Connecticut Voice

Your LGBTQ+ Voice

No Place Like Home: The Enormous Importance of Small-Town Pride

Connecticut is bursting with Pride, with 35 events in 2022 and even more in the works this year.

“Some see them as dandelions. I see them as beautiful wildflowers that make a beautiful bouquet,” says Richard Stillson of Hartford (also known by xir drag name Mucha Mucha Placer), founder of Connecticut Pride. There’s been debate about whether the large number of smaller events detract from the larger ones, but Stillson has no doubt: “The more the merrier.” Xi is not alone in that opinion.

It’s not just the number and size of events that matter, organizers tell CT Voice; it’s holding them at home that counts. People planning their local Prides say hometown events are vitally important to them year-round.

There’s comfort in knowing your town has your back. “People go to those big Prides, and you come home, and it’s depressing. I want to be myself here,” says Jill Adams, organizer of Suffield Pride.

There’s importance in being visible locally. There are town officials working against the queer community, says Enfield Pride President Greg Gray. “We need to flash it out to everyone that we are here, we exist, and we are a force to be reckoned with.”

There’s security in community. “You need somewhere to go to feel safe, a group of people to talk to who know where you’re coming from and what you feel,” says 15-year-old Grace Collins, co-founder of Small Town Pride, which is organizing Hebron’s first event.

There’s the need for local advocacy for the next generation. “Darien has a history of a lack of inclusion,” says Darien Pride Chair Dan Guller. “My focus is to make queer kids feel like their hometown supports them.”

There’s even a kind of bonus to hometown pride. Unlike the anonymity of big events in Boston or New York, says Stillson, “It takes it to another level when you come out in your own hometown.”

Brandi Mandato, co-chair of North Haven Pride says that the town has embraced their event wholeheartedly, and they have had the support of First Selectman Mike Freda, who has stated that this year’s celebration will be the first of what will become an annual event. Mandato says that people in the community wanted to make sure that North Haven celebrates and welcomes diversity.

Finally, the abundance of Pride events reflects the state’s embrace of diversity, says Noelle P. Stevenson, director of the Connecticut Office of Tourism. “It says the LGBTQ+ community is part of Connecticut’s DNA,” she says. Her office highlights LGBTQ+ venues and events year-round on its website, Stevenson adds that the number of activities year-round “is highly significant and demonstrates how genuinely welcoming and inclusive we are as a state, and it’s what makes Connecticut the perfect destination for the LGBTQ+ community.”


Planning Pride 

When you’re parading in the warm June sun, take a moment to remember that back on a snowy night in February, a couple dozen of the state’s Pride group leaders got together to help make it all possible.

Snow forced the annual Connecticut Pride Summit to meet on Zoom instead of in-person in Waterbury. There, leaders discussed practicalities like liability insurance and accessibility, shared last year’s experiences (“super successful,” “small but great,” and “so big they’ve outgrown the location”), and discussed responding to (fortunately few) hecklers. Of course, this was just one of countless planning meetings across the state, some of which started not long after last year’s Pride month had ended.

Waterbury, Enfield and Hebron are among the towns holding their first events this year. Many others are back for seconds or thirds…and are growing. Torrington, which started last year with a flag-raising ceremony and teen lawn party, will add a Pride movie night at the Warner Theatre. Some have been at it a while, like Stamford—where it’s hard to beat the sight of the Old Town Hall lit in rainbow colors.

“Connecticut is just kickin’ it!” concluded Adams of Suffield Pride at the summit’s end.


Visibility really matters at home

Did you notice that last year, just after receiving requests to fly Pride flags, several Connecticut towns suddenly worried this might open the floodgates to an unmanageable tsunami of requests to fly all the flags? Town officials might waste hours on deliberations that would distract from their “real” work. Some towns adopted policies to manage flag requests. Others, like Darien, enacted bans.

Guller of Darien Pride was incensed. He told the Board of Selectmen about The Trevor Project National Survey’s findings, that LGBTQ+ youths who live in a non-accepting community are almost three times as likely to attempt suicide than those whose towns affirm them.

“I’m concerned our government is setting us up to be a non-accepting community, which makes Pride even more important,” says Guller. Almost 700 people attended last year’s inaugural event, including many kids who came up to Guller to thank him.

Shortly after Darien enacted the flag ban, The Trevor Project announced its fundraiser “40 Meaningful Miles.” Guller’s house is one mile from Town Hall. So yes, you can guess where he walked 20 times and back in protest, carrying the flag. He didn’t go unnoticed, attracting support from passersby, one middle finger, and one wannabee crime-stopper checking that he hadn’t stolen the flag.

Small Town Pride co-founder Collins, a 10th-grader, says she’s experienced homophobia in her hometown of Hebron. “It’s sad to say, but I’m used to it. But it’s a reality. You have to get used to it and let the other person know you aren’t gonna’ tolerate it.”

Enfield Pride’s Gray, pastor of Enfield’s United Church of Christ, is a vocal advocate for local queer kids. When a Board of Education member proposed banning several queer-themed books, Gray read aloud to the board from one of them, This Book is Gay by June Dawson. He then read from the Bible, Ezekiel 23: 11-21, which features comparisons of human and animal genitals, breast-fondling and prostitution. “If you’re going to ban this one, you need to ban the Bible, too,” he said.

Gray didn’t stop there. His congregation chipped in to buy hundreds of copies of the books on the list and held a bulk book giveaway.

Gray has all ages in mind when planning Pride, though. “Enfield has a substantial queer community, but no organization, and they don’t talk to each other except on Grindr,” he says of his impetus to form Enfield Pride.

This will be Suffield Pride’s third year. Says organizer Adams, “Small-town Pride is so important.” Not everyone can get to big-city events if they want to, especially teens without transportation. Lots of people told Adams it was their very first Pride, and there was a large teen turnout. And the speakers, she says, were moving. “There were thoughtful words, and realness, and it was raw and beautiful.”

Mandato from North Haven is passionate about the visibility that small town Pride can provide, not just as a celebration. “I think this is a pivotal moment to be visible on the national landscape when young, queer people are discovering their sexuality and their gender, and they’re getting a constant message that it’s not okay.” She adds that it’s traumatic for these young people, and that while they can walk in the shoes of those who came before and fought to bring down barriers, there are still so many to overcome. What excites Mandato is that no one has to travel to be authentic. “It’s right in your own backyard. You don’t have to go somewhere else to be yourself.”


We get knocked down, but …

When the Avon Town Council rejected high school student Julia Gordon’s proposal to paint a rainbow crosswalk, as neighboring Simsbury had done, she responded by creating “Avon Cares” lawn signs, which ended up plastering Avon lawns and raising $7,000 for an Avon equality group. The signs caught on in several neighboring towns.

Thieves stole the Pride flag from Blue Orchid restaurant in New Haven three times last year, but the owners kept putting out a new one. A community member donated one of the replacements, plus more flags to hand out.

And when vandals struck, the Tolland Democratic Town Committee got creative—and defiant. Last year, the group had painted a giant Pride flag on their permanent billboard. Someone covered it with red spray paint, which the Dems then topped with “Love Conquers All” in white paint.

Shortly after, someone knocked down the billboard. Tolland folks repaired it and put it back up. Tolland police charged two people for the separate acts of vandalism.

Katie Murray, a Democrat on the Tolland Town Council, says, “It was very heartening to hear from so many members of our community about their outrage and disgust with these actions. I felt there was a lot of support for the LGBTQ community, and the general sentiment in our community was that this wasn’t okay. We’re a small town and we generally care about each other.”

So, don’t be shy—or cowed—get out and show your pride. We’re here… And, well, you know the rest.