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Saturday, June 15, 2024

For the First Time, Blairstown Pride Comes to Main Street

At 2 p.m. on Saturday, June 1, Henry Doell finally got the chance to sit down. As the co-organizer of Blairstown’s fourth annual LGBTQ+ Pride event, the 22-year-old had just spent hours coordinating logistics, greeting attendees and emceeing a flag-raising ceremony in the 80 F-degree sun, all in a flowy pastel dress from atop imposing heels.

Flag raising, opera, vendors, and celebration

But the effort was worth it. With three speakers, an opera singer and about 30 people in attendance to witness the raising of the Pride flag, this year’s Pride was Blairstown’s biggest yet. And that’s not even mentioning the vendor fair on Main Street, a new addition.

Hard to imagine that a few months ago, it seemed the event wouldn’t happen at all.

The cause of the near-disaster? Paperwork. For the past three years, Blairstown Pride has taken place in Footbridge Park. But this year, a change in event insurance meant that the organizers couldn’t secure the necessary permits for their usual venue. They were on the verge of canceling the event when a community member from Gourmet Gallery reached out.

“They actually offered to host us here,” said Pride co-organizer Rachel Zwerver, 23. “We didn’t have to search. The involvement of the community is really just amazing.”

So for its fourth year, instead of canceling, Blairstown Pride came to Main Street.

Rainbow flags decorated storefronts and streetlamps, and a cheerful crowd in pastels (this year’s official theme) and rainbow tie dye (a timeless Pride fashion) filled the grassy spaces next to Gourmet Gallery and Village Sundaes.

Henry Doell and Karen Lance raise the Pride flag in Footbridge Park at Blairstown Pride on June 1.
Henry Doell and Karen Lance raise the Pride flag in Footbridge Park at Blairstown Pride on June 1. Photo by Chip O’Chang.

The speeches still took place at Footbridge Park, next to the flagpole for the formal raising of the Pride flag. The Rev. David Harvey of First Presbyterian Church in Blairstown spoke to the theological urge to love all people. Zwerver spoke to the “adaptability and resilience of the LGBTQ community” past, present and especially future. Township committee member Karen Lance spoke to the power of community and allyship, and contralto opera singer Alison Bolshoi sang “God Bless America” while Doell and Lance raised the Pride flag.

Township Committee Member Karen Lance gives a speech at Blairstown Pride’s flag-raising ceremony.
Township committee member Karen Lance gives a speech at Blairstown Pride’s flag-raising ceremony. Photo by Chip O’Chang.

Afterward, the crowd made the five-minute walk back to Main Street. The LGBTQ+ community and its supporters celebrated in full view of Blairstown’s main drag.

For the event’s young organizers, this marks an evolution in the community that’s been a long time coming.

“I grew up in Blairstown,” Doell said. “So I never got to see people who were like me, lived like me – openly queer people.”

Some members of the LGBTQ+ community grow up “in the closet”– disguising any characteristics that would convey their queer identities in order to avoid bullying and discrimination. Doell, who identifies as non-binary, grew up visibly queer. That brought social stigma and, later, safety concerns.

“Just the nature of a rural area is not super accepting” for queer people, they said. In a social setting, that can look like disparaging remarks or insults. In more isolated settings, that has the chance of escalating into violence. As they grew up, Doell began to develop “concerns about going into certain gas stations at night… stuff like that.”

Doell didn’t see much positive queer representation in their everyday life. So they decided to create that representation, both for themselves and for others.

Luckily, they had a good model to follow. Doell’s parents have played significant roles in the Blairstown community. Their mother helped found Blairstown’s Farmers’ Market, and their father helped found the Blairstown Care Coalition while helping to bring Wi-Fi to Main Street. Doell credits this early, consistent exposure to leadership for their own eloquence and leadership ability.

In 2021, at age 19, they put those budding skills to work by organizing and hosting Blairstown’s first Pride event. It would be the first Pride event in Warren County history.

For the most part, Zwerver said, community reaction has been “overwhelmingly positive.” But there are others who have been less receptive, and in that first year, they were especially vocal.

“They thought that they could bully us into not being here anymore, but we’re not afraid to be here,” Zwerver said. “We’ve all gone through the online bullying. We’ve gone through the hate comments. Anything they’ve said to us, we’ve already heard. So we weren’t going anywhere.”

Doell echoed her thoughts on the resilience that every queer youth develops by necessity.

“The emotional intelligence that I’ve gained, just from growing up queer. Just to survive adolescence, you have to go through so much personal growth, so much mental and emotional growth that you can’t really compare it to a heterosexual experience.”

At age 19 and 20, Doell and Zwerver had already developed a thick skin to cruelty. It would help them navigate the resistance that Blairstown Pride faced over the years. In its first year, the Pride flag was stolen three times. The new Pride mural painted in Footbridge Park was also defaced, vandalized with spray paint so instead of reading “You Belong,” it read “You Don’t Belong.”

The original “You Belong” mural installed at the first Blairstown Pride in 2021. It was defaced by vandals but soon restored.
The original “You Belong” mural installed at the first Blairstown Pride in 2021. It was defaced by vandals but soon restored. Photo by Chip O’Chang.

In the event’s second year, bikers rode through the park “screaming slurs” at organizers and attendees.

In the third year, protestors showed up. Then there are the online comments, which run a predictable gamut.

On the one hand, “it’s not queer people’s responsibility to educate other people,” Doell said. “It doesn’t make sense that we should have to make those sacrifices, like it’s my responsibility to shoulder the baggage of these other people.”

At the same time, they see those comments as potential opportunities– assuming that the other party comes to the conversation in good faith.

“It allows me to be a voice and open the communication, open the doorway, to allow other people to ask respectful questions and educate themselves,” they said. “People mostly hate from ignorance.”

Recognizing ignorance is one thing. The emotional strength, patience and wherewithal to calmly work with that ignorance, and move it an inch or two forward, day after day, is another.

That’s one of the reasons why the shape of this year’s event means so much to its organizers, with Gourmet Gallery stepping forward to host and other Main Street businesses offering support and solidarity.

“We have that kind of local business, small town support that I never could have imagined,” Doell said.

It’s like what committee member Lance said in her speech before the flag-raising.

“That is the power of community. It lifts us up when we need it the most. And it works best when there’s a generosity of spirit like there is right now, right here, today.”

Lucy the Pride Goat dressed in tie dye and a pink tutu
Lucy the Pride goat. Photo by Chip O’Chang.
Roy Gelpke (left), Steve Ceasar, and Violet the dog. This year was the Hardwick residents’ first time at Blairstown Pride.
Roy Gelpke (left), Steve Ceasar and Violet the dog. This year was the Hardwick residents’ first time at Blairstown Pride. Photo by Chip O’Chang.

On that day in Main Street, there were a lot of colors and smiles. There were cute animals wearing rainbow costumes, including several dogs and one goat in a tutu. There were longtime queer couples with silver hair, at least one young person who had gained the strength to come out from the event, and people in rainbow “Ally” shirts.

“Everyone comes here with a smile,” Zwerver said. “They’re so grateful for the fact that we’re creating spaces. And a lot of them are new to Blairstown, so they come in not knowing what to anticipate from a small rural town. They find that we are more open and more accepting than they might have anticipated and realize that there is a place for them in our town. And that’s really great because every year I see more and more new faces in the crowd.”

There was also someone who had nothing to do with the day’s festivities: an out-of-towner in a black skeleton tee shirt. He came up to Doell asking for directions to the places where Friday the 13th was filmed– not an unusual request in Blairstown.

Doell directed him to the three major sites, and the young man thanked them. As a parting thought, he added, “You look fabulous, by the way.”

“Thank you!” Doell replied.

Years ago, right out in the open on Main Street in Blairstown, such an exchange would have felt impossible.

Chip O'Chang
Chip O'Chang, Contributing Writer
Contributing Writer

Chip O'Chang is an educator, fiction writer, and lifelong resident of New Jersey. He has also written for My Life Publications and NJ Indy. He lives in the NJ Skylands with his partner, two cats, and and a bearded dragon.