The founder of the organization, Brookelyn Emery, “always knew,” as she puts it. But growing up in a small, Christian, home-school setting, she felt nervous, anxious about the idea of “coming out” to her community and close friends. She remembers experiences that made her feel unsafe, nights lying in bed wondering if she would really burn in hell for who she was. Those are the type of very real thoughts and fears that leave many young LGBTQ+ community members with lasting trauma.
When Brookelyn finally felt comfortable coming out to her friends and leaders at school at age 17, she said the people around her were, to her surprise, accepting. “That’s OK, we knew,” one teacher told her.
That wasn’t the end of her coming out journey though, as is true for many in the community. Brookelyn remembers feeling comfortable with herself and her partner at bars and clubs in Asheville and around close friends, but still trying to portray “straightness” as a form of protection in places she didn’t feel so comfortable. At work, in unfamiliar situations, in Waynesville. This sense of being “out” but not being comfortable in everyday society continued until she was 26 years old.
“Growing up and figuring out, maybe I'll just be who I am and live happy, that wasn’t until I was 26,” said Brookelyn. “I think a lot of that is where I come from with Project Closet Door. I don’t want anyone else to go through that, or feel like they’re not welcome or they don’t have a community, in a place they were born and raised, that they have to go somewhere else to seek that out.”
Forging that path in relative solitude was another reason for creating Project Closet Door. Because this area is not openly supportive of the LGBTQ+ rights, coming out can be a lonely venture made more daunting by the lack of connection between community members. The community is there — has always been there — but without a place to connect, opportunities for support are lost.
“My personal queer community has changed so much. Now it’s grown to where I have people that are like me, I have other lesbian friends, I know bisexuals, I know trans people, I know non-binary people, I know gay men, I know bi-men. It changed my world. And if it can do that for a young person, or even an older person, then that’s what we’re doing, that’s what we’re here for,” Brookelyn said. “Because I would have given anything for that sense of community.”
How it started
It’s no wonder that the impetus then for Project Closet Door came in the form of a friend.
“The idea had been there for a while, but Ashten (McKinney) was the definitive moment when I realized, OK, we need something welcoming here,” Brookelyn said.
She first met Ashten, a friend within the LGBTQ+ community that had recently moved to Waynesville, in February 2019.
“She was saying how when she first moved here she wasn’t sure if she was going to be able to find a community that was accepting, especially in such a small town, but was very surprised at how welcoming, especially in Waynesville, everybody was.”
Brookelyn knew she needed to create something that could offer resources, introduce people to the community, introduce people to allies and safe spaces.
When the idea for Project Closet Door turned to intention and necessity, the first person Brookelyn reached out to was Jesse-Lee Dunlap. Jesse-Lee worked for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, a statewide grassroots organization dedicated to the implementation of harm reduction interventions, public health strategies, drug policy transformation and justice reform in North Carolina and across the American South.
Brookelyn shared with Jesse-Lee the idea of doing social events, working with different businesses around town, inviting the community to come out, and in her words “showing people that it's not as bad in this town as many people think it is.”
Despite the fact that bad circumstances exist for LGBTQ+ in this area, they knew they could create a space to challenge that.
It was Jesse-Lee that pushed Brookelyn to put the first event together by April 28, 2019. Just 27 days after their initial meeting. And it was a success.
“A lot of business owners came, a lot of people within the community that I didn't even know were a part of the LGBTQ+ community,” Brookelyn said. “It opened the door to working with WNCAP (Western North Carolina AIDs Project) and learning about safer sex practices and being able to relay that information, working with harm reduction, and now working with DownHome and just branching out.”
The first event was held at Frog Level Brewing and Panacea Coffee House. Since then the organization has held events every other month.
Though quarantine has changed the process for putting together and holding events, the group still takes the time to share important resources. It has worked with Down Home NC on voter education, sharing seminars, educational resources, virtual drag shows to support the community, and more.
For the Christmas party in 2019, the group took donations for KARE house. Together with staff at KARE, the group decided to raise awareness and funds for several charities during the month of April, Child Abuse Awareness Month. The group had lined up businesses to be involved, bands to participate, all of which fell through when the Coronavirus pandemic hit.
But the pandemic brought about more change than anyone could have envisioned. As Black Lives Matter protests erupted following the murder of George Floyd, many within the local LGBTQ+ community got involved in protests against police brutality and institutional racism.
“The reason why I feel like it is important for the LGBTQ+ community to support the Black Lives Matter Movement is one, during the Stonewall Riots the Black Panthers came out and formed a line around the drag queens and others in the queer community to protect them from the police and their brutality. So just shaking hands with that, and returning the favor. But also, the LGBTQ+ community is all walks of life, all colors, all races. It’s not just white people or Black people or Latinos or Hispanics, it’s everyone. So living in a community that is surrounded by oppression, it’s important when other oppressed people need help, that you show up.”
That’s why the group’s current cover photo on Facebook is the quote from Marsha P. Johnson, an American gay liberation activist, “No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.”
“Going to these protests, talking with people, meeting other organizations has really helped build a team that alleviates individual pressure,” said Brookelyn. “It’s a hard-won balance. If COVID wouldn’t have happened I would still be in the same position I was before, but coming out of quarantine and everybody being energized and excited to be involved in something has really changed the aspect of organizing.”
But COVID also fundamentally changed the way groups can organize, whether in support, protest or social engagement.
For Project Closet Door, Brookelyn said the goal is “basically just trying to keep the vibe there. Lots of social media posts, being more active with zoom meetings and other online resources.”
“We need people in our community to see their allies, that they have support here. Because growing up, if I would have known that, I probably would have been more comfortable with myself and who I was, instead of trying to fit into a bot of what society tells me I should be,” said Brookelyn.
That’s the intent behind Project Closet Door. Especially, for those who are new to the community, just moved to town, or just came out.
“Whether they are 12 years old or 65 years old, knowing that there is a support system. And even for those who aren’t ready to be ‘out and proud,’ they know that there’s a place for resources, a sense of community,” Brookelyn said.
She takes the time to make the work as personal as it needs to be. Anyone can send the Project Closet Door an email or direct message and Brooklyn will personally answer them. She sets up times to meet with anyone wanting to talk or learn more.
“I take the time to introduce them to the community in a comfortable way. Without being like ‘oh you should just come out, you should tell your parents, you should tell your spouse … whatever everyone thinks you should do.’ Because it’s in your own time.”
Reaching out to the young community has proven complicated.
“It’s hard to get involved in the schools around here, to offer them those resources, you have to have an in,” she said.
Brookelyn hopes that someday soon, guidance counselors and other staff already in place in schools will have access to resources at Project Closet Door, so they can offer those resources to students that need them.
“If a child is like, ‘I don’t feel right, this doesn’t feel right. All my friends are dating boys and I’m just not into it, it makes me uncomfortable.’ Having someone in place for them to talk to, that is a neutral party, that’s not going to call their parents as a first resort would be so valuable.”
There are a few current school board candidates Brookelyn is excited about. She feels like having a person on the school board that is a definitive ally could provide an opportunity to get involved with the school community and get things started.
“It’s 2020 and these kids should not have to hide themselves,” Brookelyn said. “Terrifying the youth out of being who they are, you’re creating trauma, and trauma leads to addictions. A lot of people within the queer community are addicts, alcoholics and struggle with those things. So really, instead of allowing someone to be who they are, you’re creating this other set of problems.”
That is why Brookelyn was insistent on partnering with the Harm Reduction community from the start, to be able to have conversations about the very real effects of trauma she sees within the community.
Months into the pandemic, with a national election around the corner, things are beginning to feel dire for everyone. The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg only exacerbated the already tense environment.
“With this new nomination? I’m scared,” Brookelyn said. “I’m scared for my community. I’m scared as a woman. I’m scared for my trans friends. And I’m not OK with it. Vote.”
For the LGBTQ+ community the legal views of convservative judges are not simply disagreeable, they directly influence its social and economic capabilities through the rights of marriage, healthcare, workplace descrimination etc.
“Let me tell you, I’m a big ‘f*ck the man’ person. I don’t need a piece of paper to tell me I’m with this person. But when they said I could get married? I didn’t realize how it felt to have that right. I never wanted to get married before but now that I have the right to? It was a big realization of woah, I didn’t even have that right. Why?”
“I think it’s important for people to have that transparency,” Brookelyn said.
Project Closet Door aims to improve transparency. Brookelyn encourages people to get comfortable in uncomfortable situations, ask questions when there is something you don’t understand and normalize asking for someone's preferred pronouns. Asking for pronouns is one simple way to not only better understand the person you are interacting with, but also to demonstrate support and understanding.
“What’s your preferred pronoun? Most of the time for someone in the LGTBQ+ community, that makes them comfortable. ‘Oh they asked for my pronouns, they’re accepting,’” said Brookelyn. “Stand up for your LGBTQ+ community. When you hear someone using a derogatory term, stop them. I always try to explain to people, it’s more than just not being racist, you have to anti-racist. It’s more than just not being homophobic, you have to be anti-homophobic.”
Brooklyn finds inspiration and confidence in the younger generation. Young people are relentless and stubborn, she said, and she looks up to them for their acceptance and insistence on creating a more accepting world.
Project Closet Door is a grassroots organization based in Waynesville, NC. It is co-hosting the upcoming Winter Market with Down Home NC, from 3 to 7 p.m. on Nov. 1 in Haywood Plaza. The group will also begin taking donations for their Christmas raffle basket on Nov. 1.