CONWAY — One reason why Christopher Bellis became involved in creating White Mountains Pride, was. he said: “I recognized that within our community, there are a lot of unseen members” of the gay community.
“Every place I went within our community, I saw them, but nowhere within our community did I see them celebrated or represented publicly,” said Bellis, one of the owners of the Cranmore Inn.
So when D.J. Kramer approached him about helping organize a gay pride celebration, he was more than happy to help.
Over the past six months, the pair, along with a committee of volunteers, has created a non-profit organization and gathered sponsors and volunteers.
Next week, they will hold the valley’s first ever gay pride celebration.
Along with Bellis and Kramer, the committee includes Eddie Bennett (co-owner of the Cranmore Inn), Amanda Allard of Chatham, Amalia Torres of Albany, Lisa Thurston of Chatham, Ed Butler and Les Schoof, owners of the Notchland Inn in Hart’s Location, and David Hallett and Scott Ferrari, owners of the Bavarian Chocolate House.
Overall, the community has been quite supportive, with businesses and individuals donating more than $18,000 — more than enough to cover putting on a festival next Saturday at the North Conway Community Center. Other events helped raise funds as well. For example, a concert by the New Hampshire Gay Men’s Chorus last weekend, which the group sponsored along with the Lutheran Church of the Nativity, raised $11,000 to support White Mountains Pride, Starting Point, the Kennett High School Gay Straight Transgender Alliance and The Way Station at the church, which provides services for the homeless.
But White Mountains Pride isn’t just for gay people.
Bellis says it is also to celebrate diversity.
According to Greg Vander Veer, another member of the festival committee — who with his husband, Stephen O’Farrell, owns the Christmas Loft in North Conway — said: “Chris and D.J. were always adamant that this was not going to be just for gay people. It was going to be for families and for the community as a whole.”
As for himself, Vander Veer said, “Coming to do this pride event was just a fun way to celebrate being gay in a fun way for everyone.”
Janice Crawford, executive director of the Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce, which sponsored the event with in-kind donations, said the pride celebration has economic benefits and the chamber has worked for more than a decade to promote the valley as a gay-friendly tourist destination.
Kramer, too, pointed out that “here in the valley, it’s not just a issue of equality, a political issue, a social issue. It’s also an economic issue.
“We want to be maintaining and capturing younger people’s attention that this is a vital community and one where they can feel comfortable and stay,” she added.
White Mountains Pride coincides with gay pride events throughout the country, and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City that started the gay pride movement.
During the festival on Saturday, Bellis said, a moment of silence will be held at noon to remember the Stonewall riots, a group of violent demonstrations by members of the gay community at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village started on June 28, 1969, in response to police harassment.
Referring to the recent controversy in Conway over Drag Queen Story Hour, a White Mountains Pride-sponsored event planned for Friday, June 28, at Conway Public Library, Bellis noted, “Pride was inspired by drag queens who led a riot in New York at the Stonewall Riots.
“If it were not for drag queens, we would probably not have pride the way we know it today,” he said. “So the fact that we do Drag Queen Story Hour here and that is the one thing that people are so offended by or so scared of, it reminds me of how far we’ve come, but it also reminds me of how far we have yet to go.”
Kramer believes the controversy could help “foster the change of acceptance that we want to see hopefully in the future” and galvanized people to take action to show their support. “That’s been really powerful,” she said.
The story hour, is only open to adults with children. It starts at 10 a.m., but people are asked to show up by 9 or 9:30 a.m. to get tickets as space is limited to 60 people.
(Click here for an interview with one of the drag queen readers.)
Due to the interest the story hour sparked, the group added an event on Friday afternoon at 2 p.m. at the Jackson Community Church called “Meet the Queens.” The readers from the morning story hour event will appear in a moderated conversation with the Rev. Gail Doktor, pastor of the Jackson church. People wanting to ask questions can submit them in advance at email@example.com or through cards handed out at the beginning of the meeting.
One thing the group hopes to accomplish is to help provide positive role models and support for young people in the LGBT community, support they see is lacking.
Allard, a member of the festival committee, said her daughter Marissa Edgerly left the area after growing up here because of that lack.
“When I told her we were doing this, she started sobbing on the phone,” Allard said. “And when I told her about the Drag Queen Story Hour, she started crying again. She said, ‘If something like this had happened when I was growing up in the valley, I wouldn’t have felt out of place, I would have felt like I belong.’ … There’s nothing in this valley to show the young people we’re here, we’re 100 percent behind you, we have your back.”
O’Farrell, who came out at 15 at his school in Dublin, Ireland, said he was supported there.
“I was one of the few people of my generation to have a completely normal trajectory of what it’s like to grow up,” he said. “Every kid should have that.”
Committee member Amalia Torres of Albany agreed. “I think this festival is going to be supporting those kids that are right now shut out by the establishment.”
Allard said there are gay, straight, transgender alliance clubs at Kennett High School and Fryeburg Academy, but they are small and she said her daughter never felt any support.
Kramer said there’s a history of bullying and harassment and destruction of materials for the Kennett High GST, which started in 2011.
Kennett High School Principal Neal Moylan said the high school does work to support diversity and that the gay straight transgender alliance is “an important club to have in this building,” and added, “For the most part, kids certainly are accepting. From my perspective the adolescent population is much more open and receptive than the adult population.
But he said, “It’s an uphill battle in the current national political climate has made it much more difficult. The school is a reflection of our community … Our kids pick up on what they see on the news. Too many people are role models for things I don’t think are too positive.”
Raetha Stoddard, community engagement coordinator for Starting Point, who spoke at Conway Public Library on Monday, said her organization has provided services to members of the LGBTQ community, including youth who struggle with families that do not accept their orientation and have been verbally, psychologically or physically abused, including some who have been kicked out of their homes when they came out to their parents.
“We are there to support people who have experienced victimization, whatever their orientation,” she said.
“It’s always important for us to celebrate individual diversity,” she said. “It can only have a positive impact on reducing the incidence of violence.”
Bellis said White Mountains Pride has received letters from people talking about their kids growing up feeling different and out of place in the valley.
“At the end of every one of those letters was: ‘My kid, when they graduated from high school didn’t feel like they had a place here in the valley and they needed to leave.’
“It’s so cliche about you grow up gay in a small town and you move to New York, you move to Boston, you move to the cities. There’s gay pride, there’s a history of gay culture in the cities,” O’Farrell said.
“But to break that boundary of having gay pride in smaller towns is actually way more progressive and important and cutting edge than doing it in a city where there’s thousands of people to support you, because you have to confront a whole new layer of the issues. So in a way having pride in smaller towns becomes transcendentally more important.”
He said he hoped someday events like gay pride wouldn’t be needed.
Vander Veer disagreed. “I think it should always exist because it’s a celebration of who we are. Why shouldn’t we celebrate it?”