Pictured Above: At Long Island Pride in Farmingdale in 2022. |. LGBT Network photo
As LGBT people across the country have become convenient scapegoats for society’s ills, North Forkers are taking a stand in solidarity with the gay community this June with the first ever North Fork Pride parade and festival, to be held throughout downtown Greenport June 24.
The day’s events are being organized by the LGBT Network, which provides support services for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their families, as well as education programs in Long Island schools, for the past 30 years.
“We’re celebrating 30 years of service this year, which began with anti-bullying programs in schools, but visibility is part of the significance of holding North Fork Pride this year,” said LGBT Network CEO Robert Vitelli in a recent interview with The Beacon. “There are hundreds of anti-LGBT bills being introduced across the country, and it’s just a matter of time before it affects local people. To have to say ‘we’re everywhere’ feels like it’s 1970 again, but this feels like a rollback, like we’re being pushed back into the closet.”
The LGBT Network has been holding the Long Island Pride parade for the past 10 years, most recently in Farmingdale, but returning this year to Huntington on June 11.
The North Fork has for decades had a sizable enclave of lesbians who were at the forefront of the gay rights movement in the 1970s, said Mr. Vitelli, who said groups like his “stand on the shoulders of these trailblazers battling homophobia. The North Fork, in particular, has been able to remain a little more fair and balanced.”
The Greenport parade steps off at noon from the corner of Main and Broad streets, going down Main Street to Front Street and concluding at Mitchell Park, where there will be a festival with vendors throughout the park from 1 to 4 p.m. A Tea Dance to benefit the LGBT Network’s Gay-Straight Alliance outreach programs on the East End will be held at the American Legion Roller Rink on Third Street at 5 p.m. A Friday night kick-off party is also in the works. More details, and online registration forms for parade participants and festival vendors, are at northforkpride.org.
The organizers are asking participants to register by Friday, June 16.
The LGBT Network’s work depends on straight allies — Mr. Vitelli often hears that the non-profit’s gala is the “straightest LGBT gala in the country.”
Mr. Vitelli welcomes that feedback, and is excited to see that Republican groups have signed up to march in the North Fork parade.
“Everyone is welcome and encouraged, and if you don’t have a group to march with, march with the LGBT Network,” he said. “Part of our recipe for success is we don’t see ourselves as a LGBT organization. We see ourselves as a Long Island organization. We see the importance of engaging everyone. Sometimes people who are non-LGBT are our bigger supporters. Seeing all these different people come out to be a part of North Fork Pride is encouraging and refreshing. It’s a reminder that our community is bigger. It’s families, friends, allies and everyone together. We want North Fork Pride to be reflective of the entire community.”
Mr. Vitelli, who began his career 30 years ago providing anti-bullying programs in Long Island schools, said the LGBT Network has been active for decades in fostering programs like Gay-Straight Alliance clubs on the East End, which both provide support for teenagers struggling to understand their sexual identity and provide tools for their friends to help stand up for them.
The importance of this work locally intensified after the suicide a decade ago of an East Hampton teenager who was struggling to come out of the closet.
“I have to get political, because it’s important for this community,” said Mr. Vitelli. “After the 2016 election, I began getting phone calls immediately that kids were being harassed. This rhetoric led to extremism in communities on Long Island.”
The LGBT Network was drawn last June into the defense of free speech when the board of the Smithtown Library voted to remove Pride Month-related books from the library’s children’s section, which drew a human rights investigation from the New York Governor’s office. The library board later reversed its position.
Mr. Vitelli remembered sitting next to members of the Long Island Loud Majority and the Proud Boys at public meetings about the library decision.
“Feeling firsthand the hatred and intensity that exists there was confusing and so weird,” he said. “Their 1950s to 1960s-era suggestion that LGBT people are a threat to our society of families is an extraordinarily damaging thing. Being seen as a ‘threat to the fabric of our society’ is a veil for hate. Kids are hearing these messages from their families and bringing them to school. We can’t ignore what’s going on. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that who you are is not OK, because it is. That’s why we’re here.”
Mr. Vitelli said the LGBT Network’s work in schools had proceeded with little controversy for decades — his message of anti-bullying resonated for school administrators, who saw its importance. But now, he said, even schools he’s been to a hundred times are now vetting his curriculum before he speaks to students.
“There’s been a change in protocol and procedure,’ he said. “In 2001, we were on the community education circuit, just like any non-profit, and we couldn’t schedule things fast enough. Now they have a vetting process — I can’t help but see a relationship in the timing between that and people attacking gay rights.”
“We deliver upstander programs that educate, train and empower young people to intervene when they see bullying taking place, which can be very scary,” he said. “Bullying is much more likely to stop when someone intervenes in the first 10 seconds.”
North Fork Pride isn’t the only Pride Month celebration on the North Fork. The second annual Hamptons Pride parade was held in East Hampton this past weekend, and this Wednesday, June 7 at 6 p.m. at the Riverhead Free Library, the Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force will host “Pride and Prom” an open conversation about the challenges for the LGBTQ community maneuvering Prom and other major life events.
This event was inspired by the musical- comedy “The Prom,” based on an actual incident of a school that cancelled prom rather than let a young lesbian attend with her girlfriend. The Riverhead High School Blue Masques proudly presented the show’s Long Island debut last fall and will join in to perform a few numbers. The event is free and open to all.