A girl, maybe eight or nine, cartwheels on the green astroturf. A group of teens pose in front of their phones, flashing shy smiles for the camera, their braces glinting. Middle-aged men exchange smooches on the cheek with elaborately dressed drag queens, and chatter happily as the program unfolds.
Saturday was the sixth annual Schenectady Pride, a celebration of Schenectady LGBTQ life and culture, held at indoors at the Schenectady Armory due to inclement weather. The program was jam-packed with a solidarity rally with Planned Parenthood, multiple speakers, a performance by improv theater troupe The Mop & Bucket Company, and a drag show. The event was coordinated by Chad Putman, Deputy City Clerk of Schenectady, and Champagne, a local drag queen, known as the “Empress of Schenectady.” Putman is also a former State Senatorial candidate, who ran as a Democrat against Republican Jim Tedisco for the 49th Senate District. Putman is a gay man who has been married to his husband, Spero Zoulas, for three years, though they have been together for thirteen.
“Originally, Schenectady Pride was created to recognize the contributions of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community in the city of Schenectady,” Putnam told The Alt over the phone on Sunday. “We have a lot of small business owners in the Schenectady that are lesbian or gay in downtown Schenectady, and our community is helping to create a significant portion of the revival in Downtown — so we wanted to create a safe space for folks in the community to come together to celebrate diversity, and to just have a really good time.”
The celebration had an explicitly political edge. In some ways, that could be expected in an age where same-sex love and transgender identities are under siege from the current administration and conservative state politicians. “We made a very conscious decision to partner with Planned Parenthood,” Putman says. “The organization has been under attack and is facing the potential loss of federal funding because of politics, and we wanted to get the message out that Planned Parenthood is a huge healthcare service provider to our community,” particularly the transgender members. At Planned Parenthood, you can obtain a “vast array of trans healthcare services you can’t get anywhere else, and you can feel safe and comfortable obtaining them,” Putman says.
Teresa Casullo, senior community educator at Planned Parenthood, spoke proudly of the work that the organization has done in the Schenectady community over the past few years, mentioning that in 2013, Schenectady County had the third highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the state. Since Planned Parenthood has gotten involved with Schenectady High School and Steinmetz Career & Leadership Academy, Schenectady’s teen pregnancy rate has decreased nine percentage points, dropping it down to the sixth highest county in the state for teen pregnancy.
A teen ambassador of the Teens Helping Teens (THT) program at Schenectady High School, Foster Kucij, proudly declared that at Planned Parenthood, “we proudly serve anyone,” reflecting Planned Parenthood’s long history of inclusivity to gender and sexual minorities. Casullo led the crowd in an enthusiastic chant of “Love is Love,” reaffirming her organization’s belief in the right of anyone to choose their gender identity or their sexual partners.
In addition to the messaging tied to Planned Parenthood, several speakers spoke on the lack of progress that has been made at the state level on LGBTQ issues, especially in the legislature. State Assemblymember Phil Steck declared to the audience that those listening had an obligation to “hold Governor Cuomo accountable” for this state of affairs. Indeed, since 2011 — when marriage equality became law in New York — not a single piece of legislation important to the LGBTQ community has been passed, due to a recalcitrant, Republican-led Senate. Steck went on to declare that the “LGBTQ community has great allies in the New York State Assembly,” which is majority Democratic, and regularly passes important LGBTQ legislation that never reaches the Senate, like GENDA, the transgender human rights bill.
Putman echoed the importance of making a “political statement this year” from the podium, noting that in Albany, transgender people are covered by a city non-discrimination law, but Schenectady has no such law, meaning that the passage of GENDA is a more urgent matter for Schenectady than in other parts of the state. “Despite having a Democratic majority and a Democratic governor, we haven’t passed legislation to extend basic human rights protections to all New Yorkers,” Putman said. “It’s been ten years. There was no reason it couldn’t be passed this year, except for the political climate.” To cap off the rally, Putman included a moment of silence for our “trans brothers and sisters who we’ve lost to violence in the last year.”
Still, despite the political frustrations expressed by Putman and Steck, there were reminders of how much things have changed since earlier decades, when homophobia and transphobia were much more apparent forces. “It is vastly different,” said Scot Morehouse, a member of Schenectady’s LGBTQ community, who spoke on stage with his 96-year-old mother, “Vivacious” Val, in honor of Mother’s Day. “It is night and day.” Morehouse was 30 when he came out to his mother, in 1977. In the ‘60s and early ‘70s, “being gay was considered a mental illness. You could be sent away, ostracized, or fired with absolutely no justification,” Morehouse told The Alt.
Despite the improvement society has seen in recent years regarding attitudes surrounding LGBTQ issues, Morehouse sees how easily recent gains could be undone. “There’s a thin veneer of acceptance on society now, where it’s no longer socially acceptable to be homophobic, but it wouldn’t take much for this situation to turn, for us to revert to the way it was, if we’re not very, very vocal about never being treated like second-class citizens ever again,” Morehouse told The Alt.
“My mother always set a very good example for me, and one thing she always said was that we should always vote,” said Morehouse from the podium. “We don’t want a single hard-fought right to be stolen away from us by reactionary bullies.”