PITTSFIELD - This country has seen significant changes in the last six months, high among them the Supreme Court's June shutdown of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), paving the way for gay marriage across the nation. But even in the most liberal states -Massachusetts keeps at the unofficial top of the list - LBGT communities are still fighting for recognition and support.
Here in the Berkshires, after a two-year hiatus, Berkshire Stonewall, the area's LGBT community coalition, is gearing up for a week of festivities to honor National Coming Out Day (Oct. 11) and to raise awareness for their cause. Wednesday through Tuesday, Oct. 15, local businesses, residents, cultural organizations and the gay community are invited to come out and join the ongoing dialogue that rages from coast to coast.
"Our primary goal is to provide an event which not only celebrates National Coming Out Day, but also offers Berkshire County businesses the opportunity to show their support for the LGBT community," said Berkshire Stonewall president Jason Verchot. "This was originally supposed to be a weekend event, [but] has since grown. It's a mash of culture, lecture, art - everything."
Partners and sponsors of OUT in the Berkshires include the Berkshire Athenaeum, which will hold a youth writing workshop; Berkshire Community College, which will host a Coming Out Day forum; Berkshire Museum, which will screen the indie film "Five Dances"; and several open mic nights at yBar and Mission.
Karaoke will follow at Rumpy's Tavern, a Lenox mainstay and unofficial LGBT hangout. And Barrington Stage Company will offer discounted tickets to its production of "Clybourne Park."
"My perspective is that we have to try to appeal to the largest audience we can, so that there is something for everybody," said Verchot, himself one of Berkshire Stonewall's youngest board members. "A lot of it is to try and keep the awareness and what we're doing in the public eye and celebrate our differences in a way that other people can participate in."
One of the major obstacles facing Berkshire County's LGBT community, Verchot said, is a growing generation gap.
He said "keeping that sense of community that was fostered originally" by the founding pioneers of gay rights is essential to providing continuing support in a rapidly changing landscape.
With that gap in mind, OUT in the Berkshires is focusing attention on local youth. Jennibeth Gomez, digital media marketing manager at the Berkshire Museum, is a volunteer mentor for Pittsfield's Live Out Loud Youth Project, a tight network of local teens hoping to achieve support and awareness for LBGT youth.
This year, the group, in conjunction with the Dialogue Arts Project, is organizing a Youth Writing Workshop and Youth Open Mic night as an integral component to OUT events.
"My big push is to bring the spoken work and self-reflection into this writing workshop," Gomez said. "As young people, it's hard enough getting through life. They're just looking for acceptance, and the pressure is even worse when you're in a marginalized group of people. A lot of kids I talk to can't wait to get out of here, to go to the 'big city' where nobody cares about sexual orientation or any of that."
The impetus to flee from rural life, especially for LGBT kids (and even adults) is a familiar scenario. The city provides anonymity, and, more importantly, a space to be oneself. Erin Davies is an "accidental" filmmaker who produced "Fagbug," a documentary about her travels across the country with the word "fag" (a vandal's mark) spray painted on her VW bug. Her second documentary, "Fagbug Nation," will appear as a work-inprogress at the Beacon Cinema.
Davies grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., coming of age at a time when being gay was very much in the closet.
"I graduated high school in 1996, right around the time Ellen Degeneres came out. It was unheard of at that point in time," she recalled. "I didn't know anyone who was open about being gay, had no mentors, or anyone to look to for answers. It was a very isolating time in my life."
" Fagbug Nation" takes her cross country once more, this time in a vibrantly painted rainbow bug, raising LGBT awareness from sea to sea. According to her, rural communities still present the greatest challenge.
"[There is a] lack of access to visual representation of diversity. When I travel to a place like Fort Wayne, Ind., versus downtown Chicago, I notice a very different response," she said. "The message of the Fagbug is much more needed in rural communities. Big cities get this type of thing all the time, but small towns get overlooked and often lack education, and visibility."
There will be no shortage of visibility when the Fagbug rolls into town Thursday night. Davis plans on parking the colorful symbol right on the city's main drag for all to see.
"Events like OUT in the Berkshires are important because they give people a chance to celebrate the uniqueness of individuality while acknowledging the commonalities we all share," she said. "Safe spaces for LGBT people are very important. It's a chance to come out."
If you go ...
What: Weeklong celebration of Berkshire LGBT community
Where: Downtown Pittsfield When: Begins 5 p.m. Wednesday with free screening of 'FagBug Nation' at Beacon Cinema Information: Full schedule at berkshirestonewall.org