The Loud and Proud Crowd

You know how they say it takes a village to raise a child? The same can be said about raising resilient communities. When it comes to bolstering the North Shore’s LGBT (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgendered) community, enough people have stepped up to populate a village and they are from all walks of life.

We’ve learned about the need to build sustainable communities to protect our planet. We’ve felt the one-punch-two-punch effect of the recession. We’re buffeted by crises, and instinctively know that we need to survive together. Resilience is the not-so-secret ingredient in the toolbox of any community that strives to survive.

The hub of the activity is in Salem, where years of community activism, together with a historically strong LGBT presence, have meshed with enlightened business and political leadership. That Salem has exploded as an arts community also makes diverse groups more visible, as the creative economy infuses the city with energy, youth and sheer numbers. Creative cities, according to urbanism guru Richard Florida, have three Ts: talent, technology and tolerance. Baking tolerance into Salem’s DNA makes everyone more resilient.

On the morning of Salem’s annual Halloween Parade, I chat by phone with Gary “Gigi” Gill about his involvement with the North Shore’s LGBT community. He suggests we meet that evening at Shetland Park, where parade marchers are gathering. Having checked his Facebook page, I know what he looks like as Gigi, but I’m quite staggered by the fabulous person I see. Tall, dark, and beautiful, Gigi literally towers over me in heels that add another 6” to his 6’3” stature. A gold-sequinned dress sparkles on Gigi’s svelte figure, while tiara and teased black hair add yet more luminous height. I feel like I’m meeting the giantess in Harry Potter, a feeling that’s enhanced by the HP characters starting to populate the parade. But Gigi isn’t peddling fiction: he’s a galvanizing force in Salem’s LGBT community.

As we wait for Mayor Kim Driscoll to arrive, Gill points to the Chamber of Commerce’s Rinus Oosthoek, busily directing arriving traffic. Both the Mayor and the Chamber have helped bring Salem’s LGBT community together (and out).

Two years ago at a picnic at The Willows with Mayor Driscoll, Gill realized that working with seniors would be his “new key” to doing good for the community, and he started Over the Rainbow, a group for LGBTers over 50. In partnership with North Shore Elder Services, he organizes a monthly Over The Rainbow Supper Club at the House of Seven Gables, which has enthusiastically embraced the new social influx.

Seniors, says Gill, are at high risk for HIV/AIDS infection: they may have lost long-term partners, have started dating again, but don’t always practice safe sex. When Salem held its first World AIDS Day last December, Gill felt the time was right to push public awareness even further.

Together with another decades-long promoter of a North Shore Pride Parade, Dr. Hope Watt-Bucci, Gill approached Mayor Driscoll with a plan to hold the North Shore’s first-ever Pride Parade, a proposal the Mayor found easy to endorse. The June 2012 event was hugely successful, drawing participants and politicians from all over.

Mayor Driscoll at the Pride Parade, June 2012

It was a first for the city and the region and it held a mirror to the LGBT community, letting it see its own strength. Gay, lesbian, and straight people could look around and say, “Oh, you live here, too?”

For the entire month of June, Salem flew six rainbow flags (emblematic of gay pride) at Riley Plaza, which traditionally flies thirteen American flags symbolizing our founding colonies. A seventh flag was hoisted at City Hall, and an eighth topped the First Church in Salem’s steeple.

That flag still flies: last September the church became a Unitarian Universalist Association Welcoming Congregation, meaning it “take[s] intentional steps to become more welcoming and inclusive of people with marginalized sexual orientations and gender identities.” Unsurprisingly, the church’s minister, Jeff Barz-Snell, is lauded by many as a caring advocate for Salem’s LGBT community, one whose advocacy of tolerance is consistent and clearly articulated, in a non-confrontational, gentle way.

Bridging the generation between the over-50s and teenagers who are just coming out, are people like Salem native Caroline Watson-Felt, who started “Proud Parents of the North Shore.” She tells me that Salem’s LGBT community isn’t “new,” but has always been robust. Watson-Felt and her partner are parents of a one-year old, and she welcomes recent developments that have let them to meet other gay parents. She wants her son to see that “here’s a group of kids who are just like you” (with same-sex parents).

Being a new parent can be nerve-wracking enough without the added stress of intolerance. Watson-Felt’s recent experiences — whether a visit with the baby to the emergency room or having to call the police over a neighborhood incident — show that she and her partner are being accepted as “normal” parents, a positive change that’s been happening over years. As she puts it, “If not for this constant change over time, both statewide and local, our experiences as first-time parents would be different, not as good. …The assumption that we’re normal takes so much stress out of high-stress situations.”

What inspired Watson-Felt to reach out to other new parents was Salem Out Loud, an organization helmed by Kevin Letourneau, a young entrepreneur with world-class marketing chops.

Letourneau says that until recently, the North Shore’s LGBT community had to travel to Boston to mingle with their own, but since last year things have really come together at the local level. In the summer of 2011, when Darek Barcikowski was running for Salem City Council, local businesswoman Kim Tenenbaum hosted a well-attended party at her downtown Salem store, Urban Elements. From that evening, Letourneau saw that a regular series of meet-ups could both help the LGBT community and the local economy.

A Salem Out Loud dance party at Victoria Station in Pickering Wharf drew about 150 people. Photo courtesy Salem Out Loud.

In December 2011, Letourneau and friends organized the first event at Red Lulu on Lafayette Street. About 35 people showed up. A month later, at the second event at Green Land Cafe, 65 people came. The third event at Victoria Station drew 150 people. Since December 2011 till the June 2012 Pride Parade, there were about fifteen events with an average attendance of 135 people. It was the Salem Out Loud events that let Watson-Felt and her partner see that meeting others like them could be local, supportive and fun.

When asked why Salem has become such a hub, Letourneau notes that historically the city has seen the danger of intolerance and xenophobia, but that on the North Shore, the historic port city of Salem has also been open to outsiders. Local businesses love the economic benefits of having a Salem Out Loud event at their venue. As Letourneau notes, “They always ask, ‘When’s the next one?’” The events attract the LGBT community, but they’re fairly orientation-agnostic: Letourneau estimates that 30% of attendees are heterosexual: “Our whole mission is to say, ‘Reclaim your own backyard.’ You don’t need to spend your money outside of your own neighborhood.”

Salem Out Loud has so successfully energized the LGBT community here that Letourneau has been approached about extending the concept to other cities and towns. The result is Go Out Loud, which will have its official launch at the Hawthorne Hotel on November 29. At that time, Letourneau will unveil a brand new LGBT community web portal.

Congressman John Tierney, Salem Resident Kevin Letourneau, Congressman Barney Frank and Salem resident Thomas McDonald at a Pickering Wharf Salem Out Loud event in June. Photo courtesy Salem Out Loud

Taking a philosophical turn, I ask Letourneau why it seems that trust between the community and politicians is at such an all-time high, given how easy it is to be cynical in today’s economy. “Trust comes after track record,” he responds. It’s show, not tell: “The way you get past the cynicism is to get through it.” Develop a track record, and trust will follow. As if to illustrate diversity within the community, Letourneau says he was always confused about “gay pride”: why be proud of something you’re born as? Be proud of what you’ve accomplished instead. “Rather than being proud of the things you have no control over, be proud of what you do.”

At the other end of Over The Rainbow’s 50+ spectrum is 20-year-old NAGLY, the North Shore Alliance of Gay and Lesbian Youth. Here, young people can find unconditional love and acceptance, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. Every Tuesday evening, at least 35 young people congregate in this “safe space.”

Since 2007, it has also been a space in which to be “out.” NAGLY’s adult advisors, together with its sometimes heartbreakingly articulate youth advisors, foster a climate of openness and community engagement. By learning that they indeed have promise and value (sometimes against what their own families tell them), these youth learn to give back, often by becoming leaders themselves.

NAGLY is run by Kirsten Freni, who also works at PRISM LGBT Health, part of Northeast Behavioral Health, on Rantoul Street in Beverly, and Coco Alinsug of Boston’s Fenway Health, the world’s largest LGBT health organization. They tell me that presently their biggest need is a space of their own. NAGLY can meet for just a few hours each week at Salem’s First Universalist Church, which clearly isn’t enough.

In 2008, on the one-year anniversary of Massachusetts marriage equality, NAGLY held its first fundraiser. This year, they celebrated their 20th anniversary with a gala at the Hawthorne Hotel, using the occasion to honor Bishop Gene Robinson, an advocate for LGBT acceptance. With the increased acceptance of the LGBT community, NAGLY hopes to ramp up its fundraising so it can continue to help young people. As Alinsug and Freni put it, there’s a huge need, with more kids coming all the time, traveling from all over the North Shore to be in this safe space.

What Pride Parades and an attitude of celebrating tolerant communities can do, as so many groups and individuals here attest, is make it possible for people to act from a position of strength. Whether you’re an entrepreneur or activist, a climate of safety versus debilitating danger is essential to moving forward, fostering resilience and contributing to the whole community.

Resilience is buoyancy: without it, we can’t bounce back from adversity. And like love, it’s what the world needs now.

Yule Heibel lived in Beverly during the 1990′s while teaching art history in Cambridge. In 2002, she moved to Victoria, BC, home-schooled her kids, and read Jane Jacobs. Now back on the North Shore, Yule is passionate about fostering vibrant urban development that gets people out of their cars.

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