readily available in Camas-Washougal, Marshall’s parents drove him into Portland to go to the Sexual and Gender Minority Youth Resource Center (SMYRC).
Today, Marshall volunteers as a mentor at Triple Point, a Vancouver-based support group for queer and trans youth run by the Children’s Home Society of Washington, and says he sees positive changes in his hometown of Camas surrounding LGBTQ issues.
“It’s exciting to see how much things have changed,” he says. “Camas schools, I think, have made progress. They have a GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) and I think the environment has changed. There are a lot more conversations (about LGBTQ issues).”
Marshall is one of several members of Our Bold Voices, a local storytelling company founded by artistict director Paul Iarrobino in 2016 as a platform for sharing stories from marginalized community members and, as Iarrobino recently wrote in a grant to obtain funding for outreach to Southwest Washington’s more rural areas, for “building community through these meaningful and impactful stories.”
On Saturday, Oct. 12, Our Bold Voices will celebrate National Coming Out Month (National Coming Out Day will be observed on Friday, Oct. 11) with a resource fair, panel presentation with coming-out stories and a question-and-answer session with audience members.
The family friendly event, sponsored by the city of Camas, the Friends & Foundation of the Camas Library, Molina Healthcare and Lisa Le Properties, is set to begin with a resource fair at from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Oct. 12, at the Camas Public Library, 625 N.E. Fourth Ave., Camas. Our Bold Voices speakers, including Iarrobino and Marshall, will talk about their own personal “coming outs” and answer audience questions at 11 a.m. in the upstairs meeting rooms at the library, with refreshments to be served afterward.
The Camas presentation is a little different from the group’s typical storytelling format, Iarrobino says.
“We really want this to be for families,” Iarrobino explains. “This is going to be more like a conversation. It will be collaborative. I suspect we’ll be feeding off each other’s answers. And we’ll keep it pretty casual.”
The library has acquired several LGBTQ books recommended by Our Bold Voices members and there will be resource booths set up throughout the library starting at 10 a.m. that day.
Marshall says he’s looking forward to the LGBTQ resource fair and speaking event in his hometown.
“I think the biggest thing is that this is raising visibility and promoting connections,” Marshall says. “When you have folks telling their own personal experiences, others can relate to that.”
For other teens struggling to understand their gender identity, Marshall — who has a long-term girlfriend, works for his father’s construction and real estate business and is hoping to get his master’s degree to become a middle or high school teacher — could be a beacon of hope that life really does get better.
“I feel really excited that this is happening in Camas and Battle Ground,” Marshall says. “That’s a huge step for these communities. And to see how supportive the folks at the Camas library have been, to see that the community seems to want this … is exciting. I hope we can reach out to folks in the community, maybe in the school district — to teachers, parents or anyone who knows someone in their life who is questioning their gender or sexuality. I think this can be really helpful in making people feel like they’re not alone.”
Our Bold Voices is hosting another presentation, “Coming Out as You,” from 2:30 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 20, at Battle Ground High School in Battle Ground.
Stephen Herndon, a gay man who lives with his husband, Joe, in Camas, works as a program planner and facilitator for Triple Point and as a volunteer with PFLAG Southwest Washington (a group for friends and family of LGBTQ youth).
Herndon agrees the Camas and Battle Ground presentations by Our Bold Voices will help bring diversity and resources to two of Southwest Washington’s less urban areas.
“I would tell people, ‘Come and check it out. Hear other people’s stories, because we all grow from each other and there is power in telling stories and in hearing each other’s stories,” Herndon says.
As a man who came out as gay later in life — Herndon was 39 and married to a woman with two teen children when he came out — the Camas man has a story that often is much different than other members of Iarrobino’s Our Bold Voices storytelling group. And, as a facilitator and educator, he sometimes struggles to find a balance between the type of storytelling he does in his work and the type of personal storytelling Our Bold Voices calls for.
“When I’m engaged with the public and talking about LGBTQ issues, I’m leading a conversation. But, when it comes to telling my own story … there’s a vulnerability that exists within that,” Herndon says. “It will be very different telling my own story. But I think we can learn from each other’s stories. That’s how we process our own stories.”
Herndon says he thinks the power of storytelling is why social media has proven to be so popular.
“It lets us get a glimpse into each other’s lives … to sort of look behind the scenes,” he says.
The Camas event, he hopes, will allow him to share some of his experiences and maybe help someone find their own truth in the process.
“I’m not looking to change or fix anything, but by sharing my unique story I’m hoping it can help somebody look within,” Herndon says. “We all have the potential to be that one person in somebody’s life, to help somebody through a difficult period in their life. That’s the power of telling stories in a group. People will process all of our stories in different ways. And maybe we can help somebody make it through another day.”
The storytelling group’s presentations in Camas and Battle Ground are partially funded by a $1,500 grant from the Washington State Arts Commission. In his grant proposal, Iarrobino says Our Bold Voices is “intentionally reaching into these smaller communities outside of Vancouver to create awareness, start community conversations and engage with service providers.”
According to Iarrobino’s research, Camas in eastern Clark County and Battle Ground in northern Clark County share some similarities: “Both are small, close-knit communities, but lack programming or services to the LGBTQ community,” Iorrobino states in his grant application. “According to the most recent census, Camas is 87.4 percent white and Battle Ground is 90.5 percent white. Roughly half of these households have children under the age of 18 living with them. In addition to the lack of racial diversity, children and youth lack LGBTQ role models. Numerous studies have shown that LGBTQ youth have a higher rate of suicide attempts than do heterosexual youth. … It is our hope to create more visibility for residents of these small towns, especially children and youth.”
In the work he does on a daily basis with LGBTQ youth, Herndon says he is discovering that change needs to happen, but mostly in the older generations.
“The kids are OK. It’s society that’s dragging behind,” Herndon says. “Youth are changing the way we look at gender and sexual orientation. They’re changing and charting new territory. But schools can be not quite prepared to work with trans or nonbinary youth. We (adults) need to learn from the youth. We need to change.”
Iarrobino says he sees subtle changes happening, particularly in his dealings with Camas city officials and leaders at the Camas Public Library.
“Having the support of the city of Camas is critical for this program’s success. The Camas library is supportive of our efforts because it aligns with their recent needs assessment survey. Residents are interested in more diversity and equity programming,” Iarrobino states in his grant proposal to the state arts commission. “They understand how the lack of visibility and resources for LGBTQ community members is problematic and are very invested in this partnership.”
In a letter of support for the Oct. 12 presentation, Camas Library Director Connie Urquhart writes that she is pleased to work with Iarrobino’s group.
“In Camas, we are all about community and collaboration,” Urquhart states in her letter of support for the grant proposal. “The Library is excited to be part of a multi-day event that includes the Liberty Theatre and works to bring peace and understanding to a sometimes-difficult subject.”
The Oct. 12 “National Coming Out Month: Our Stories” event in Camas will feature seven panelists, including Herndon, Iarrobino and Marshall. Other panelists include: Grayson Cole, an 18-year-old nonbinary person who says they want to share their coming-out story “and maybe reach someone who needs to hear it”; Heidi Bruins Green, an educator and researcher who identifies as bisexual, pansexual and queer; Joshua Thomas, a social justice advocate who works as the Oregon Food Bank’s equity and inclusion coordinator; and Abasi Umoh, a 22-year-old gender queer who volunteers with Triple Point.
For more information about the Our Bold Voices storytelling group, visit OurBoldVoices.com.