Highlands students, community members organize inaugural Pride Parade in Las Vegas, N.M.

Jay Quiles and his mother at an Albuquerque pride event. Courtesy photo

Growing up in Las Vegas, N.M., wasn’t easy for Jay Quiles. All the way through to his high school graduation in 2000, Quiles said, he faced hateful acts of bias. Fellow students — and even teachers — referred to him using slurs, he said, and he was told to stay out of several churches in the community.

He often thought of harming himself, said Quiles, 37, who identifies as both transgender and nonbinary, which means he doesn’t see himself as only male or only female.

“After graduation, I had to leave for Albuquerque,” he said. “It felt like a life-or-death situation at that time. It wasn’t bullying. It was more like torture.”

Quiles enrolled at the University of New Mexico and did not move back to his hometown of about 13,000 residents until 2010. Now, nearly 20 years after discrimination drove him from Las Vegas, Quiles will serve as grand marshal of the city’s inaugural Pride Parade.

He helped organize the event as part of a coalition of New Mexico Highlands University students and community members who wanted to celebrate the city’s LGBTQ population, spread information about gender and sexuality, and grow networks of resources for LGBTQ youth.

“As a kid, you don’t know what you are,” Quiles said. “I learned who I was through other kids persecuting me.”

The community has seen changes since then.

“Now that kids here have the chance to feel loved and accepted in a way that wasn’t provided to me,” he said, “to me, that is more fulfilling than being in the parade itself.”

Quiles, named Mr. New Mexico Pride in 2008 and 2009 at the Pride Parade in Albuquerque, began planning the Las Vegas parade in January, along with a student organization at Highlands called PRISM — Promoting Respect for Identity and Sexuality Movement. PRISM President Maysie Bucklin said Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of the group’s first meeting.

The idea for a Pride Parade was sparked at Highlands’ homecoming parade in the fall, Bucklin said.

“We had a car draped with flags, and we passed out little rainbow flags. That day, we received a lot of positive feedback from a lot of the community there for homecoming,” Bucklin said. “We came back from winter break and met, and we’re like, ‘How about our own parade?’ ”

Groups from Luna Community College and organizations in Las Vegas — ranging from the Animal Welfare Coalition and Equality New Mexico to Planned Parenthood and Free Mom Hugs — will participate in the Pride Parade, scheduled to start at noon at the Carnegie Library.

Parade participants will march to the Las Vegas plaza, where festivities will continue with live music and other entertainment.

As of Friday afternoon, PRISM’s Facebook page said more than 300 people were interested in attending the event, but organizers said they were hoping for a much larger crowd.

While Saturday’s march will be a significant statement against discrimination, Quiles and other locals said Las Vegas still has a long way to go in spreading awareness about the LGTBQ community.

Anjelica Montoya, 18, said a high school student yelled a slur out of a school bus earlier this week while a group passed out flyers announcing the Pride Parade.

“I feel that within the community, we haven’t taken a lot of educational steps to the adults. They’re sort of set in their ways,” Montoya said. “I’m not mad at that kid who yelled at me out of a bus. He’s getting that from home.”

Like Quiles, Montoya remembers being bullied while growing up in Las Vegas. Now a freshman at Highlands who is active in PRISM, Montoya is looking forward to organizing future Pride Parades.

That is a sign of progress.

“There’s no separate queer community; it’s all our community,” Montoya said. “To me, we are making progress toward that one community that loves and accepts all.”

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