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Pride on display at annual Portage church picnic

Tammy Hnatiuk, left, her children Tyler, 7, Savannah, 5, and Landen, 10, and mother-in-law Sheila Wood enjoy Saturday's MCC-Illiana Pride Picnic.

PORTAGE — The gay pride flag was flying over the Metropolitan Community Church-Illiana Saturday, as all were welcomed to attend the church’s third annual Pride Picnic.

The Rev. Michael Cooper, MCC-Illiana pastor, said the event was a chance for the LGBT community to come together and celebrate on Pride weekend –when many cities and towns honor the LGBT community with parades and festivals.

About 25 of the congregation gathered Saturday to grill hamburgers and hot dogs, while each person brought a dish to share.

“We celebrate the accomplishments our community has made, as in equal marriage, and we continue to fight for full equality in all areas,” Cooper said.

Although when it was established in Los Angeles in 1968, MCC focused on the gay and lesbian community, “many others have joined us as well,” Cooper said.

“We are an open church ... we accept anybody,” Cooper said. “We try to break the barriers around sexual orientation and race. But lots of straight people attend here.”

Cooper said the LGBT community in Northwest Indiana is very different than in larger metropolitan areas because there are few places to gather socially.

“A lot of the community have moved online,” said Cooper.

Tammy Hnatiuk, who is straight, started attending the church when her mother-in-law, Sheila Wood, came out to her in 2010 and invited her.

“I told her, ‘I’m dating girls now,’” said Wood, of Portage.

“That was one way to be told,” joked Hnatiuk, also of Portage. “It was good news because I wanted her to be happy. That’s all I want for anyone — to be happy with themselves.”

Hnatiuk said people have told her her mother-in-law “doesn’t look gay.”

“How are they supposed to look?” asked Hnatiuk. “They’re all normal-looking. Why do they think it’s only drag queens and transgenders? People have that image, but they are moms and dads and grandmothers and grandfathers.”

Cooper and Wood both said that with the recent shootings in Orlando times are scary.

“There’s always that element here,” Wood said. “But I choose not to live in fear.”

Matt Handzlik, who grew up in Chesterton with a mom who was Baptist and a dad who was a non-practicing Catholic, starting attending the church just two months ago. He went to a variety of churches over the years since he came out at age 22, but has never felt as included as he does at MCC.

“I passed this place a million times and saw the pride flag but never came in,” said Handzlik, of Portage. “I finally did one day and I’ve been coming here ever since.”

Handzlik, who turns 50 in July, said the congregation is superfriendly.

“Here, it’s family,” said Handzlik. “I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s homey – I like it here.”