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Photo: N/A, License: N/A, Created: 2019:05:25 12:21:43

Em Maloney, second from left, and other members of Queer NEPA hold pride flags in Scranton.

Photo: N/A, License: N/A, Created: 2019:05:25 12:28:49

Em Maloney is an activist and founder of Queer NEPA.

Coming out as queer wasn’t an easy process for Em Maloney, as growing up in Tunkhannock presented challenges for people in the LGBTQ+ community.

After graduating from Tunkhannock Area High School in 2011, Maloney, who uses they/them pronouns, slowly began coming out while attending Keystone College.

“I was still semi in the closet throughout my time in college and it wasn’t until the past year and a half that I started to be fully out, but the circle of friends and the people I surround myself with really helped,” Maloney said.

Looking back at their high school years, Maloney, who moved to the greater Wilkes-Barre area in 2016, doesn’t believe LGBTQ+ acceptance was widespread.

“There was a GSA (gay-straight alliance) in school, but there was a lot of stigma around it,” they recalled. “It was around the same time Lady Gaga started coming into the scene. There was the anti-trans rhetoric that was just everywhere, with both students and adults alike, in school and outside of school. Seeing that I think really drove me deeper into the closet. I felt a lot of fear and anxiety.”

However, they feel pleased to see how society has been progressing “slowly but surely,” especially in their hometown.

“One thing that I find really amazing now is how much things have changed and progressed in Tunkhannock,” Maloney said.

An example of this progression is Breaking Ground Poets, an organization of student writers who present original poetry at story slams and open mic nights throughout the year.

“I was surprised at how many of the students participating had queer backgrounds,” Maloney said. “It’s not something I really expected, but it’s great to see that progress and change happen, even in small country places.”

This idea of enacting change everywhere, from rural communities to larger cities, is one of the goals of Queer NEPA, an advocacy group Maloney founded last year.

“I felt there was a need for something in this area to advocate for LGBT rights, as well as serve those in the community that need help, people that are low income and people experiencing homelessness,” they explained. “The main goal of mine was working together to build a base that can collaborate and work together across the region.”

It took about six months of planning, and Maloney used Queer NEPA’s Pride Series last June, which is Pride Month, as a springboard for the organization.

“With this year’s Pride Series, we’ve expanded to have events in Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton,” Maloney said. “I’m hoping next year we can continue growing and have events in other towns like Tunkhannock and Stroudsburg, just really cover all of NEPA.”

This month’s remaining events include Peace Meal, a potluck at the Hazelton One Community Center (June 15, noon to 2 p.m.); Queer & Here: An LGBTQ Art Exhibit at the Everhart Museum in Scranton (until June 17); Queer Coffee Klatch at Adezzo in Scranton (June 20, 5 to 7 p.m.); Stonewall 50: Rally for Queer Liberation in Wilkes-Barre Public Square (June 29, 10 to 11:30 a.m.); and Pride Party at HEAT Bar & Night Club in Wilkes-Barre (June 29, 8 to 10 p.m.).

“Overall, the series is about the community coming together, much like the roots of the organization is to help those in need,” Maloney said, noting that the last event’s proceeds benefit Ruth’s Place Shelter for Homeless Women.

Reflecting on Queer NEPA’s first year, one of the successes that comes to mind for Maloney is the organization’s Queer Youth Council for people ages 13-19.

“They might be the only one that’s out in their school or there might be a couple,” they said. “It’s nice that Queer NEPA and our Queer Youth Council can provide that sense of community and belonging.”

While Maloney believes progress has been made for the LGBTQ+ community since the Stonewall riots of 1969 in New York City, certain infringements on people’s rights show that more work still needs to be done.

This includes attempts to strip the rights of transgender individuals by allowing homeless shelters to kick them out on religious grounds, as well as threats to their participation in the military, just to name a few.

“I think locally, there’s a need for comprehensive legislation that protects LGBT people both regionally, like in Wyoming County, as well as the state of Pennsylvania,” Maloney said.

For Maloney, Pride Month is a “celebration of queer resilience.”

“Hopefully things will continue to progress,” they said. “We’re seeing people on both sides of the spectrum politically, Democrats and Republicans, realize that LGBT equality is essential to America and basically our freedom.”

In the future, Maloney hopes Queer NEPA can expand, possibly having chapters in different areas of the region, as well as a headquarters building that doubles as a soup kitchen and/or shelter.

Membership in Queer NEPA is open to people who live in NEPA and also people who have moved away from the region. For more information about the organization or its Pride Series, visit queernepa.org.