Dawn Prince is the author of seven books, holds a doctorate in interdisciplinary anthropology from a Swiss university and is the parent of an 11-year-old son. Attending high school in Eureka as a gay teen in the early 1980s, eventually diagnosed with Asberger syndrome, a condition which can make social interaction painfully difficult, she also has firsthand knowledge of what it takes to grapple with adversity and emerge, on the other side, whole.
So when she marches through Kalispell as the grand marshal of the Montana Pride Celebration, scheduled for June 18-20, joined by her family, partner, and members of the state’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, it will be with some satisfaction at witnessing the steps forward the gay community has taken in the state since she was an adolescent.
The Montana Pride Celebration rotates among different cities in Montana for two years in a row; this year is its second in Kalispell. Events include a parade, rally, educational workshops, live music and a drag show. For more information and a full schedule, visit http://www.montanapride.org/.
Several of Prince’s books focus on primates, and what they can teach about human behavior, as well as how her research on them has helped her manage her Asberger syndrome. Other works recount parenthood and relationships. Her forthcoming book examines American freak shows in the 1800s, and ties them to how everyone has a part of themselves they regard as different or “freakish.”
While these might seem like wildly disparate topics, in a written e-mail interview with the Beacon, Prince outlines the common elements of these subjects, as well as recounts the struggles and triumphs of her experience in Montana. (The interview has been edited for space.)
How do you now look back on your time here?
My family moved to Eureka in 1975, when I was 10. I struggled even then because of the fact that I was an “outsider” from a different part of the country. When I came out as a lesbian during the beginning of my freshman year in 1979, things of course got very bad. It was my usual routine to start my day by starting on one end of the hall at school and walking to the other, where my locker was, having people spit on me, throw things at me, take my books or lunch away, or hit and shove me. At that time I essentially “checked out” and just had a running dialogue in my head that I wasn’t there, that nothing around me existed. I think the damage that was done during that time is hard to overestimate.
Even when I was watching a recent episode of (Fox TV show) Glee and some football players were threatening Kurt (the gay character) I simply fell apart. I was right back there, fearing for my safety and even my life, knowing people will do things in groups they would never do as individuals. I have no problem talking about those times and I have always been open about them – I think my close relationship with my family back then helped so much – but much like surviving a prison camp or experiencing childhood sexual trauma, a person never completely heals.
We all have our challenges in life, though, and I think it is important to move on and forgive, just as I hope people have forgiven the absence of compassion on my part at times in my life. One thing that stands out as a watershed moment in terms of moving forward was going to my 20-year high school reunion a few years ago and having so many people reach out to me, either apologizing, or showing a real interest in my life currently, or just interacting with me as the person I am.
Have you returned to northwest Montana since then?
My mother and father, who have been involved in the gay rights movement since I came out in 1979, continue to live in Eureka and we are very close – I visit every couple of months. I love Montana: the outdoors, the wide-open space, the wildlife, and the people. I feel very lucky to be able to visit so often and enjoy the best of what it has to offer, and I never take it for granted that I’m blessed to have the kind of relationship I have with my family. So many people, even still, lose their families because they are gay and have no choice about being themselves.
I’m thrilled about the Pride events – something I have never experienced in Montana – and I know I will be filled with a heavy mix of emotions as I see a tangible representation of everything I and my family worked for so long.
How did you come to be the grand marshal of this year’s Pride Celebration and what are your responsibilities?
When I came out at around age 15, there was simply no support in Eureka. The nearest support was in Kalispell in the form of a newly formed group called “Out in Montana.” My mom would drive me down to the meetings on weekends, but there were many people in the group that looked after me, given that I was so young and out of my depth. These early friends and extended family of mine have remained in the Flathead Valley and we have kept in touch over the years. I know they are proud of what I have accomplished as an author and public speaker, after seeing firsthand how I started out.
When they first asked if I’d be involved, I envisioned six people walking down the sidewalk on Main Street waving flags. My mother told me, though, that it is actually a big event. I hope I adequately expressed my gratitude to my friends for asking me to marshal.
I will be on site for a celebrity meet-and-greet on Friday evening and then I will be leading the parade with my partner Rhys. My family will be with me at all the events. It will be a nice change to have my loved ones with me, since I do a lot of speaking engagements all over the world and usually have to travel alone.
What do you see as the significance of an event like the Pride Celebration in Montana, as opposed to similar events in more urban areas?
Well, there is a perception of gay people being mostly in cities and hitting the party scene all the time: hence the inaccurate use of the term “lifestyle.” In reality, the majority of gay and lesbian people live quiet lives, paying taxes, doing laundry, and struggling to try to live a meaningful life balanced with their responsibilities. And they live everywhere: in cities, but also rural areas and everything between. One of the things that appeals to me (and other gay and lesbian people) about rural living is the relative simplicity of life and the way people have to rely on each other in very basic ways. I think it’s wonderful to see a more rural community in which gay and lesbian people can just be themselves, without issue, and share the important things in life with their neighbors.
You have tackled so many enormous subjects in your writing and research – autism, primate behavior, raising a child in a same-sex partnership – where is your work heading and what is your current project?
Although my subjects seem unrelated, I see them all as very connected. As a memoirist with a strong anthropological eye I try to bring various themes of the human experience and bring them all together in an accessible way. Questions of origins, struggles in our individual perceptions, raising children, sexuality, race… all these things are dealt with by everyone on a daily basis.
I found out some time ago that I have African American ancestry on my mother’s side – something that had been hidden in the family for generations. I took it on myself to try to piece my family history back together – a project that took me through the Southern states here in the U.S., all across Europe, and down into Southern Egypt. We tried to enter Sudan on visas, but because of the civil war we were unable to go in spite of some promising early leads. So I will be starting to write about that metaphorical and literal journey in my next book.
What compels you to take on such vast and controversial topics?
People have said that I’m very brave for putting myself out there the way I do, but I don’t really agree. I think you have to be afraid to be brave. For whatever reason, I have almost never been afraid to say what I believe to be true, while also keeping an open mind and listening to the realities of other people. I don’t feel like I have any answers; the dialogue is the important thing. That requires my voice not as a lone call, but a way of putting one puzzle piece down on the table and inviting others to add to that for a more complete picture. Maybe I’m not afraid because I don’t feel like I have to defend myself, or my positions for the most part. They are “starting points” and not the end of what I think or who I am.
Do you feel as though you have achieved what you hoped, or is there always more work to do?
There have been high points: having Jane Goodall write the foreword for my first real book, being interviewed by Jane Pauley, working with Peter Gabriel on projects that would improve the lives of captive apes, meeting Paul McCartney when he came to one of our primate facilities to make music with pygmy chimpanzees, meeting with Random House executives about my work. These are the kinds of things I hope will be interesting to my grandchildren. On a deep personal level, though, I don’t think I’ve ever felt a transcendent moment where I thought, “I’ve made it.” Celebrity is fleeting, and the “cool” things I’ve been able to experience only surround the importance of my real needs for the important things like family, doing something to make a good world, always trying to catch yourself in your own shortcomings. You can never believe your own press!
What do you want people to know regarding your feelings about being grand marshal in the Montana Pride Celebration?
This opportunity brings my life full circle. I would never have believed, as I put up with the taunting, the rejection, the physical attacks and all that added up to a bleak future that I would now have a meaningful career, a loving fiancé that is the other half of my soul, a healthy and delightful child who is also my friend, and all the other dreams that have come true for me.
It is specifically for the kids out there in the Flathead area, just now struggling with the things I struggled with, that I want to come and convey the message that they aren’t alone, that things will continue to be better for them individually and for all people. When I came out in 1979, the year Harvey Milk was killed, I heard the speech in which he said that he did what he did for those lonely kids struggling in rural areas, feeling so isolated. I am now in a position to pick up that torch and give that message a new voice.
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