Newark’s LGBT community: building acceptance one brick at a time

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Newark LGBTQ Center Board in 2017
Newark LGBTQ Center Board in 2017

Long before Newark had newfound popularity, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents celebrated Newark — its culture, its history and, its community. This February, a Vogue online article touted Newark as a worthy travel destination. That is surprising to some, but this new phenomenon and the Brick City’s “renaissance movement” isn’t puzzling to those LGBT residents who live, work, and play in Newark.

Kimberlee Williams and wife Tashia Burton at home. Photo by Jae Quinlan.
Kimberlee Williams and wife Tashia Burton at home. Photo by Jae Quinlan.

Rutgers University Director of Communications and Marketing, Kimberlee Williams said, “I’ve lived in the North Ward before and Newark has always been a place that I frequented. I never had an idea of it as a bad place. I have a lot of family in Newark. I came here a lot as a child, and it was my refuge in college to get away from that campus, and it welcomed me back. After leaving Brooklyn, I came here. I found a lot of opportunity here, so I drank the Kool-Aid.”

“I would call what’s going on in Newark — a rebirth. The reason why I don’t use the word gentrification is because I don’t think it’s appropriate. Newark has the capacity for 1 million people. We have 300,000 people currently in Newark. The city has the capacity for so many more people. And yes, those people will be different. This city is returning to what it was in terms of the economic diversity and ethnic diversity. It’s experiencing something that’s a bit more complex than gentrification,” Williams continued.

Evonne Davis and Emma talk LGBT Newark over wine and cheese. Photo by Jae Quinlan

Kimberlee’s wife, Tashia Burton, adds, “And gentrification to me is where you move one population out and move another population moves in. What I hope and what I believe is there is a place for everyone here in Newark. For the people that are here, we have a place for you. For people that seek opportunity in Newark, you can come too. It’s a place for everyone. That’s what I appreciate.”

Gallery Aferro co-owner, Evonne Davis discusses the importance of respecting the history and legacy of Newark. Evonne says, “At first, I had all of these highfalutin answers, very academic sort of answers about why I moved to Newark, and I don’t anymore. Why not Newark? Newark is so beautiful and so cool. I have met so many amazing people here and so many others that have enriched my life so deeply. I couldn’t possibly imagine living in any other place. Why not Newark?”

Rutgers-Newark freshman Anthony Escarraman in dorm room. Photo by Jae Quinlan
Rutgers-Newark freshman Anthony Escarraman in dorm room. Photo by Jae Quinlan

“I really try to follow the Mayor’s (Ras Baraka) cues when he talks about the ways that he envisions the city developing and growing,” Davis continues. “I really like it that he says, ‘we aren’t the next Brooklyn. We don’t want to be Brooklyn. We are Newark.’ He also seems to be acknowledging that we could be doing a lot of development within the city of Newark without displacing people.”

Despite its rebirth, Newark continues to rub some folks the wrong way. Conde Nast Traveler pegged Newark as an “unfriendly city” for the second year in a row and the New York Post harshly criticized the Vogue article calling it “a tone deaf travel guide to Newark.”

Saundra Toby-Heath and Alicia Toby-Heath with their dog Blue. Photo by Jae Quinlan
Saundra Toby-Heath and Alicia Toby-Heath with their dog Blue. Photo by Jae Quinlan

New Jersey Right to Marry plaintiff, Alicia Toby-Heath shares Conde Nast Traveler’s initial sentiments (they later wrote another article after Newark’s affluent demanded a more positive view of the city). Toby-Heath says, “I don’t believe that the current administration supports the LGBT community in a way that it needs to. And we know that by the way the history, and the way the black voices of LGBT folks have been represented. So many cities support the LGBT community, but unfortunately, Newark does not. I’ve been a part of the community for so long and it’s been sort of a challenge. So it’s hard for me to envision myself being a part of it in the next five years.”

Saundra Toby-Heath said, “My wife is a New Yorker and her love for me kept her here. I love Newark whether I’m here or not. I hesitate to say that I won’t be here because you don’t know what God has in store. If we are here, it’s because God had big things in store for us.”

NewarkHappening.com, maintained by the Greater Newark Convention and Travel Bureau, clapped back at the Conde Nast article but added a LGBT twist to their assessment highlighting LGBT friendly things to do in the city. The article failed to mention the neighborhoods where LGBT Newark residents live.

Havier and Averie at home. Photo by Jae Quinlan.
Havier and Averie at home. Photo by Jae Quinlan.

Newark consists of five wards — central, north, east, west and south — each with its own unique tapestry. Anchored by Branch Brook Park, the North Ward contains beautiful historical mansions located in the Forest Hill section. Bordering South Orange, the West Ward has wonderful homes located in the Ivy Hills section. The South Ward includes Weequahic Park and Newark Beth Israel Hospital. The East Ward is home to the city’s Ironbound section known for its Portuguese restaurants and influence. The Central Ward holds the city’s economic, educational, and political foundations. It’s home to city and county government offices, the LGBTQ Center, the Prudential Center, and audible.com, Rutgers University, Seton Hall Law School, and many new business chains such as Whole Foods and Starbucks.

LGBT residents identify their ward as their gayborhood and envision a mobile community not anchored to one particular location.

Rutgers-Newark freshman Sha-Jene Hutcherdon in dorm room. Photo by Jae Quinlan.
Rutgers-Newark freshman Sha-Jene Hutcherdon in dorm room. Photo by Jae Quinlan.

“I think in Newark there’s an opportunity for multiple gayborhoods: for families — the North Ward; for couples with no children, maybe Downtown. I don’t think our gayborhoods are limited to any one area,” Tashia Burton says. “I think the city could get, and is, where we (LGBTs) aren’t relegated to one neighborhood. I would love to see it located in downtown Newark on Halsey Street or in Lincoln Park.”

School principal, Havier Nazario states, ”I think we have something like a gay neighborhood that floats around. I don’t think it’s static. It doesn’t stay put. Considering that many LGBT folks are engaged in the work in the city, I see the potential for LGBT community leaders finding a place where they can center a lot of their work.” Havier raises his daughter Averie in the Central Ward.

Rutgers freshman Sha-Jene Hutcherdon's art. Photo by Jae Quinlan.
Rutgers freshman Sha-Jene Hutcherdon’s art. Photo by Jae Quinlan.

Gallery Aferro co-owner Emma Wilcox comments on the future of gay Newark. “I’m thinking about this idea of the next generation. Doing what we do is hard sometimes. When I’m worried about the future, I look at the youth around us. They say people become more conservative with age, but I’m fascinated by how well all of our interns get along. They are so totally accepting.”

Rutgers University’s Newark campus is the most diverse college campus in the country. LGBT students at Rutgers University Newark thrive in their welcoming community. Freshman Sha-Jene Hutcherson says, “Because of my Intro to LGBT Studies class, I felt comfortable debating with closed-minded individuals in another class about whether homosexuality was innate or learned behavior.”

Anthony Escarreman offers this advice to incoming LGBT identified freshman: “Don’t sweat it. We are like anyone else, don’t get scared. It will be okay.”

Newark is Cinderella coming to wreck the ball. She slays in her Marco Hall designer gown and she won’t be in a rush to get home before midnight. She’s endured the evil stepsisters Manhattan and Brooklyn stealing her shine.

Newark has an identity, a vibrant culture, a rich legacy and a proud LGBT community. Get ready world — Newark is coming out!