If you walk through the historic westside neighborhood in Chehalis, something stands out among the preserved 19th century homes: a bright, rainbow fence. Little metal hearts dangling from the lattice glimmer if you catch it on a sunny day.
Jacky Vance, sitting on the porch Monday, joked that the fence actually slows down cars better than the traffic circle at the end of the block.
She and her husband began painting it last month after they saw the Lewis County Lollipop Guild’s efforts to erect a large pride sign across from the controversial Hamilton billboard in Napavine. Now, the fence has grown into a collaboration with the Lollipop Guild — a project deemed the “Chehalis Friendship Fence.” Residents can submit messages through the nonprofit to be stamped into the metal hearts.
“Love is Love,” is a common phrase you’ll see, along with anniversary dates and other positive messages.
Kyle Wheeler, the Lollipop Guild’s founder, said his favorite message is “it gets better” — a nod to his childhood, when he came out as gay just as an anti-gay-marriage proposition divided his home town in California.
According to Vance, the community has offered tons of support for the project. But there’s also been residents who stop in the street to shout homophobic slurs at the house.
“We actually thought it would be more of the negative than the positive,” Vance said. “That was really surprising.”
The hate directed at the fence won’t bother her anyway, Vance said. She’s always been outspoken about her support for the LGBTQ+ community. Her husband has several family members who are part of the community, including one relative who was murdered overseas — a death some family members suspect was a hate crime. Today, Vance says homophobic rehtoric and actions just disgust her.
“I cannot even fathom having an issue with somebody over who they love,” she said. “I’ve given up a lot of friends and family members over it.”
The rainbow fence appeared in Chehalis at the same time as more and more progressive signs in Lewis County began popping up, spurred by protests for racial justice this summer and intensified by the election season. The Lollipop Guild has been a part of that trend, distributing several hundred “Rural Americans Against Racism” signs.
Vance herself has hand-made several “Black Lives Matter” signs for herself and her neighbors. But the onslaught of racial justice and pride signs have also been met in Lewis County by continued vandalism and theft, as have conservative and political campaign signs across the county, including the Hamilton billboard, which was vandalized last week.
The threat of being targeted hasn’t slipped Vance’s mind. Some people have mistakenly assumed that the fence belongs to a colorful daycare, not understanding that it’s actually a symbol of gay pride and allyship. And potential vandalism is something Vance takes into account when considering whether she wants to make the fence’s meaning more obvious.
“I’m only a little bit hesitant because of that,” she said. “But at the same time I’m like, ‘well, we’re already being pretty loud about it, so maybe we’ll just keep going and make it extra loud.’”
She said there’s a misconception that the progressive signs belong to outsiders or newcomers, like Wheeler, who grew up in California. But Vance and her husband both grew up in Lewis County — in fact, the fence is in front of his childhood home, where Vance used to come watch him play music on the porch in high school.
Vance said she always hoped the community would become more accepting.
“It’s kind of why we stuck around here, so we could see it change,” she said. “We always hoped it would, but never thought it was really possible.”