Jersey Pride’s illustrious 20 years of gay New Jersey Pride

1124

Benn Meistrich, a lawyer involved in the very early days of Jersey Pride, recalled the early years. “When we first started, and for several years thereafter, the only press coverage we received— mainstream—basically covered the parade itself, and then it pretty much focused on the bikers, drag queens, and other participants who fit what were considered stereotypes. Over time, that evolved into press coverage of more families, children and members of the community who are more like average, garden-variety New Jersey residents. I couldn’t say with any certainty when this started to happen, though, as it really developed slowly.”

Jersey Pride, Inc. celebrates 20 years in 2011. Its fascinating history goes back to its inception in 1992, when it began as a small committee of the New Jersey Lesbian and Gay Coalition.

 

New Jersey Gay Pride crowd at 2010 festival. photo by Stephen Wilcox

New Jersey Gay Pride crowd at 2010 festival. Photo by Stephen Wilcox

 

“We still mostly consist of gay groups in the parade and festival, although, over time, there has been a noticeable increase in ‘gay-friendly’ groups, such as PFLAG, vendors who want to appeal to a broader market, such as banks and car dealers, and more and more candidates running for office, as well as elected officials,” says Meistrich.

He mentions and remembers one religious group that Jersey Pride knew to be an antigay organization that applied for a permit to rent space at the festival. “Their argument was that they wanted to do outreach and try to ‘bridge the gap’ between the religious and gay communities. After much debate— and argument— we agreed to let them rent a space but we did keep a close eye on them.” Meistrich adds that he does not believe JPI has ever refused entrance to any organization.

Meistrich says there have been instances of religious groups standing outside the festival with antigay signs, but that Jersey Pride has always worked with the Asbury Park police to ensure no incidents come up. “The fact that we haven’t seen any in so long is a very good sign of a more accepting atmosphere.

“Some of our successes include getting more and more statewide candidates–at least the Democrats–to recognize the political presence of the LGBT community in New Jersey, and serving as a forum for speakers and organizations who further LGBT causes in the state, such as second-parent adoption, civil unions, and domestic partnerships in the past, and currently marriage equality and safer schools. I think JPI has played a very large role in drawing attention to these issues.”  

 

Sherri Rase manages the stage for Jersey Pride's entertainment each year at the New Jersey Gay Pride festival.

Sherri Rase manages the stage for Jersey Pride’s entertainment each year at the New Jersey Gay Pride festival.

Meistrich still lends a hand with occasional legal advice and volunteering. He says, “I’ve been involved in a lot of different organizations, but none of them compare to JPI in terms of camaraderie or commitment.”

 

Sherri Rase, also involved with JPI for many years, mentioned that despite the struggles to get permits some years, the LGBT community is fortunate because there are countries where gay people can’t have a march. “Before there was Out In Jersey and so many of the resources that we rely on, magazines like Jersey Gaze [a JPI?publication] put gay resources such as doctors, attorneys, and accountants at the fingertips of people living in New Jersey. Plus, Jersey Pride has always had a great relationship with the Names Project.” Rase recounts the timeline of the organization’s development.

1992 According to Rase, the birth of Pride began on the heels of the passage of amendment A-634 to the New Jersey Constitution, which was called the Law Against Discrimination.

 

New Jersey Gay Pride in 2010 at the Sand Blast weekend booth

New Jersey Gay Pride in 2010 at the Sand Blast weekend booth

 

Rase says, “A-634 was originally introduced in its first form in March 1984. It was a very long time in the making.” Rase noted that it was passed in January 1992. The group that banded together to do the lobbying that led to the passage of A-634 was a committee  spearheaded by members of NJLGC—sometimes called simply ‘The Coalition.’

With so much community energy, focus, and enthusiasm directed toward the success of that legislative effort, Coalition President Laura Pople worried that the community would need a new focus to sustain its excitement.

Karen CyBulski observed that it seemed absurd that the LGBT community in the fifth state in the country to pass landmark LGBT legislation had to cross its borders to celebrate pride in neighboring New York City or Philadelphia. Pople and CyBulski formed a parade committee within NJLGC to address these issues and, in 1992, Asbury Park was chosen as the site of New Jersey’s first annual pride celebration. On the first Saturday in June 1992, the very first Jersey Pride was held. “I wasn’t there,” Rase says, “but… people [have] said there were somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 and 1,000 people.” The event was so successful that they continued it the following year. Says Rase, “One of the wonderful things about Pride is people being able to be out in the sunlight and holding hands.”

1993 Jersey Pride Inc.’s tradition became to hold Jersey Pride on the first Sunday in June.

1994 Jersey Pride was still a committee under NJLGC, Rase said. She recalls the Saturday night showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and JPI having to clean the rice out of the shag carpet afterward since, according to Rase, “One of Jersey Pride’s cherished traditions is leaving something as good as we found it.”

In light of Jersey Pride becoming so labor-intensive, the committee under NJLGC became incorporated as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Pride was so successful that Jersey Pride Inc. prepared to hold its own cultural heritage festival on Saturday, October 8th on National Coming Out Day. Then New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman recognized National Coming Out Day and the October event continued for a few years.

1996 In the fall of 1996, JPI profiled the Names Project to continue to get the word out about the importance of The Names Project itself and what it meant for visibility in the fight against AIDS. Rase adds, “As early as 1996, Jersey Gaze was featuring articles on marriage equality at a time when we thought Hawaii would be the first. There were even articles about how to come out to your kids.”

1997 The summer of 1997, Jersey Gaze magazine cover featured Ellen DeGeneres, who had just come out. “The Den had a party to show that episode,” says Rase. “It was just a thrill to hear someone we admire so much come out.”

1999 By 1999, Jersey Pride was up to several thousand people. “One of the other hot-button issues at the time was syringe exchange. And at that point,” says Rase, “the realization that domestic violence is as much a problem for the gay community as it is for the heterosexual community was beginning to be understood.”

That year, the New Jerseys Supreme Court ruled that Boy Scouts could not discriminate. Rase also points out that Jon and Michael Galluccio became the first same-sex couple in New Jersey to jointly adopt children in that year. “They made it possible, which is super,” she says.

2000 Jon Corzine was running for the Democratic ticket for the U.S. Senate, and he placed a full-color two-page ad in Jersey Gaze, recalls Rase. Jon Corzine spoke at Pride. That was also the year JPI lost two longtime activists and dear friends: Dana Terrell and Ben Cenerino. “They were critical in the early development of Jersey Pride,” says Rase, “and we miss them.” Domestic partnerships were on everybody’s mind. “Jersey Pride, as an organization, and we as individuals, were involved in supporting and passing domestic partnership,” she says.

2001 Jersey Pride was still doing National Coming Out Day, the October cultural heritage festival. Rase adds, “We were still holding our parade in June, informally called ‘The Perfect Day.’ One of the features that year at Coming Out Day was a concert stage and an alternate stage for more intimate audiences. Holly Near, a peace activist, played there. People nearly stormed the stage to tell her bombs had been dropped in Afghanistan,” and it became clear that in the midst of one of the most wonderful things, that in another part of the world, terrible things can be happening.” Rase continues, “And the timing of our festival was fairly close on the heels of September 11. We did a multipage feature in the Jersey Gaze on Mark Bingham, the gay hero on Flight 93.”

2002 Rase says, “The magazine for the Perfect Day featured Sharon Gless, interviewed at the time when she played Debbie on Queer as Folk. And of course she’s been a lesbian icon since she was Christine Cagney on Cagney and Lacey.” According to Rase, “This particular time period was focused on gay families, certainly including marriage equality, but also the challenges of our parents and a lot of families were beginning to raise children. And we also had articles on spirituality as well, which is a favorite of mine, because so many people think that because we’re gay, we’re heathens. We know that’s not true.”

2003 Rase says, “Jersey Pride dedicated our Fall Jersey Gaze issue to no more hate, the creation of safe spaces and the importance of showing people the damage that homophobia and violence in the community can do.”

2004 In addition to more arguments for marriage equality, funding was diminished for finding a cure for AIDS and to provide services to people who are suffering, Rase says, coinciding with a decline in understanding and interest in the Names Project. “You know it’s not as much as a draw as it once was and that’s very unfortunate,” say Rase.

2006 Rase recalls this as the year where the festival started to get very large, with a big movie of the time being Brokeback Mountain. “And we started to make a stronger bond with the leather community. Since then, the leather community has been holding their annual, pre-Pride Saturday event in Asbury Park called Foreplay as a fundraiser for Jersey Pride.”

2008 Rase also notes that one of New Jersey’s long-term activists moved to the South and provided Jersey Pride with an article contrasting her experiences in New Jersey with hers in Mississippi. The article emphasized the importance of coming out.  “If people don’t know that their neighbor is gay, then gay people are ‘those people.’”

2009 In 2009, Jersey Pride added the Zen Zone. The Family Zone was available for a few years already at this point for kids to be kids, but the Zen Zone, which offers meditation space, open readings, and information about organic food and similar topics, was a space for adults who, according to Rase, “just needed a quiet space for a short period of time to decompress from the joy or madness or mayhem.”

2010 Jersey Pride organizers were advised that the festival would be under a tornado watch for the whole day, Rase says. “Imagine telling 20,000 of your closest friends that you might have to get to shelter in a very short period of time.”

What’s planned for 2011?

“Jersey Pride at 20 years old is going to be an event with a capital ‘E,’” says Rase. Last year’s festival and rally had more than 20,000 people in Bradley and Atlantic Parks. Food ranged from vegetarian fare to your favorite sausage and peppers, and the Family Zone and the Zen Zone will be places for adults and children alike to recharge in a pocket of calm.

“Out of twenty years, with few exceptions, the weather has been quite truthfully the perfect day. Sure it was torrential when Deborah Gibson one year quipped rather than singing ‘Electric Youth’ that she might be singing ‘Electrocute.’ She was really sweet. I mean, it just started as mist and got worse.”­

Jersey Pride Inc. is a nonprofit organization that is a member of InterPride, the international association of pride organizations. To volunteer for next year and assist with Jersey Pride, email info@jerseypride.org and visit the website at www.jerseypride.org.

 

Benn Meistrich, a lawyer involved in the very early days of Jersey Pride, recalled the early years. “When we first started, and for several years thereafter, the only press coverage we received— mainstream—basically covered the parade itself, and then it pretty much focused on the bikers, drag queens, and other participants who fit what were considered stereotypes. Over time, that evolved into press coverage of more families, children and members of the community who are more like average, garden-variety New Jersey residents. I couldn’t say with any certainty when this started to happen, though, as it really developed slowly.”