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Bloom where you are planted

Community organizer Nik Portela embraced The Dalles as their home, tipping the rural town's local culture toward more LGBTQIA2S+ acceptance.


Person with short dark hair and a rust red shirt in an open landscape with yellow grass fields
Nik Portela, Photo by Hannah Krafcik

I drive out of Portland, a metropolis surrounded by vast land that is far less populous. As I head east, the landscape changes as well. Treelines dwindle and boulders show their faces, peering down at me from above the Columbia River. This gradation reminds me, as I get farther away from home, that my journey does not begin “here” and end “there.” Rather, I move through a landscape of familiarity that slowly gives way to difference, a continuum. 

On this particular trip, I am headed east to The Dalles to learn about community organizer Nik Portela’s transition from Portland to this much smaller rural community. I first learned of Nik through the Columbia Gorge Pride Alliance. Upon meeting for lunch, we quickly dive into a conversation about change as the only constant—and how this is a truth Trans and gender-nonconforming (GNC) folks can always bank on.

“I’ve lived here since 2018, and I moved out here with my ex,” Nik said. Their then-partner had recently graduated from social work school and gotten a job in the area. “And then we broke up, probably six months or seven months after we moved out here. And I was like, ‘Awesome. I don’t want to leave’.” 

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Part of the draw to stay in The Dalles was Nik’s instant connection to community work in the region. “I worked for a domestic violence agency out here first and did healthy relationships education in all the schools in the area, like in Dufur. It was really, really cool to go into these very rural communities, where people were not stoked that we were there, and to be able to have these conversations about emotions and social-emotional learning.” 

Nik found their community in The Dalles through the Columbia Gorge Pride Alliance. “[It’s] something that is really special to me,” they emphasized. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, they became more involved with the organization, eventually leveraging connections and grant funding to make organizing at the Pride Alliance part of their work at the social service agency, Next Door Inc

The presence of the Pride Alliance means enhanced safety for queer, Trans, and GNC individuals. And while pride flags may seem to be a dime a dozen in major metropolises like Portland, in this rural community they stand out, narrowing chasms of distance and signaling a slow shift in the culture toward acceptance. “I moved out here, and there was one kind of tattered rainbow flag on the River Tap, and like that was the only one you could find in the neighborhoods, in downtown, anywhere,” Nik remembered. “And now there’s multiple businesses that have Pride logos, and they have stickers, and they’ll put flags up. There’s one frame shop downtown that’s just blanketed with [Pride] flags all the time.” 


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Narrow horizontal tree branch in a dry landscape, Nik Portela reaches up for the tree at the far left side of the composition
Nik Portela, Photo by Hannah Krafcik

Nik has witnessed this community support grow over the years, with the satisfaction of knowing that they played a humble role in this transformation. “When you make the slightest bit of change, it will reverberate because everyone is connected. Your mom is your soccer coach, is your therapist,” they illustrated. “You know, all these dual roles that people have to exist within. So you make one tiny change in one person, and you watch the way that that changes everyone on this level, and it’s so beautiful.” 

Through their work with the Pride Alliance, Nik helped create an annual Pride Celebration in The Dalles. The Pride Alliance does not accept corporate sponsorships for this celebration, instead choosing to focus on bringing in resources such as MPox vaccines, abortion resources, and Oregon Health Plan representatives. “It’s so frustrating to even apply for regular benefits out here,” Nik noted, adding that the systems for accessing benefits are “purposely muddled.” In response to this, they put extra effort into using Pride as an opportunity to connect LGBTQIA2S+ locals with community resources that are affirming and knowledgeable about their identities. 

But despite reaping the personal rewards of this gradual evolution, Nik found themselves burnt out by bureaucracy and administrative oversight. Employee reviews, grant writing, and grant reporting, they felt, robbed this work of its joy. As a result, Nik quit their full-time work with Next Door Inc. at the end of this past summer and will continue to contract with Columbia Gorge Pride Alliance on an as-needed basis. 

Portela crosses arms in front of some tree trunks with the sun shining in from the background
Nik Portela, Photo by Hannah Krafcik

When I asked what they were up to next, Nik shared that they would be working on their prerequisites for a nursing program at Columbia Gorge Community College in The Dalles. “In the most real way, I was like, ‘I’m done advocating for things to be different. Let me do it myself’,” they explained. “I just want to do rural practice and be able to serve my people in a place where pickings are slim.” 

When I asked Nik what advice they had to offer Trans and GNC folks living outside of major cities in Oregon, they replied, “Where you’re at right now is not where you’ll always be. That goes for the town that you’re in. That town is not always going to be the same.” In their experience, eventually people who uphold the status quo will pass away, making room for queer people to do “queer things”—to build a reality that is different from the present. 

They were also sure to acknowledge the particular challenges faced by youth and trans people of color in these places, who encounter ageism and racism as it intersects with homophobia and transphobia. “These are the people who are like the system is like, ‘we can’t have you here […] because you complicate what we have decided is reality’.” 

“I think it’s so important to be young and recognize the power that you inherently have,” Nik continued, speaking directly to youth, “because all of the systems that are in place are trying to strip you of it as a young person.” 


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Toward the end of our conversation, I learned from Nik that the power of gradual influence goes both ways: “I came into this community thinking that I was going to show them my big city ways,” they admitted. “What actually ended up happening is a kindness and a sense of reflection grew in me that couldn’t have ever happened in a big city. Being able to see that interconnectedness is scary but it’s really beautiful if you come at it the right way.” Even as Nik participates in the slow change of their community, they have also opened their heart and allowed themself to be changed too. This kind of reciprocity builds trust, planting the seed of a more nurturing future for Trans and GNC folks in The Dalles.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Hannah Krafcik (they/them) is a Portland-based interdisciplinary neuroqueer artist and writer whose work emerges from ongoing reflections on social patterning and censorship, (over)stimulation, perseveration, and intuition. Their practices span dance, writing, new media, and sound design. Hannah continues to be influenced by their collaboration with artistic partner Emily Jones.
Photo credit: Jo Silver

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