“We often cannot control someone else’s actions … but we can control our REaction.” — Melissa Bean
by Lauren Means photos courtesy of Melissa Bean
Melissa Bean has spent most of her life in the Upper Cumberland area. “I’ve
lived all over for periods of time in places including Oklahoma, Detroit, Texas, Alabama and Florida, but I keep returning here! It’s my home and I have no intention of moving away any time soon,” she said. The Upper Cumberland region is lucky to have her call it home. She’s always been involved in the community starting with community clean-ups and working with people experiencing homelessness. She’s a fierce advocate for the LGBT+ community and has no plans to back down. This is evident in her work with Upper Cumberland Pride (UCP) and bringing Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH) to Tennessee.
If you’ve ever lived in a smaller, southern town, you know starting up a pride festival can be a challenge. According to its Facebook page, the first UCP was held in May 2012. Melissa has been there to see its growth. During the last couple of years, she’s also been part of the UCP Executive Committee (EC). She said, “UCP has grown so much over the years! The past two years were both a challenge and a blessing. In the past two years, we collectively worked on mending bridges and partnering with our local organizations. We were able to get the 501c3 and integrate a sponsorship program.”
In addition to forging new partnerships and establishing a 501c3, UCP also expanded its Pride Pagent by introducing an Mx category for the nonbinary community and brought in record numbers of vendors before the public park had to change their ordinances. Melissa said, “I have stepped out of UCP this year to focus on other endeavors, but feel fully confident the new EC will bring our community an even bigger and better Pride than recent years!”
Another notable accomplishment has been bringing DQSH to Tennessee. Melissa said, “[this] has been the hardest job I have ever loved! What started out as a cool, anti-bullying program for kids has turned into a huge movement that blew the doors off our safe spaces.” She explained how very quickly, the LGBT+ community was put on the forefront and was present. “Drag Queen Story Hour pushed people to have DIALOGUE. For better or worse, people were talking and talking is so very important. It’s my firm belief that we’re empowering our LGBTQ+ kids and also creating much-needed allies. Youth empowerment + allies = less bullying,” Melissa explained.
The DQSHs in Tennessee and other states have received national attention. There’s been a lot of welcomed support but there’s been a fair share of people trying to thwart this inclusive program. Melissa feels the positive outweighs the negative. She said, “Our small community is so wonderful, too! For every negative comment we’ve received, we’ve got 10 wonderful ones! I’ve met countless amazing people across the globe, but at the end of the day, the front-line supporters are in the trenches with us. The few protesters we get are by far outweighed by the love and support.”
As for the post-COVID-19 projections for DQSH? “I’m very unapologetic when I say we aren’t going anywhere,” stated Melissa. She emphasized, “It’s important to make sure our LGBTQ+ kids, adults and allies in rural TN know there’s a big, loud, crazy and colorful program in our area showing that LGBTQ+ folks are here, we aren’t hiding and compassion matters!”
Burned into her Memory
Melissa says she’s worked with at-risk youth on and off since 1999. She’s worked with many demographics and populations, but still remembers the one teen that sparked her activism. “When I was in Florida in the early 2000s, I worked with inner-city youth. I can’t remember his name but I remember his situation crystal clearly. He was from Georgia, openly gay and had run away from home because his family and friends were far from accepting of him. He met a man at least 10 years older than him that brought him to Florida, provided many drugs to him, and disappeared a few weeks later,” Melissa recounted. She said this kid was on the streets for months with no money, no family and a terrible drug addiction. He prostituted himself for money. When he was finally picked up by the police, they brought him to the center where she worked for assistance. He was malnourished, ashamed and deeply depressed.
“We called his parents to let them know he was found and safe. His parents acted ‘bothered’ somehow and said they were going to Disney World in a few weeks and would pick him up on their way back home because they weren’t making a special trip to Florida. The look on that child’s face is burned into my memory,” said Melissa.
His few weeks at the center were filled with therapies and self-esteem groups and many reminders of “You are perfect and it’s going to be okay!” but Melissa said she will always wonder if it was enough. “Is it ever enough? All I could hope is that he remembered the therapies and groups and reminders after returning to his family,” she said.
Since then, Melissa has worked with quite a few at-risk LGBT+ youths and so many things have changed for the better, especially in bigger cities. However, in the rural South, so many things have not changed for kids or adults. “If I can help just one person realize ‘You are perfect and it’s going to be okay!’ then the ripple I have started can spread outward and others can create their own ripple,” she said.
Although she has stepped down from the UCP EC, she has not stopped working for the community. “We started a grassroots nonprofit called Human Alliance and obtained our 501c3. The mission is to bring LGBTQ+ awareness to the Upper Cumberland and rural TN,” revealed Melissa. Last year, they had an LGBTQ+ family potluck, a game night, a clothing drive and set up an informational booth at a resource fair in Spencer, Tennessee. This year she has three goals for Human Alliance: do more, be more, reach more. Additionally, this year she wants to lay the groundwork and look for grants for an LGBTQ+ community and youth drop-in center.
As for advice to those looking to be their true selves, she said, “Being authentic is ever-evolving. Breaking away from conformity can be terrifying. Ending an old life and starting new is uncertain and scary. Coming out to family and friends is going to be gut-wrenching. It’s not a one-and-done kinda thing either. It’s an evolutionary process but you know what? You are brave. You are strong. You deserve to be happy. You are perfect. It’s going to be okay!”
Melissa also gave the reminder that many of us come from brokenness, hurt, isolation and rejection, but that’s not who we are and we shouldn’t let that transfer onto how we treat each other. She said, “We often cannot control someone else’s actions…but we can control our REaction. We get to run the narrative and finish our story.”