For Pride Month, Berkshire LGBTQ community looks to past to build bridge to future

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PITTSFIELD — There might be a long way to go before the worldwide LGBTQ community sees the rights, protections and appreciation that it has been fighting toward for decades, but Pride Month is a time to celebrate the battles won, local organizers say.

"Pride everywhere is an opportunity for LGBTQ people to celebrate who we are and celebrate that we have fought for rights and we have gained a lot of rights," local organizer Mark Lebeau said. "It's also a time to remember the people who have fought for us to have those rights, and have to remember there are forces working against us and we have to fight that."

Saturday kicks off Pride Month, an annual celebration honoring the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City. In Berkshire County, Mayor Linda Tyer will honor the start of the month with a proclamation at City Hall on Saturday morning. On June 15, the third Berkshire Pride Festival will fill the Pittsfield Common, including vendors, drag performers, music, education and health care outreach.

"Truthfully, with any marginalized community, I think it's super important to find things to be positive about," said Kelan O'Brien, another organizer.

This year's Pride Festival will award three individuals with the 2019 Community Change Maker Award, in honor of Christa Leigh Steele.

Steele, a transgender woman who lived in North Adams, was found dead in January 2018, after being struck several times in the head with a hammer and then stabbed. Her husband is charged in her killing.

Friends and Berkshire LGBTQ activists mourned Steele as a vibrant, outgoing spirit who had founded the Miss Trans New England Pageant. The greater world mourned her as the first transgender person to die in 2018.

Lebeau noted that while the gay rights movement, which was catapulted by the Stonewall Riots, made the world a safer place for those who identify as LGBTQ, there is still an increased threat of violence.

"Primarily, the largest issue that's facing our community right now is violence against, in particular, trans women of color and black trans women. Living at that intersection is extremely dangerous," Lebeau said, noting the recent killing of a black trans woman in Dallas. "Domestic violence is at a heightened rate here in Berkshire County, and that, I'm sure, has some impact on the LGBTQ+ community, as well."

In general, issues of domestic violence impact transgender people at higher rates than their cisgender counterparts, Jennifer Wahr, an LGBTQ counselor and advocate for North and Central Berkshire County, said after Steele's death.

Cisgender is a term for people whose gender identity matches the gender that they were assigned at birth.

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It wasn't long after her death that Berkshire Pride had started working on a way to honor Steele in a lasting way, and landed on dedicating the Change Maker Award in her name.

This year was the first time that the committee reviewed nominations submitted by the Berkshire County community, which voted to nominate Kenneth Mercure, Kelly Heck and Sara Shuff for the award.

Heck and Shuff are being celebrated for their work providing mental health care and counseling to LGBTQ youths and adults in Berkshire County.

"As one of the few LGBTQ competent practices in the county, they have played a lifesaving role in creating services for some of the most vulnerable members of our community in their personal practices," the committee said in a statement. "Additionally Kelly created a transgender policy for the Pittsfield Public School that was ultimately approved and adopted by the school committee and administration."

Mercure is being honored for "almost single handedly" organizing the first Berkshire Pride Festival and involvement and activism in community organizations, including being the director of Rainbow Seniors.

The festival, which is known for its bright colors, exciting entertainment and welcoming spirit, is for people who have come out as LGBTQ to their loved ones, those who haven't and their allies, O'Brien said.

"You never really stop coming out. You have that major moment, whether it's in your adolescence or adulthood or later in life. Then, though, there's still always a part of you that feels like you have to let new people know or else they're wondering," O'Brien said. "We try to make Berkshire Pride as accessible and inclusive as possible. It sort of gives people a relief to take a step back and not feel like you have to argue for your own civil rights at every moment."

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a series of protests by members of the gay community against a police raid that took place in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, a gay club in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan.

"One thing I like to keep in mind is, the first Pride Festival was a riot," Lebeau said. "That's what kicked off the Queer Liberation movement."

"This is definitely a major year and sort of a reminder that a lot has been done, but there's also a lot to be done," O'Brien said. "Knowing the LGBTQ community and knowing their mobility, I'm sure the next day, people will be back out, fighting for equality."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.


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