The Iron Range. Where the boys drive truck (and no, truck is not meant to be plural; “drivin’ truck” is its own verb), play hockey, and chew tobacco. Where the winters are harsh, even for Minnesota. Where many who stay still work in the mines, the region’s economic mainstay. Not exactly the sort of place that might seem a safe haven for a young gay kid to come of age, and so it certainly surprises me that Blaine Hanson conveys the self-assuredness I’d expect from someone much older than twenty-three. And someone much longer out of the closet than he has been.
Blaine speaks to me about his path to self-discovery with a quiet confidence, and what I planned as a 20-minute phone conversation turns into an hour, because I’m in awe of the positivity of his experience, and bolstered from the hope he gives me.
I was introduced to Blaine via email, by his advisor, Angie Nichols, who is currently the Director of GLBT Services at UM-Duluth, where Blaine is a senior psychology major. Blaine brought back two gold medals in Powerlifting from the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland, and as impressive as that is, I find his story, and how he got there, even more so.
Blaine definitely looks the part of a powerlifter: all shoulders, chest, biceps, and forearms. A former track star in high school, he dropped out of team sports like football because he felt he didn’t fit into the cliques that accompanied the high school sporting world. He knew early on that he was hiding a secret, and like many in that situation, suffered from depression on and off.
“You know that feeling when you’re at a party in a room filled with people, and you still feel alone?”
Blaine describes Virginia, Minnesota, as a place where everybody knew everything about everyone else, and said it made being himself difficult. He began powerlifting in his senior year of high school at the encouragement of John Tini, his weightlifting coach and mentor. Powerlifting kept him motivated and built confidence. Upon graduating, he had a brief stint in community college, until his anxiety became such that he sat his parents down in the family living room, and let them know he was gay. He credits his dad, a social worker, and his mom, a retired healthcare professional, with being incredibly supportive from day one.
“The more open I was with everyone, the better I felt about myself.”
Transferring to UM-Duluth made life even easier. Hanson experienced Duluth Pride, and became a member of the GLBT group on campus, the Queer and Allied Student Union (QASU). He immediately began living life authentically, as an out gay man. Angie Nichols was relieved.
“That makes me feel really hopeful that the climate has indeed changed for GLBT people on the UMD campus. I’ve felt the transformation over time (14 years that I’ve been here); so it feels good to know that a student can come here and know they belong, and can thrive socially and academically. That’s important to me.”
It was Nichols who mentioned the Gay Games to Blaine. Once aware of the powerlifting event, he was on a mission to compete, with Nichols and the rest of the Duluth community stepping up to help fund his trip. Nichols says it was easy to make the decision to rally the troops.
“I am proud of him because he believed in himself and committed to competing in the Gay Games. He said he would have to be ‘in training mode’ immediately and that’s what he did. When I see passion in someone, I join them.”
QASU sponsored a bake sale and made a few hundred dollars in a day. The Main Club owner, Bob Jansen, also agreed to host an event. Says Nichols, “We had a night at the bar that we advertised locally where people could take photos with Blaine. We made buttons ahead of time. I sent Jansen photos of Blaine that I took in the gym on campus, and we sold those buttons at the bar like soccer mom buttons to support their kid. In some ways, Blaine was our kid and we all bought buttons to send him to compete and represent us.”
Nichols also reached out to the Dean of Blaine’s college, Dr. Jill Pinkney-Pastrana, to inform her of his mission. “She found the funds to top off the budget to get him to Cleveland and back. So yes, this was a campus and community effort.”
Blaine is quick to say how much he appreciates and understands the magnitude of the community and school support he felt. “They raised over $1200 to get me to the Games. I wouldn’t have been able to make the trip a reality without the support of Angie Nichols and the community at large. And it was an amazing experience.”
Blaine also tells me with pride that Duluth is listed as one of the top 25 GLBT friendly college campuses in the country. A quick internet search verified this news. I ask Angie Nichols if Duluth has always been so open.
“That’s something that has been worked for. If there is one thing I hope that I’ve taught students in the QASU over the years, it’s that we need to care, we need to care deeply and responsibly about each other. Each and every one of us has something to offer, we are invaluable to one another, we are interdependent and no one should have to feel alone or isolated, ever. It’s unacceptable. Our job is to reach out, welcome each other in our queer and allied communities, and be willing to walk the journey together.”
She’s right. I remember one detail vividly from my 20-minute-turned-hour-long phone chat with Blaine Hanson. He quietly said that he knows that not every gay kid makes it through the rough formative years. If UM-Duluth has proven anything, it’s that if every kid is “our kid,” we can empower many more role models like Blaine.