"When we’re growing up there are all sorts of people telling us what to do when really what we need is space to work out who to be."
– Elliot Page
If you have made your way around Saranac Lake in the last thirty-eight years, it is likely that you’ve run in to Kelly Metzgar. She first came to Saranac Lake from northwest Pennsylvania to run the administrative computing center for North Country Community College, a position she held for 13.5 years. “I just fell in love with the area,” she said. “The mountains, the lakes, the rivers, the people — I just really, truly love it here.” But as much as Metzgar loved the region, something was missing.
“I read a book in 2014 called Allies and Angels by Terri and Vince Cook, and it changed my life,” Metzgar said. The memoir chronicles the journey of the Cook family as Terri and Vince learn their child, assigned female at birth, identifies as male. What begins as a family’s journey woven in fear, struggles with understanding, and limited beliefs unfolds into a story of unconditional love, acceptance, and self-discovery.
“I read about the struggles the son had in his transition, and I knew we had to do something here in the North Country,” said Metzgar. “At the time, there was nothing — not even trans-affirming medical care. So I knew I had to do something.” The story hit especially close to home for Metzgar, a transgender female. Her deep love for Saranac Lake could not overlook the fact that resources for those in the LGBTQI+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transexual, Questioning, Intersex, Plus) community did not exist in the area — not only for those who identify as LGBTQI+ but also for their family, friends, and neighbors.
While recognizing a problem is the first step in solving the problem, Metzgar quickly asked herself the obvious question: “What can one person do?” The road ahead would no doubt be long and taxing, too much for one person to take on alone. However, those who know Metzgar will agree that once she has her mind made up to make something happen, it is going to happen. The only question is how.
Finding community to create community
Metzgar reached out to members in the community and ended up finding like-minded individuals interested in the same cause. “I teamed up with a therapist in Plattsburgh,” Metzgar said. “She knew of another group who was trying to meet, so she got us together. This was spring of 2016.” Amongst this group of individuals, it was understood that all involved wanted to do something to make a difference. Their first step was the establishment of a peer support group in Plattsburgh, a group open to “anyone and everyone,” says Metzgar: young adults, adults, parents and siblings, allies, anyone who is simply interested, students who need credits…the list goes on and on. “But we knew if we wanted to do more, we really had to find ways to organize,” she said. “We had to organize structurally, financially, and all the other -ly’s that are out there."
Through that fall of 2016, the group looked through what was required to establish a 501(c)(3). By-laws were written, a board was created, and in spring of 2017, the Adirondack North Country Gender Alliance became an official, registered not-for-profit organization in Saranac Lake, NY. The peer group established in Plattsburgh still happens every Wednesday night (the group currently meets virtually), but Saranac Lake would now offer an official space for the LGBTQI+ community to meet.
Meet the Adirondack North Country Gender Alliance
While LGBTQI+ community organizations are becoming more present in larger cities, regions such as the Adirondacks have less of these opportunities, if any. “We are the only 501(c)(3) serving LBTQI+ people in Franklin, Essex, and Clinton counties. We are a service-oriented group in that we refer people to services of all kinds: mental health, medical counseling, or medical care. We do NOT provide mental health. We are a peer support group, yes, but none of us can pretend to have professional training. But, we can absolutely refer.”
However, Metzgar is aware that the resources around the Tri-Lakes for such referrals are limited, as well. “We need to drive an hour this way or an hour one way or another. I would love — love, love, love — to have more resources appear in the Tri-Lakes. But some do exist. We do have a number of knowledgeable, skilled physicians working with us. And it deserves mentioning that Adirondack Health has been instrumental in bringing trans healthcare to our region, and I am very grateful for the excellent work they are doing and continue to do.”
In addition to services, the Adirondack North Country Gender Alliance supports programs around the community. “A youth group meets on the second and fourth Saturday of every month. We've partnered with Gender Equality New York. I'm on the board there as treasurer. We work with the Adirondack Diversity Initiative and Travel Unity to create programs and services. We also work with people in the governor's office and New York State Division of Human Rights and have put on many events for them, too. So we put on events and programs throughout the year — either programs that we create ourselves or we work with our partners and continue the work that they do, such as with DHR (Division of Human Rights). We put on quite a few programs over the years. We’ve put on PRIDE in Plattsburgh for the last six years. 2016 was the first year we did PRIDE in Plattsburgh, and we've done that every year. This year, we’re looking to add [PRIDE to] the Tri-Lakes, so that's some of the work I have to get started up on.”
Metzgar added, laughing, “You’ve got to be crazy to try to put together two PRIDEs in one year, but color me crazy! We’re going to try! It's going to take community effort. We have the fundamentals down to put on the PRIDE festival. Now we need some community partners and sponsors here in the Tri-Lakes.” But all of the above only scratches the surface of what the Adirondack North Country Gender Alliance offers, which is remarkable given its existence for just over five years.
“Every year, we do a reading of I Am Jazz and other affirmative books,” Metzgar said. The reading is coordinated by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). The Gender Alliance looks at the books being read by the HRC before figuring out how to organize a reading group either in-person or virtually. This year, they will be doing both in-person at the Saranac Lake Youth Center as well as a virtual reading on the same day. The Gender Alliance also recognizes the National Transgender Day of Remembrance. “It’s a solemn day in our community when we commemorate those who have been murdered just for trying to live their authentic life,” Metzgar says.
Metzgar noted that not all events with the Gender Alliance are trans related. “I mean, the letters are L-G-B-T-Q-I, plus. We do try to include all members of our larger community.” While the LGBTQI+ peer group in Plattsburgh is what gave Metzgar and so many others a space to connect, the Adirondack North Country Gender Alliance is what has created many of the additional spaces and programs around the Tri-Lakes community. And in Metzgar’s mind, the region is just getting started.
“More and more people and groups are putting on programs and providing opportunities. Malone just did their first PRIDE last summer. Keene has done two PRIDES over the last two years. Saranac Lake for a long time did mixers at Blue Seed with potluck dinners. We did mixers at Bitters and Bones. The in-person, indoor meetings have been put on hold with Covid, but we are hopeful those events will be back.”
An organization is born; a town transforms
The emergence of the Adirondack North Country Gender Alliance in 2016 was, again, the region’s first non-profit organization specifically designed to support the LGBTQI+ community. Has it made a difference? Metzgar smiled and immediately provided her answer: “Absolutely.”
“You know, before, Saranac Lake was a gay- and lesbian-friendly community. I just never identified as gay,” Metzgar said. “In my former life, I didn’t qualify as a lesbian, so I didn’t know where I fit in. But Saranac Lake has a history of care, starting with Tuberculosis and Trudeau. This place has always been a caring, health-centered, open community. And the lesbian and gay communities were here — not necessarily open or out, at least as much as they are now — but they were here. And so was the trans community, and in the last 10-15 years, they have been coming out. I thought I was the only one who identified as trans. But since Gender Alliance, I’ve been meeting more trans people and trans parents. I’m getting thanked by strangers. It’s getting to a point where people feel safer. There are more out there than we know, and that’s fantastic.”
Metzgar marvels at how far we have come since she was young. “We didn’t even have the words when I was in high school. So to see the young people come out, the kids come out, and the supportive parents…it’s just amazing. It’s important we center on the young people. It’s their world. We [the older generation] are dying off. This is your world now. You have the power to shape it how you want to shape it, and then the next generation comes after you. So how do you leave the world a better place?”
A dream becomes a reality
So often, an idea sounds good in our minds, even on paper. But getting those dreams to become a reality is where many of us fall short. So what makes Metzgar different? In her mind, absolutely nothing.
“I am no one special,” she said with a laugh. “I’m this little girl from Saranac Lake, but I have a big mouth. There are a lot of people who ‘wish they had done’ this or that. If you want to do something, if you want to make a difference and don’t know how, talk to us and we will help you do it.”
Metzgar did not go into her endeavors with the Adirondack North Country Gender Alliance fully trained for any of it; she was simply a human being with a vision for something more and a commitment to make it happen. “I admit I did not go to executive director school,” Metzgar teased. “We figure things out as we go. But if you have the courage to start, and you can accept making mistakes and learning, then you find a way to not let that fear hold you back from doing something. You have an idea? We will help you make it happen. Take the step, and don’t live in fear. Living with regret is very hard.”
Whether you are a local or a visitor, any and all are invited to join events hosted by the Adirondack North Country Gender Alliance. Visit their Facebook page to see the schedule of their upcoming events!