A triumphant return: Back for the first time in since 2019, Pride parade draws some 15,000 to celebrate LGBTQ+ community

By Sophie Hauck

For the Gazette

Published: 05-07-2023 3:09 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Judy “JR” Raphael wore a bag over her head when she marched in the Northampton Pride parade during the 1970s, plainly decorated with two holes where her eyes could scan the cheering crowds without exposing her identity. Working in education, Raphael feared what would happen if people found out she was gay. “If the school knew, I could be fired,” she said.

Raphael wore no disguise when she returned to the parade route on Saturday in time for the event’s revival, three years since the parade went on hiatus because of the pandemic. She sported a twin grin with friend Edie Daly, the pair proudly carrying a banner advertising the Western Massachusetts “Old Lesbians,” the local chapter for a national organization celebrating gay, female elders.

“We love you!” Someone shouted while Raphael and Daly marched alongside representatives from local elementary, middle and high schools. “We love you, too!” Daly responded, without missing a beat.

The Old Lesbians were one of dozens of organizations marching in the parade, an event which Northampton Police estimate drew 10,000-15,000 people, including many children. Fostering a family-friendly environment was important to event organizer Clay Pearson, who aimed to counter a growing wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation targeted toward the queer community’s youngest members.

“The youth are under attack in all sorts of bills,” Pearson said. “They need to know that they’re right, they’re important, they are to be celebrated… I couldn’t imagine if I was a kid, what the possibilities would be if I knew that pride was a thing.”

Pearson led a seven-person committee to reshape the annual event, adjusting the parade route to land downtown and putting an emphasis on drag performances at a Pride-themed market after the march. The mood was celebratory, many vendors and shoppers wrapping themselves in rainbow flags, and in the case of Pearson, wearing hot pink heels covered in glitter.

Alex Kessler, a self-proclaimed “geezer gay,” recalled attending Pride events more political than this year’s throughout his youth, but considered the festive event a product of decades worth of protests and advocacy.

“It’s lovely to be here in a more relaxed and happy time,” Kessler said, noting that Pride still serves a necessary function in a progressive political climate like Northampton. “Anything positively-spirited needs repetition and amplification.”

Families, faith organizations

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Many young paradegoers celebrated Pride for the first time this weekend, a milestone not lost on Pearl DeBarros when she stumbled upon the event with her daughter Tamina Hiatt.

“Raising a new generation child, we’ve had several conversations about being very open and accepting to everyone regardless of who they are… It’s just refreshing to see people being allowed to be themselves,” DeBarros said, recalling a different political climate in New Hampshire, where she lived before moving to Northampton last month. “We don’t see anything like this.”

Hiatt hoped to join future Pride parades as one of many young marchers, some of whom represented Northampton Public Schools, an after-school taekwondo gym or their local Girl Scout troop.

“Whoever thinks that being different, being whatever you are, is not OK … they are wrong,” Hiatt said, clasping candy thrown from a passing float. “People should stand up to those people and tell them that they’re wrong.”

Fighting LGBTQ+ intolerance can be challenging, according to high school sophomore Kyle Vaillancourt, but he recommended coming from a place of compassion.

“Put out the fire with kindness,” Vaillancourt recommended, wearing a gay men’s Pride flag like a cape. “If someone’s trying to start a fight, they won’t respond if you’re nice.”

Judy Schiavone remembered hearing their sexuality was wrong while growing up in the Catholic church decades ago, reclaiming their faith upon discovering the First Congregational Church in Amherst.

“It felt like coming home,” Schiavone said. “It felt so affirming to hear that God loves me.”

Schiavone’s religious homecoming began at a Pride celebration 10 years prior, when First Congregational Church pastor the Rev. Vicki Kemper offered a “blessing to go” that inspired Schiavone to join the church.

“In our church, First church in Amherst, we preach this love and act out this love all year round, not just on Pride day,” Kemper said. “It’s something we do every day of the year, and everybody is welcome at our church… we’ll continue to march and have a table at Pride to let more people know that.”

Kemper stood alongside other Valley religious leaders in protest of religiously-motivated lawmakers condemning the LGBTQ+ community across the country.

“That’s not what God wants,” Schiavone said. “To legislate hate — it’s wrong.”

Intersectionality, infighting

Some participants said Northampton Pride has a ways to go when it comes to uplifting LGBTQ+ people of color, who report experiencing more discrimination than their white peers. Event participant Evan Miles described the festivities as “a little bit white” and encouraged organizers to invite more LGBTQ+ people of color to march in the parade.

“A lot of white, queer people take up all the space,” Nicole Porter said, noting “it feels like joy” to witness the racial diversity of the LGBTQ+ community in action. “I’ve seen more people of color here than I have ever in Northampton… I’m so happy that they’re out celebrating this and that they’re alive and they’re happy.”

Event participants did acknowledge cisgender privilege within the LGBTQ+ community, a reckoning that emerged in the face of anti-transgender legislation. Cori Kalmus, a transgender woman, described lawmakers making “a big to-do” about the lives of transgender people, inspiring event participants “to make a big to-do about it, too,” many holding signs reading “trans lives are sacred” and “let trans athletes play.”

Kalmus noted that even within the queer community, not all spaces are welcome to transgender people. The Old Lesbians, for one, do not allow transgender women to join their organization, a rule that has led to some trans women feeling “disappointed,” according to Raphael. She and Daly argue that cisgender gay women deserve a gathering space to share their unique lived experience.

“We are inclusive by accepting everyone, but we’d like a little space for ourselves,” Daly said.

“I grew up in an era where gay men really needed to secretly knock on doors and have that space without fear of anybody coming in and murdering them,” Kalmus recalled. “I also understand why we need to commingle. So there’s both sides of the fence. Nobody’s wrong.”

For now, Kalmus is less focused on infighting within the LGBTQ+ community and more interested in increasing acceptance of trans people where she lives in Becket.

“I’m just going to be myself because that’s how we create change,” Kalmus said. “We get up every day and we put on our brave shoes and we put on our brave glasses and our cute little outfits and we just be who we are without worry.”

Sophie Hauck is studying journalism at the University of Massachusetts.]]>