A group seeking permits for a Midshore Pride celebration in Fountain Park ran into unusual opposition at the Chestertown Council meeting, Feb. 19. Councilmen Ellsworth Tolliver and Marty Stetson spoke against the celebration and voted against granting the permits. The motion passed by a 3-2 vote.
Jim Bogden gave the council a list of the scheduled events, which include an afternoon of music and speakers in the park Saturday afternoon, May 4. The celebration, sponsored by Midshore Maryland chapter of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), is scheduled for May 3-5 and includes events in Easton, Cambridge and at Washington College as well as in Fountain Park.
Bogden said the event is the first lesbian and gay pride event to be held on the Eastern Shore. “Hopefully, it will become an annual tradition,” he said. He said he wanted to begin by talking about the purpose of the event.
“That was my first question,” Stetson said. “I’m heterosex, but I don’t feel any need to have a festival to celebrate my sexual orientation. I believe people were born that way.”
“Because every day is a festival for the straight people,” said Bogden. “The Pride celebration is for the LGBTQ community to assemble and celebrate the freedom to be ourselves. Pride gatherings are more than just bright colors and good times. They are rooted in the histories of sexual minority groups who have struggled for decades to overcome prejudice and to be accepted for who we are. We cannot underestimate how wonderful it can be to be surrounded by like-minded people for a change. And that is the essence of it.”
Bogden said the celebration is not exclusive. “Everyone can come and participate.” He said the organizers were working with the Social Action Committee to make sure the event was inclusive of African Americans and other communities. He said that PFLAG had been active in Kent County for a number of years, and mentioned that Linda Dutton had been the original organizer. He said the Pride celebration was meant to be youth-focused and family-friendly. “We don’t anticipate anything that will embarrass the town,” he added.
The weekend begins with a Friday night comedy show in Easton and a dance sponsored by the Downtown Chestertown Association. Saturday morning, there is a multicultural festival in Easton, followed by the Fountain Park gathering beginning around 1 p.m., after the Farmers Market closes. Saturday evening there will be a drag show at Washington College, featuring Marti Cummings, a Kennedyville native who has become a Broadway actor in New York. Sunday afternoon, there will be a repeat of the drag show in Cambridge.
The Fountain Park event will feature Cummings as master of ceremonies, with a lineup of speakers. Bodgen invited Cerino to offer opening remarks. The organizers have also invited a speaker from the Gay and Lesbian Educational Network, one from Free State Justice, and Amy Adams, the regional director for PFLAG. Other speakers have been invited but are not confirmed. The Pam Ortiz band has been invited to play, along with several youth groups. The Garfield Center has also been invited to present a scene from Where the Wild Things Are, which will be in production at the time of the celebration.
Bogden then opened the floor for questions. Tolliver asked how the organizers are prepared for any kind of protest or dissent. Bogden said the permit from the town would include police protection.
Stetson said he didn’t recall the council being asked to approve a permit. Town Manager Bill Ingersoll said the group had been in touch with him about the celebration but hadn’t at that time provided all the details the town needed. He said the group had filed a request for permits in September. He said the group had requested the town stage and a tent to cover it. He said he had asked the group to come to the council to spell out its needs before a formal vote. “We’re in the process of trying to get you a permit,” he said.
Bogden said the group’s request included a police presence. He said Chief Baker told him that additional security would be at the group’s expense, but he said he didn’t think it would be necessary, considering that it is a family-focused event.
Tolliver said, “I’m struggling with the ‘family-focused event’ part of it. How do I explain to my 13-year-old son about a group of men or women hugging and kissing and some of the things I’ve seen in Pride festivals that happened out in the public arena? How do I explain to my child that this is OK?”
“A lot of people believe it is OK, that it’s normal – a normal variation of humanity,” said Bogden. He noted that there have been same-sex relationships in every culture and every period of history.
Stetson asked why the event needs to be public. “I don’t know what you’re doing. Are you exhibitionists? Do you want to show off?” He said that everyone has a gay relative and that there’s nothing wrong with it. “But I don’t understand why you have to celebrate it in such a manner. Why not go down to Wilmer Park and have a party?
Caren Samuels compared the celebration to Legacy Day, which recognizes the African American community’s contributions to society.
Tolliver said, “That’s always the argument, that the LGBT community is somehow tied to the African American struggle, and I have a problem with that.”
Larry Samuels, Caren’s brother, said, “Of course it’s different, but the celebration of people’s humanity in a public way – who could be against that?” Bogden said that Coretta Scott King has spoken out in recognition of the struggle of gay people.
Councilman David Foster said he sees the event as “a celebration of the fact that we are a diverse society; we are a welcoming society.” He noted that people sometimes go to churches other than their own and that they are welcomed. He said he’s been welcomed in other countries, and that he was welcomed to Chestertown when he moved here from India. “I would hope my home town can also be welcoming to other people. It does not mean espousing.”
Bogden said that many gay people grew up “with a deep sense of shame of who we are,” and that it has affected their personalities and careers in negative ways. He said that cultural shifts in recent years have reduced the amount of shame, but young people still feel it and are damaged by it. He said the Pride celebration is an attempt to “bury that shame, to eliminate it.”
Tolliver said that the other events during the weekend are at indoor venues where there is a degree of privacy. He asked whether government permits were needed for those events. Being told that no permits were needed, he pointed out that PFLAG was requesting government permission for the celebration. “That to me is the problem,” he concluded.
Larry Samuels said that New York City, Boston and other major communities around the nation have had Gay Pride parades for many years without problems. “It’s just a celebration of our diversity,” he said.
Mayor Chris Cerino said that he supports the celebration and that he was aware it might be “a little controversial.” He said the reason there hasn’t been a previous pride event on the Shore was that “this is a pretty conservative part of the world.” However, he said, there is a very prestigious LGBTQ community in Chestertown – “These are some of our very finest citizens, and I would feel kind of remiss not to support this.”
Foster said, “At a time when our nation is so horribly divided, I think we do need to make the extra effort to welcome people, shake hands with people who think and act differently from us. It’s not that painful. It’s not that hard to do.”
Kay MacIntosh, manager of the town’s Arts and Entertainment District and the Main Street program, said, “We are trying to build a diverse, vibrant artistic community, and I really support this. I think it would be a black eye on our community if we didn’t.”
Councilwoman Linda Kuiper said the Farmer’s Market closing time might need to be adjusted, which would require the market managers’ cooperation. She said that when she took her oath of office upon election to the council, she had promised: “to serve without partiality or prejudice.” She said she couldn’t put her personal beliefs into the decision, and that she didn’t have a problem with the event other than concerns about safety for attendees or the general public.
Cerino said he was sure Police Chief Baker would be able to handle any security issues. He said he didn’t expect violent protests; people with strong objections would probably avoid the event. He added that he favors the event, and wants to support community members. “There are more of them than a lot of people know about,” he said and added that he would support it even if some people turned their backs on him because of it. He asked for a motion from the council, adding that he would vote in favor of the event.
Ingersoll said the organizers had provided most of the information necessary to issue the permits. He said a request to hang banners in the downtown area ran into a problem with trucks running into them. He suggested hanging one over High Street where the rail trail crosses the road. He said the rest of the requests were pretty routine – “We’ll work out the details once the council says yes or no.”
Foster moved to express the council’s support for the celebration and to issue the necessary permits assuming details were worked out. Kuiper seconded the motion, and Cerino joined them in the final vote to approve the event.
Following the meeting, Stetson emailed the other council members, copying the Spy, saying in part, “I am not sure I made myself clear on the opposition to the use of the park by the Midshore Pride people. I think they are making a mistake by showcasing themselves, saying look at me I am different. They should just continue to become a part of society and if asked or feel it necessary to let people know they are gay, do so on a personal basis. To equate their difference as that of being the same as the black people is wrong. They have never been refused service at a lunch counter or not admitted to a school of their choice because they are gay.”
The motion to approve the permit passed with Cerino, Kuiper, and Foster voting in favor and Stetson and Tolliver voting against.
The council then went on to discuss other matters, including a police report and the possible acquisition of a new portable town stage, which will be covered in a second Chestertown Spy report.