Some residents of the Wood River Valley are more “local” than others. Ryan Gelskey, 27, is a seventh-generation resident of Hailey. His great-great-grandmother Roberta McKercher was a noted local journalist and photographer.
“She was the first female Rotarian in the valley,” Gelskey said. “And she loved to recognize the achievements of young people.”
McKercher’s grandfather W.F. Horn came to town about 1870 and owned one of the first general stores, said Gelskey, who lives in old Hailey on property that has been home to his extended family for many years.
Gelskey said he was picked on mercilessly in middle school for being different. When he came out as gay in high school, he had support from an extended network of family and friends.
“I liked typical gay activities like cooking and knitting, and literature and art more than sports, but I could also outshoot my sister and father [Hailey police officer Brad Gelskey] on some days at the shooting range,” he said.
During the 1990s Gelskey founded the Gay-Straight Alliance at Wood River High School, to reduce stigma about homosexuality.
“I was blessed to live in a supportive community with family ties,” he said. “The principal of my high school had been my father’s football coach. “Not everyone in the LGBT-plus community is so lucky. They have a very high incidence of suicide and homelessness nationwide.”
Before she passed away, Gelskey’s great-grandmother Ormae Smith told him about an English teacher who came to Hailey in the late 1930s.
“She said he had salt-and-pepper hair and everyone knew he preferred men. But he was not accepted by the community and soon left town,” Gelskey said.
About 10 years ago Gelskey moved to Seattle to attend Seattle University, one of 28 Jesuit universities in the U.S., majoring in theater production with a minor in French culture and language. For four months he studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence in southern France.
“Not a day goes by when I don’t miss some aspect of life in southern France,” he said.
After graduating and working in a Barnes and Noble bookstore, Gelskey decided to get a master’s degree in library science, taking up a family tradition that goes back at least as far as his great-great-stepmother Bessie Bentley, who helped The Community Library form a system to catalogue its collections. Gelskey’s mother, LeAnne Gelskey, is director of the Hailey Public Library.
“Libraries are integral to our community,” Ryan Gelskey said. “They are one of the last free shared spaces in America. It’s important that they help spark conversations about our shared humanity. Without these conversations democracy cannot exist.”
Gelskey said he grew up hearing stories about his forebears’ determination to create a community on the frontier, yet the valley he now calls home again doesn’t always take care of its own.
“There has always been a spread of socio-economic statuses in the valley,” he said. “Hailey has always been more working class, and the level of civic engagement is impressive. It’s exclusive and elitist for some people to say, ‘If you can’t afford it, you shouldn’t live here.’ There are many hardworking people here who deserve a roof over their heads. They are the people who make this community function.”
Gelskey’s interest in history has led to readings that shed light on his personal story.
“Homophobia is a relatively recent phenomenon in the world. It goes back only about 200 years,” he said.
Gelskey recently came upon a book titled “Men in Eden,” about a flamboyant Scottish nobleman named William Drummond Stewart who lived in the American West during the 1830s and found an open society where men could pursue same-sex relationships.
“Drummond actively participated in gay relation-ships and he wasn’t the only one,” Gelskey said.