On the Exclusion of the Pride Center

Argue with dignity. The children are watching.

I am saddened to see the hate and homophobia being spewed in the Facebook comments relating to the Pride Center of Staten Island’s application to march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Saddened, as well, are the thousands of gay men and women who grew up on the Island and those who live here now. Our friends and neighbors are attacking one another in an open, public forum — even on the Facebook pages of local politicians — and frankly, it’s heartbreaking. Thank you to the elected officials who have stood up and voiced their support or decided not to participate in the parade. As long as this exclusion persists, your leadership is necessary and critical.

We may argue all we want about whether the parade is a religious event, a civic festival, or an all-out party in the streets. Is it public? Is it private? In truth, it is all of those things. Erin Go Bragh! It is a celebration of our heritage, our community and our borough. Yet we remain the only place in New York City where gay groups are not permitted to march under their organization’s banner. Whether you like it or not, the Pride Center is a non-profit organization, dedicated to providing services and support to members of our community — to our neighbors and to their families. Count yourself lucky that you don’t need the services or support of such an organization. Should you one day, the Pride Center would welcome you warmly. Make no mistake, “they” are one of “us.”

In an age when the last prime minister of Ireland is gay, when multiple community leaders and public officials on our Island are out — thank you, Judge Matt Titone for leading the way — when one of the leading candidates for President of the United States is campaigning across the country with his husband, and when marriage equality is the law of the land, this conversation is old and terribly exhausting. When some say “enough is enough,” I think we all agree. How can we begin to tackle the problems of 2020 when we are still litigating those of the last century? And how can we build a borough that attracts business, investment, young families, and professionals when plastered all over the city and national press is one more story about the Island as backward holdout? We do ourselves no favors year-after-year denying our own neighbors a place in our celebration. The ramifications reach far beyond Forest Avenue. Just ask local business owners, elected representatives, developers, and restauranteurs who struggle to convince investors, national chains, or new families to spend their dollars on our Island because of these types of highly publicized incidents. We are better than this. How do we change that narrative when we’re unwilling to root out this kind of behavior?

I remember being a young Italian-Irish teen in Rossville in the early 90s, quietly questioning my sexuality and being petrified by the thought that I would ever come out to my family and friends. One spring day, a small pride group marched down Rossville Avenue, and my cousin ran back to our house, happily exclaiming that he had shouted, “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” I watched him jump up and down. He was so proud that not only had he discovered such a clever rhyme but that he had picked up a rock and lobbed it at the group, hitting a man in the back. My uncles high-fived him and congratulated him while grumbling about how the world was ending because the “homos” were taking to the streets. Weeks later, in the middle of a sixth-grade football game — I was so awful at football, still am — I was shoved to the ground, called a “fag” and told to “go somewhere and f*** a guy.” I did go somewhere: into a stall in the boys bathroom, where I sobbed for hours, never telling my teachers or my parents for fear that what he called me was the truth and telling them what happened would somehow make it more true. Both moments, ones I’ll never forget (but have surely, as an adult, put into proper perspective; sadly, my story is not unique), happened just months after Vietnam vet and Tottenville High School graduate James Zappalorti was gay-bashed and brutally murdered just miles away. (His murder is the reason New York City led the way in putting hate-crimes policies on the books.) The message was clear to me as a kid: you are not welcome here. This is not a safe place.

My personal journey took me to college in Boston and to Los Angeles for work. It was easy to say that academic success and professional ambition drove me to other places, but the truth is that I was never running to other cities. I was running from Staten Island. I don’t know that I knew that was what I was doing, but looking back, it seems clear. The need to flee was made that much worse by my parents’ toxic and violent divorce. As they finally separated, I came out of the closet, and the two painful experiences converged (literally in the same week, but that’s a story for another time) to drive me as far away as possible. If there were a US city any further west than Los Angeles, I would have gone there. Their divorce became the scapegoat I could point at and call out as the “reason” I had, at 18, essentially run away from home. But I left because I could not be myself here. I wasn’t like the other boys. I was scared and overwhelmed with shame. I put on a smile and got straight As so I could earn a ticket out.

Twenty years later, an adult, strong in my own body and heart, I came back to the borough I love, my home, to start a business and share my professional dreams with my family and with my community, hoping to celebrate this place as it began an overdue economic and creative renaissance. I had sat in an apartment in Los Angeles teary-eyed when State Senator Diane Savino took to the New York State Senate floor to fight for marriage equality. I shared the YouTube video of the speech with every gay man whose email address I had — “Look! That’s my island! That’s my State Senator!” It seemed the tide was changing. Then word was that “the Wheel is coming” and so was a new chapter for our hometown. While that renaissance has been slow and fraught with great challenges, countless good people are working tirelessly to bring it about. I endeavor every day to play a tiny part. Truth be told, nothing has been more empowering in my life than coming back on my own terms. It hasn’t been smooth but it’s been incredibly rewarding. To meet gay couples and gay families that live and work here happily has been surreal and truly touching. To be an out gay uncle (“guncle” for short) of six beautiful kids on and off the Island thrills me. To run a business here and work with so many community partners and friends, old and new, has healed a very wounded heart.

Many gay men and women have not come back. They cannot bear the painful memories of the hate they experienced here as children. I know this because I have met many of them, in cities from Boston to Los Angeles to San Francisco to Seattle. Staten Islanders have a way of finding one another out in the world. Being from here is like being in a small fraternity, and we hug with full strength when we meet in other cities. Gay Staten Islanders hug just a little tighter. We know what it was like. These men and women love their families, but their community didn’t protect them. It shut them out, it threatened them, and so they built a life somewhere else, the borough be damned. That may not be the “truth” of what happened, but it how they saw it as a child.

We have to do better. Because whether it was a rock thrown in 1991 or seemingly harmless Facebook comments in 2020, the children are watching. And they’re smarter and more perceptive than ever. The straight ones will understand that it is okay to exclude someone because you don’t like their self-expression, that it is socially acceptable behavior to mock each other online in the name of tradition and religion. They will carry that bias and that practice to cities and college campuses and board rooms all over the country. And the gay kids will get the message that they are not welcome, they are not loved, and that this is not safe soil to put down roots. And they will carry that. And, take it from me, that is a heavy weight. It’s a weight under which countless teens across the world have taken their own lives. I was lucky. I was blessed with the privilege of a premiere education both here on the Island and then when I left. I have a loyal and loving family. I had the support of selfless mentors and teachers and coaches and therapists, who taught me to put that weight down and live my life joyfully. Apologize not, forgive, and contribute. So many are not so lucky. This isn’t about a parade. It’s about who we want to be in the eyes of our children.

In the end, you may argue that the Pride Center has no business marching in the parade. Or you may argue for an inclusive parade that shuts no organization out. Either way, you are entitled to your opinion. This is America. Comment away! But please argue with dignity and respect for your neighbors and for their families. Anger and vitriol have lasting effects on the community we all love.

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