Fifty years ago, in New York City on the last week of June patrons of a gay bar called Stonewall took a courageous stand after a police raid and attempted round up because of their sexual orientation. For two days and nights members of the (then underground) LGBT community stood up to police brutality and societal oppression with such force that it launched what became the modern gay rights movement.
This year history was made again when Rome hosted it’s first ever Pride rally on Friday June 14th at Bellamy Park. With less than a week of planning and promotion the event drew in an astounding 155 people who came to celebrate freedom, equality, and the beautiful diversity that was reflected by the rainbow flags and pink and blue Transgender flags that flew from the trees.
“I was shocked and ecstatic about the turnout,” Chelsea Arcuri, one of the organizers said. “With only five days to plan it, I would have never imagined [we’d have] such an incredible turnout.”
Attendees came from as far away as Boonville, Sylvan Beach, and Old Forge to listen to music and speakers, eat from food trucks and make new friends.
“The number of people who turned out for this event speaks volumes,” Arcuri enthused. “Especially the number of young people who showed up to support one another and their community.”
Volunteer Jen DeWeerth pointed out how many of the younger kids from the wider region, particularly the small towns probably had never had such a “positive affirming experience in public before.”
“Most of them said they’d never been to a pride event because they haven’t been one locally.” DeWeerth explained. “They were so happy for the chance to be part of one.”
Tracy Black mingled with the crowd wearing an apron with colorful handwritten letters saying, “Free Mom Hugs.” She said she had gotten the idea after seeing a news report about someone doing the same thing at an event in Washington. She though the apron made it seem “mom-like and welcoming, like cookies.”
I asked her what response she had gotten to her sweet and loving offer. She said that at the beginning she has felt a bit awkward but as she began collecting signatures for the progressive group Indivisible Mohawk Valley it “sparked conversations” which led to hugs which “came freely,” especially from young people.
“It was such a wonderful experience,” Black recalled. “I really enjoyed chatting with people and sharing hugs and encouragement.”
She said she met some great young people and reiterated how important it is to show unconditional support to kids in the LGBTQ community.
“Events like this are crucial for anyone who needs support but especially for those kids,” Black points out. “School can be brutal, and if there’s no support at home, it’s got to be so difficult.”
Rally organizers have dealt with difficult situations involving minority issues in the past, so although this event was a first it follows an overall progressive awakening taking place in the Mohawk Valley. As it was at Stonewall 50 years ago people are refusing to accept second-class status or not fully assert their rights to dignity and equality, and protection from discrimination and hate.
Leigh Loughran opened the rally by observing how it was taking place one year from the date many of us had been holding a candlelight vigil at City Hall to take a stand against the KKK which had been recruiting in the area (you can read about it at: https://romesentinel.com/stories/glowing-in-the-dark-westmos-fight-against-hate-carries-on-one-town-over.)
“The rally seemed like a natural progression of that message, which was to affirm love and a sense of community,” Leigh told me. “Particularly since it has been a year since Cam Tien, and I had come together to organize the candlelight vigil to refute hate.”
“I wanted to show that our city has people, including members of the city government that support the LGBTQ community” agreed Tien, who represents Rome’s first ward on the City Council.
Michael Brown, an Oneida County Legislator who was the first openly gay elected official in the county was a speaker at the rally.
“The fact that we got so many people say to me that there is a huge need for community among the LGBTQ people here in the valley,” he told the crowd.
“I helped organize this to bring both people who identify as LGBTQ and their allies together in a safe space,” Chelsea Arcuri explains. “I wanted people to celebrate love and the freedom to show it no matter how you identify or who you love.”
“The response was overwhelming,” Leigh Loughran said surveying the crowd. “I was encouraged to see that as a city, we came together and took one giant, progressive step forward in becoming a welcoming community. I will absolutely continue to do that as often as needed to ensure that everyone feels safe and secure in being themselves.”
“I think it’s very important for Rome to look into its future and stop looking into it’s past,” Chelsea Arcuri echoed the sentiments of the many young excited to be participating in their first pride event. “Instead of talking about Rome’s history, I am interested in making its history by affirming love and a sense of community.”
Ron Klopfanstein welcomes your questions, comments, and story ideas. Like him at Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo and follow him at Twitter.com/BeMoreWestmo