A Journey to Acceptance: Owen Alabado and Northern Door Pride

As a young adult, Owen Alabado despised being gay. A first-generation U.S. citizen of Filipino descent, he wanted to be “normal” and accepted and have a family one day. But in 1990s Janesville, Wisconsin, there were few resources for him and little representation of homosexuals in his community or mainstream culture, much less celebrations centered around diversity and LGBTQ+ individuals. 

“I hated being gay,” he said. “You didn’t see gay men getting married, having kids. That was completely foreign to me.”

In 1998, 17 years before same-sex marriage was legalized, Alabado couldn’t hide who he was anymore. He came out during high school and faced an onslaught of discrimination, including death threats. 

“Food was thrown at me at school. A teacher saw it and did nothing,” he remembered. “A guy threw a football at my head so hard it knocked me out. I’m a trained martial artist because I had to learn how to defend myself.” 

Alabado’s family expelled him from his home senior year. He didn’t talk to his father for six years. 

“Things are good now, but that rejection from your family affects your psyche,” Alabado said. “I had it rough, but I’m a fighter, an emotional fighter. Not everyone has that strength. LGBT kids are killing themselves. I was there and happened to fight through the pain, but some people can’t handle that amount of teasing, ridicule, hate.”

Long road to acceptance

Just a year prior, in Door County, Sandy Brown had started a PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) chapter inspired by comedian Ellen DeGeneres coming out on national television. 

“That was huge,” Brown said. “A lot of people in this county started talking more about LGBT.” 

But there was still stigma and fear. She shared meeting times and dates with local media, only to have them not appear in print. 

(Left to right) Former Sturgeon Bay Alderperson Barbara Allmann, Open Door Pride founding member Cathy Grier and Sandy Brown at an Open Door Pride event in Sturgeon Bay. Photo by Ty Helbach.

“I talked to someone at the Advocate who said, ‘It isn’t our policy to promote that sort of thing,’” Brown remembered. 

But she persisted and has seen this county, and country, take considerable strides toward accepting and celebrating LGBTQ+ people. She answered desperate letters sent to the PFLAG post office box, screened PBS and National Geographic documentaries about LGBTQ+ individuals and topics, and celebrated Pride in a barn until Open Door Pride was established in 2017 and held its first annual festival in Sturgeon Bay’s Martin Park. 

Door County has made progress, Brown said, “but there is still important work that needs to be done.”

Door County Pulse Podcasts · Northern Door Pride’s Owen Alabado

Finding an outlet

The Sister Bay Village Hall was packed for the first Northern Door Pride event in 2021. Photo by Allison Evans.

During Alabado’s teenage years, he found solace and acceptance in the performing arts. He majored in theater and performance at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and found a community, a close-knit group of friends and causes “that fed my soul,” he said. He was the director of multicultural diversity for student government and president of the Gay Straight Alliance. 

Upon graduation, Alabado headed to Los Angeles, where he landed small roles in Shameless and This Is Us. He appeared in a Toyota commercial and on a comedy special on Amazon Prime. He wrote, directed and starred in the award-winning series Dudes. But acting is a tough gig. To make ends meet, he managed a restaurant and worked at a gym. 

“I was getting burnt out in L.A.,” he said.

But Los Angeles was a safe space – his home for 15 years. 

“In L.A., you’re spoiled,” Alabado said. “There is every walk of life. Nobody bats an eye over your orientation or dress. But the industry is very self-centered. You have to be selfish and think only about you if you want to break in. I’m not wired to do that.”

Alabado’s longtime friend Mike Holmes, co-owner of the Wickman House and Trixie’s restaurants in Door County, encouraged him to relocate to the peninsula. 

“He knew I was unhappy, but I was terrified about moving here,” Alabado said. “Are they racist? Homophobic?” he said. But the COVID-19 pandemic made it an easy decision. He made the move in April 2020. 

“I love Door County – the friends I’ve made, the things I’ve done,” Alabado said. Along with managing Trixie’s and teaching at the YMCA, he joined a volleyball league, ran a karaoke night, went to his first Packers game, played broomball and even made a short film called Two Truths and a Lie, which premiered at the Kress Pavilion in Egg Harbor. 

Alabado’s old friend Mike Holmes (left) convinced him to come to Door County to work during the pandemic. Alabado quickly entrenched himself in the community. Submitted.

“Owen is a ball of positive energy. He’s a good dude,” said Chad Kodanko, owner of Husby’s Food and Spirits in Sister Bay. “Rarely do people live here a year and know more people than those of us who have been up here 20 years.”

So in the early summer of 2021, when Alabado wanted to celebrate Pride, “a bunch of us jumped on board and said, ‘We’ll help you out,’” said Collin Doherty, owner of Roots Inn & Kitchen in Sister Bay.

But COVID-19 had put a halt to public gatherings. Then on June 10, the Sister Bay Village Board voted to allow public gatherings, giving Alabado about 10 days to pull the event together.  

Northern Door Pride: The Return
WHEN: June 21, 3:30-10:30 pm
WHAT: Pridewalk from Peach Barn Brewery to the Sister Bay Village Hall begins at 3:30 pm, followed by raffles, 106.9 The Lodge Social Hour, commencement, drag show, and dancing with music from DJ Brawny. Details>>

Kodanko and his team at Husby’s stepped up, along with Doherty and his team at Roots, plus those at the Sister Bay Bowl, Peach Barn Brewery, Bearded Heart Coffee, Wickman House, Pearl Wine Cottage and other businesses, plus an army of volunteers.

“I had so much help,” Alabado said. “I was overwhelmed by all the people who came out of the woodwork. All these people who procured raffle prizes, made posters.” 

Sandy Brown drove to Northern Door on June 22 to show her support and congratulate Alabado. 

“That little hall was just packed with people. It was wonderful!” she said. “I love to see young blood not waiting around asking someone else to do something. He saw a need and met it.”

“The music was great. The dancing was great,” said Louise Howson, the community coordinator for the Sister Bay Advancement Association. Her team helped with facilities and setup and partook in the festivities as well. 

“That event was 99.9% Owen,” Howson said. “He is quite something, a great organizer. Pulling people together is not easy, but he’s good at it.”

“The community response was overwhelming,” said Doherty, who even spotted individuals at the event he was surprised to see. “To see them let loose, show support and be a part of it – it’s a testament to the community, to Owen to have that vision.”

Alabado remembered the dancing and the slew of people who approached to thank him for putting on such an event. 

“An older lesbian couple came up to me with tears in their eyes and said, ‘We never thought we’d see this day,’” he said. Amid the festivities, he sat in the back of the hall, took in the scene and shed a few tears himself. 

“Let’s be honest: There aren’t a ton of LGBT [people] up here,” he said, “but all these allies who came out – there was such a spirit of unity and acceptance. It was breathtaking.”

That was the beginning of Northern Door Pride (NDP). 

Alabado became president of the NDP board and Doherty the vice president. They added more members, wrote the bylaws and shared their mission: “To inspire the community to be the best version of themselves by embracing everyone, promoting self-acceptance and providing a safe environment to do so.” They want to bring visibility to the LGBTQ+ community in Northern Door, to be a resource for residents and visitors alike. 

“NPD is about awareness, inclusivity, whether you’re on the [LGBTQ+] spectrum or not,” Alabado added. “The goal is to show the community you are not alone and create a safe space, especially for youth who might be struggling.”

Mary Blichmann (Left) and her wife, Betts Williams, have found an accepting home in Door County since moving here in 2017. Photo by Allison Evans.

“When I was a teenager, in my early twenties, to see something like this would have meant the world to me,” Alabado said. “We want to throw together events that bring people together, people who wouldn’t normally hang out.”

Since Pride 2021, NDP has put on a series of such events: Carrie’s Prom, a Halloween dance; HUG’N at the Bowl, a holiday-themed night of trivia and games; and For the Love of Love, a cabaret coinciding with Valentine’s Day. 

But it “can’t just be centered around fun,” he said. “We’re still solidifying the tasks we want to accomplish – outreach, advocacy. We want to make a difference at schools, get more involved in change up here.”

Kodanko appreciates that NDP is reaching out to a demographic that is often underrepresented. 

“It exposes [the community] to their cause, their needs. It only makes us better,” he said. “It’s something centered around their lives. Generally, as a straight white guy, everything is centered around you.”

For Howson, the support and visibility NDP gives LGBTQ+ people goes without saying, but it also recognizes the diversity of Northern Door. 

“That didn’t exist before,” she said. “It lets people know they have support on a lot of different levels and an opportunity to celebrate who they are. It makes people more comfortable knowing they are a valued member of the community.”

“All of us on the board, the volunteers, none of us could have anticipated how [NDP] would be as big and as accepted as it is – in just a few months,” Doherty said. “We’re going to continue to grow and fill a need emotionally and financially to the community.”

And like planning the Pride gathering in June, people are lending support, sharing ideas and offering help. 

“I just had lunch with a woman who has two LGBT children,” Alabado said. “She said, ‘How can I help?’ The response [to NDP] has been nothing but positive. I’ve been here two years, and it’s become my home so fast. I can’t help but want to make Door County a better place.” 

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