July 4, 2012

Freedom of speech: Emma Pope-Welch

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

It's still one of the worst things anyone has ever said to her.

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Emma Pope-Wlech

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Emma Pope-Welch, a lesbian activist and publisher of a new LGBT news blog that will play a role in organizing Maine's gay community in promoting another referendum on gay marriage this fall. Emma was chatting with a friend, John Dunn, at Bard Coffee Shop in Portland.

John Ewing/staff photographer

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Emma Pope-Welch was a 12-year-old middle school student in New Hampshire when classmates started bullying her. She had defended another kid who was being taunted with anti-gay slurs. Her goodwill prompted similar attacks on her awkward, unformed sexuality.

By the end of the school day, it seemed everyone knew Emma Pope-Welch was gay, though she wasn't sure what the label said about her. Days and weeks passed. The abuse escalated.

"I was told that I deserved to die," Pope-Welch recalled. "A student screamed it at me in the hallway. It was between classes and teachers were standing in doorways, but nobody did anything. Everyone was just frozen."

The torture ended two years later, when Pope-Welch's family moved to Maine. Today, at age 28, she's trying to make sure others don't suffer the same prejudice and abuse, and she's learning first hand what it really takes to exercise freedom of speech.

In February, Pope-Welch started a web magazine called Shift, for Maine's gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer communities. The multimedia webzine features news, opinion, announcements and stories about gay people, issues and events.

"It's called Shift because it could shift in the way people think about this particular community," she said. "And if there was a strong shift, it probably would be good for everyone."

So far, Shift has a few contributors and about 200 regular readers, but Pope-Welch hopes to increase content and readership in the months ahead.

This fall, she plans to reach out to high schools and colleges across the state, letting gay students and their supporters know there's a new forum - shiftmaine.com - to share information and ideas.

The climate for gay students has improved somewhat since she was in middle school, Pope-Welch said, but some students still experience prejudice and abuse.

"Some kids in more urban areas are able to be open about who they are, but not all of them are, especially in more rural areas," she said. "I dealt with the hatred. It was super challenging then, and I get frustrated today that kids are still dealing with the same thing."

Shift's development comes at a critical time, as Maine prepares for another referendum on same-sex marriage in November.

"If it's rejected again, it will be painful," said Pope-Welch, who is in a committed relationship. "It's difficult to live and work in a community where people are willing to say, 'I have that right, but I don't want you to have that right.' "

Pope-Welch believes Shift has the power to change the way people think and feel, both within and outside the gay community. She hopes stories posted by older Mainers will help younger people weather whatever challenges they face.

Stories posted on Shift so far are compelling. A gay father describes the struggle of coming out to his children. A straight mother recalls the challenge of telling her young daughter why she shouldn't talk about gay family friends in mixed company.

"There's so much power in sharing a story," she said. "I hope (Shift) becomes a resource for people, especially people who aren't feeling like they're part of the community yet."

Shift is a part-time endeavor that taps Pope-Welch's professional skills. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism and a master's degree in communication from the University of Maine. She is marketing and membership director for the Maine Island Trail Association and former communications director for the United Way of Eastern Maine.

Still, getting people to share their stories hasn't been easy. While many gay people are open about their sexuality with family and friends, it's still a delicate subject for some to discuss publicly, including Pope-Welch.

"Every time I say I'm gay, I get a little scared, because I always anticipate some kind of reaction," she said. "If (sexuality) wasn't such a big deal, it wouldn't impact people's identities the way it can. If I hadn't had those experiences as a young person, I wouldn't be the person I am today."

Pope-Welch describes herself as a hesitant advocate for freedom of speech, a right she believes most people don't express. With Shift, she hopes to persuade others to open up, share their stories and help challenge assumptions and prejudices about Maine's gay community.

"It's small, but it's probably one of the most important things I've ever done," she said. "I don't like talking about myself, but I know I have a story to tell, and I know there are a lot of other incredible stories out there."

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: kbouchard@pressherald.com

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