The Pride of the Mid-Shore
- Marc Bruxelle
When the Eastern Shore’s first LGBTQ Pride celebration takes place in Chestertown’s Fountain Park on May 4, the Washington College community will stand in solidarity with individuals who often struggle for acceptance.
Sexual identity can be a difficult topic of discussion, especially when you’re not quite sure how others might perceive diverse sexualities. That became all too clear when members of Chestertown’s Town Council voiced their reservations about the prospect of the Eastern Shore’s gay community gathering to celebrate their individuality. When organizers of the Mid-Shore Pride Festival applied in February for a permit to come together in Chestertown’s Fountain Park for a Gay Pride event, two of the five council members voted against it, voicing their personal aversion to public displays of affection among same-sex couples.
“It’s a good reminder that there are different levels of acceptance in a small town,” remarks Claire Hansen ’14, a Washington College staffer who serves as president of PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbian and Gays) Mid-Shore, a chapter of the national organization committed to advancing equality through its mission of support, education, and advocacy. “It’s fascinating to see what acceptance of LGBTQ looks like to different people, and we invite everyone to come [to the Mid-Shore Pride Festival], be respectful, and hopefully break down biases.”
As Pride organizer Jim Bogden noted at that controversial Town Council meeting, Pride gatherings are rooted in the histories of sexual minority groups who have struggled for decades to overcome prejudices. And while the struggle is real everywhere, it can be even more difficult in rural America. According to a new study from the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), up to 20 percent of the LGBT population in this country choose to live in rural communities much like Chestertown, where they can enjoy a better quality of life and make meaningful contributions to society. The trade-off? They can face greater hostilities than they might find in urban areas.
Those members of the LGBTQ community are educators, artists, scientists, business owners, nonprofit administrators, church-goers, civic organizers, and parents—just like their straight neighbors in many respects. As NPR quoted MAP’s policy researcher Logan Casey in its April 4 news article: “They are a fundamental part of the fabric of rural communities across the country.”
A small college town such as Chestertown can be an even bigger draw for talented individuals and same-sex couples choosing to make a life together. And the college can be a change agent. Just this month, Washington College endorsed a new diversity statement that articulates the community’s commitment to the worth, dignity, and safety of human beings of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, gender identities and/or expressions, sexual orientations, socioeconomic statuses, cultural backgrounds, cognitive or physical abilities, emotional and behavioral characteristics, ages, and educational levels.
“I like to think that Chestertown is a welcoming place, and that we as a community embrace the idea that everyone deserves to be themselves, without shame or fear,” notes College President Kurt Landgraf. “I’m sometimes disappointed, but we’d do well to remember that our strength—as a nation, as a community, and as a college—is in our diversity. Let’s embrace and celebrate the richness of diversity that makes our lives so much better.”
Chestertown’s Pride in the Park event on May 4 is part of a larger celebration of Pride on the Eastern Shore that will be held over three days.
On May 3, PFLAG of Mid-Shore will kick off the weekend in Easton with “Calls from the Gays,” a hilarious stand-up comedy show.
On Saturday afternoon, Chestertown’s Fountain Park will be overflowing with music, food, vendors, and supporters. Local shop owners will fly rainbow flags and Washington College will have a strong presence, represented by the student club EROS (Encouraging Respect of Sexuality).
“We are so excited to be a part of this event,” says Casey Lockard ’20, president of EROS. “It’s definitely a step in the right direction for our area.”
That evening, Marti Cummings, an Eastern Shore native and professional drag queen, will host a drag show at Washington College. Cummings, a New York City-based artist, has previously performed at Chestertown’s Garfield Center for the Arts. Four professional drag queens and three Broadway performers will join Cummings on stage in Decker Theatre.
While 100 seats are being reserved for Washington College students, free of charge, the event is open to the entire community.
“One of the great things about Pride is that it’s an opportunity for the town and Washington College students to interact in a really positive way.” remarks Hansen.
On Sunday, the festival closes in Cambridge with a Drag Brunch, featuring the stars of Saturday’s show.