With the North Jersey Pride Week events running this week from June 2 through June 8, organizer C.J. Prince answers questions about how a humble picnic became a regional event and discusses future plans for North Jersey Pride.
Q: What came first, North Jersey Pride or the Pride Festival?
A: The Pride Festival came first—although it wasn’t really a festival at the time. There are a lot of us who, when we had our kids and moved to the ‘burbs, felt like we had to give up Pride. It’s hard to navigate down Fifth Avenue with a double stroller. And the nudity involved became a problem for some mothers and fathers who were conflicted about their kids seeing it.
So our suburban Pride began that way in 2011, organically, as just a small, informal BYO picnic in Memorial Park. We had a modest stage and John Strauss, a local musician who gives drum lessons, kindly organized musicians to play for free. We thought we’d have maybe 20 people and more than 100 turned out, which was pretty exciting. The following year, South Orange residents really wanted to be included, so we renamed ourselves SOMA Pride, featured some local food vendors and a handful of community sponsors and exhibitors and about 400 people showed up, some from as far as Bergen County.
That kind of growth told me there was a need for what we were providing. So the next year, 2013, I incorporated as “North Jersey Pride” and applied for 501(c)3 status so that corporate sponsors would feel comfortable getting on board. PNC came on as presenting sponsor and we had about 30 other sponsors at varying levels. We had a real stage and brought in some big talent and included a clause in our entertainment contract that requires our performers to make their performances family-friendly so that parents can relax knowing their kids aren’t going to hear any profanity. We expanded our Rainbow Kids Zone so children would have plenty to do, since that’s what we, as parents, are always looking for.
Basically, we decided it was time to go big or go home, so we went big. We estimate about 3,000 people joined us. Last year, we also decided to expand Pride to a full week of educational and community-building events in the spirit of our “Pride with a Purpose” mission, and those were really fantastic.
Q: The festival started as the Pride Picnic in 2011 (I was there!). Now it’s grown to a week of events in just the fourth year. To what do you credit this exponential growth?
A: I think whenever you have growth of that magnitude, it can only be because you’ve created something new and something that was missing, even if nobody knew it was missing. Those of us who had kids and moved out to the ‘burbs may be happy with our lives, but we lost something in the move—the activism of our youth, the celebration of difference—that is at the heart of Pride. North Jersey Pride is absolutely a celebration of how far we’ve come: our diverse and progressive community, the marriage equality win in our state this past year. But it’s also a statement that, as far as we’ve come, we still have a long way to go.
We may look just like our neighbors, but we’re still not equal. In 33 states (now 31, with Pennsylvania and Oregon ruling for marriage equality since Prince answered these questions), same-sex marriage is not recognized, so when we go on vacation to Florida with our straight friends, they only have to pack clothing while we have to pack all our legal documents just in case one of us has a medical emergency. LGBT teens are still twice as likely to be victimized at school and they’re four times as likely to attempt suicide. Senior citizens who have been out their whole lives are going back in the closet in order to gain admission at assisted living facilities because of rampant discrimination. Stigma persists despite advances and we have to, all of us as a community, stand up and affirm a basic belief that we are all equal, and should be equal under the law.
I would say one the key reasons we’ve grown so much so quickly is because our allies here are just as eager as we are to stand up for equality and this gives them an opportunity to do that, to stand with us and teach their kids the importance of standing up for others. We also throw some amazing events, which doesn’t hurt.
Q: What’s your favorite event of the week? (I’m thinking it must be the Dance for Equality/Big Gay Dance!)
A: Ah, choosing a favorite event would be like choosing a favorite child. I do love the dance—it’s a really fun time—but I’m probably most proud of our mid-week community-building events, like our trans-equality day lecture with award-winning author S. Bear Bergman; the “Hearing Our Children” parenting event with the Tyler Clementi Foundation and HIV/AIDS educator Scott Fried; and our youth story slam and dance for kids 15-20, cosponsored by Studio B and Garden State Equality. LGBT teens have such a hard time meeting one another outside of school so I’m thrilled that we are going to give them an opportunity to do that.
Q: With marriage equality now a reality in New Jersey, do you feel that the heavy lifting is done? What’s the biggest issue for the LGBTQ community now?
A: Unfortunately, with teen suicide still so prevalent among LGBT youth, there is still a lot of work to be done to make our children feel safe in school, and at home. The Bullying Bill of Rights that Garden State Equality helped pass last year did a lot to raise awareness around this issue, but the problem isn’t solved. We need to address it both with our kids, at a younger age, and with parents. This year, North Jersey Pride is having an event at Jefferson Elementary School on June 4th to teach kids about bullying and the use of harmful language such as “that’s so gay” in three assemblies to third, fourth and fifth grades. We have to start younger with kids if we want this message to have sunk in by high school. And many of these kids are getting the negative messages at home, with their families, in their houses of worship. We still have a very long way to go to eliminate the stigma around LGBT. Pride gives us an opportunity to get that message out in a big, bold way.
Q: The festival/pride week events feel very Maplewood/South Orange centric (except there is that movie night in Montclair!). This is great for our towns, but are you working to create more events throughout North Jersey?
A: Yes! Diversifying geographically will be a very big priority for next year. The main issue has been just size of our group. There are only a handful of volunteers producing the week at this point and all of us live locally—but that will be changing this year. I’m thrilled we have an event in Montclair, but next year I hope to have events in Bergen, Morris, and Sussex, to name a few targets of expansion.
Q: You live here in SOMA. Tell us what’s so terrific about living in these towns.
A: The integration. I feel more comfortable as a lesbian here than I did in Manhattan, which is really saying a lot. I love that my kids have no idea there is anything strange about having two moms. As far as they know, it’s just another way to have a family. We don’t feel like an accepted or tolerated “gay family” here—just a family that happens to have two moms. It’s made it more challenging to explain the concept of Pride to my daughters, though. Two years ago, when we were planning Pride, my older daughter, then six, asked me what Pride was. I learned that it’s very difficult to explain pride without explaining shame—something I would really rather not do if I don’t have to. So I told her it was a celebration of families with two mommies or two daddies, since that was a simplest definition. She looked horrified, and wanted to know, “Can my friends who have just one mom and one dad come?” I was delighted that was her biggest concern, and I told her of course, everyone is welcome at North Jersey Pride.
North Jersey Pride Week includes events in Maplewood, South Orange and Montclair. For a full schedule of events, visit here.