The small local picnic is now a LGBT Festival with over 5,000 attendees
This June 9, 2019 families and friends will gather together in Maplewood to celebrate North Jersey Pride. It began in 2011 as a small gathering in a small park for about 100 people. Since then, the Pride festival has grown into an annual event with over 5,000 attendees in a much larger space.
Mom, writer, and LGBT advocate C.J. Prince created North Jersey Pride, and is it’s Executive Director. Prince also took RAD Kids, a local organization which provides a safe space for gender fluid children, under the auspices of North Jersey Pride. And in 2016, Prince was honored by Essex County during Pride month for her support and advocacy in the LGBT community.
Where did you grow up, and when did you move to NJ?
CJ.Prince: I grew up in Monsey, N.Y., a postage-stamp-sized, insular Jewish town where everybody lived exactly the same way. I left as soon as I could, went to college in Manhattan and then lived there for 10 years before making the leap to suburbia.
Was it difficult for you when you came out to your family?
CP:·It was pretty scary. Yes. My family was and is Orthodox Jewish. And I believed pretty strongly that coming out would mean the end of my relationship with them. I was around 16 when I realized I was gay. It was the ‘80s, not a great time for queer folk. There were almost no images of LGBTQ people in media, and the few token characters in movies or on TV, if one could find them, were portrayed in a very negative light. Add to that some pretty serious homophobia in my community synagogue and you have a recipe for deep depression and runaway anxiety. I attended an all-girls yeshiva in Manhattan for high school. And I remember sneaking out to buy copies of the Village Voice at the corner newsstand. And I would then read them on the floor of my closet. How’s that for a metaphor?
I mainly read the personal ads, not because I ever contemplated meeting someone, but because I got some small measure of comfort seeing that people like me existed in the world.
When I was 27, I got to the point where I just couldn’t handle the secrecy anymore. I was worrying about pronouns and whether details of my life would slip out. Keeping the secret had already put distance between me and my family, so I figured I might as well tell my parents. When I finally got the words out “I’m gay” my mother responded with, “I know.” It turned out my secret wasn’t so secret. My father, who I was terrified would reject me, did not likewise suspect, but he was mortified that I thought he would hate me because of my sexuality. He hugged me and said he was just sorry I had “such a difficult road.” I was very lucky—I’ve heard many, many stories that ended much less happily. We all have. Today, when I get the opportunity to talk to parents of LGBTQ children, I make sure to tell a little of my story and remind them that, if their concern is their child’s burden, then they should know that their love and acceptance can really lighten that load.
Since getting involved with parents of LGBTQ kids through North Jersey Pride, I’ve thought a lot about how LGBTQ is kind of the only minority whose members typically don’t share the status with their family of origin. With race, ethnicity, religion, class, etc.—though it’s certainly not always the case, usually if you are in the group, your family is, too. Not so for LGBTQ people—we are alone in our difference. When we come out, we are on our own. That is why chosen family and community becomes such a lifesaver.
What was the deciding factor to move to Maplewood?
CP: The deciding factor to leave Manhattan in 2006, kicking and screaming, was the fact that my partner and I lived in a one-bedroom apartment. I was pregnant with our first child. We realized that we’d have to sell a lot of our things to make room for all the baby stuff and we couldn’t afford a two-bedroom. So we started looking outside the island. Straight friends of ours had moved to Maplewood and had us out a bunch of times for barbecues. We thought it was really cute and there seemed to be an awful lot of gay couples around. So that was intriguing. We loved Maplewood right away because of the people here. It’s such a diverse, fun, open-minded place.
Did you always aspire to be a writer?
CP: From as far back as I can remember. I wrote my first newspaper, The Prince Times, when I was 10. I tried to sell it door to door, but it turned out nobody wanted to pay 25 cents to read about my mother doing the laundry. In college, I joined the school magazine, the Barnard Bulletin. From there I went to journalism school. When I first graduated, I was a stringer for The New York Times, but I had to report on some pretty horrendous things that gave me nightmares. I had to wear a pager and be ready to go on a moment’s notice to wherever the story was. The pay wasn’t steady and I had rent to pay. So, while it was exciting, ultimately, I decided to pursue a regular job.
When and how did you begin North Jersey Pride?
CP: In 2011, I was having a drink with another mom and saying how I was kind of depressed I wouldn’t be able to go to New York City Pride that year. Our girls were five and two then. We had gone the year before, but the double stroller, missed naps and too much sun conspired to make it a hellish outing. Somehow, as this friend and I were talking, the idea was born: if we can’t go to Pride, why not bring Pride to Maplewood? I went to Town Hall, asked for a permit for the park, and that was all it took. With a handful of volunteers, we organized a BYO picnic for about 100 attendees, rented a bounce house and asked local musicians to play for free, which they graciously did. It was so much fun; we decided to do it the next year, when we had about 400 attendees. By the following year, interest had grown to where companies were willing to sponsor it. It helped us grow it even more. Last year, even with the rain, we estimated we had about 4,000 people in the park throughout the day. What’s really nice about Pride in Maplewood are all the families and kids, both LGBTQ and allies you see in the park having fun together. We like to say our festival is also “Ally Pride” because allies don’t have to stand on the sidelines and watch. They are full participants. Fact is, we need our allies to align with us, to stand with us, march with us, and raise their voices with ours. We need them to be up standers rather than bystanders—that’s how change really happens.
In 2014, we expanded to a month of Pride events, including the North Jersey Pride Run 5K and Kids Races, which is an annual highlight. Every year, we’ve tried to do something geared to LGBTQ youth/teens as well. And then we do events throughout the year—movie nights, speaker panels, cocktail parties, a bi-annual ball, all designed to bring the LGBTQ and ally communities together in support of a common goal. We would love to do some events further north in New Jersey and are currently looking for partner hosts.
What is your vision for Pride in the future? Do you think Pride Festivals will continue in years to come?
CP: Yes, I think Pride will go on for the foreseeable future. It’s a celebration of our community’s history, and it is as a protest of continuing bias and discrimination. Sadly, we’re not even close to being rid of that yet. Most importantly, we need to have Pride and LGBTQ visibility for our young people, who are becoming aware of their sexual orientation at much younger ages than ever before. And they are facing horrendous bullying and bias and shame coming from families, school yards and houses of worship. We need to show these kids they have a very bright, beautiful future that will be filled with love and freedom and joy, because, much too often, they can’t see that. Then we lose them to hopelessness, depression, and in the worst cases, suicide. We must stop that cycle and give them the love and community they need to be strong and survive what we can all agree is a very challenging time of life.
What is your involvement with RAD?
CP: RAD started as a play group organized by Jan Kaminsky, one of NJP’s board members, and Laura Gilkey. Both women have gender-fluid kids and wanted them to have a safe space to be themselves and be with other kids like them. When they wanted to expand and have more programming, we decided to fold RAD Kids into North Jersey Pride. This was so they could have funding, resources and accept donations. The group’s mission couldn’t align more with North Jersey Pride’s. So, it’s a perfect marriage. As an organization, we are so happy to be able to give these children a place with no gender rules, no stigma, no judgment—just space to be who they are and be loved exactly as they are. That’s really what all children deserve.
How do you manage to juggle motherhood and a career?
CP: I’m not sure I do it all that well, but in the age of multi-multi-multi-tasking, I make a real effort to be present in whatever space I’m in. When I’m working, I try to focus hard on that, so that when the workday ends, I can leave all of that and give my children all my attention. Again, not easy and not always realistic, but that’s what I strive to do. It’s probably a little easier for me than for other single, working moms because my ex and I share custody 50-50. So I do get breaks. In general, I think complete balance is probably a myth, but a girl can dream.
What is your biggest advice for same-sex parents?
CP: Ha! I’m not sure other same-sex parents need my advice. But I would say, if you’re living in a place where LGBTQ families are scarce, be as loud and proud as you can be to show your kids that shame has no place in your house. And come to North Jersey Pride this year!
Are you concerned about LGBT rights being taken away in today’s climate?
CP: I’m always concerned about that, particularly when leaders in positions of power start stripping those rights, e.g., the trans military ban, as soon as they get into office. I think we need to stay vigilant, even as we recognize and celebrate how far we’ve come. We have to involve our straight friends and families in the fight for full equality. And to remind them that their vote matters when it comes to electing LGBTQ-friendly legislators. Speak up when we hear anti-gay bias, no matter how uncomfortable it is to do it. We can defend our rights, and we will, thanks to a host of incredible organizations—Lambda Legal, ACLU, HRC, Family Equality Council, GLAAD, and Garden State Equality, to name just a few—who are on the front lines of this fight. Donate to them, volunteer with them. Support them in whatever way you can. Because there’s still plenty of discrimination going on, particularly toward the trans community. Marriage equality, although wonderful, doesn’t solve that problem, nor does it mean same-sex couples are safe from anti-gay violence.
What legacy do you want to leave for your daughters?
CP: Oh my, can I please be too young to be thinking about legacy? I would say that if they get nothing else from me, I hope I leave them with the belief that they have the power to create things that did not previously exist in the world and to change situations, circumstances, and injustices. They have a responsibility to stand up not only for themselves, but for anyone who is being beaten down because of who they are.
What are your hopes for the future?
CP: Wow, big question. On a global level, I hope that somehow, we Americans figure out how to cure our fear of “The Other” and learn that everyone deserves the same freedom, the same resources, the same chance to self-actualize. And we realize that giving someone else rights doesn’t mean losing your own. I also hope we can get it together to save our planet.
On a personal level, I hope to get each of my girls all the way to adulthood in one piece. If it’s in the cards, I’d love to be in a relationship again, someday. I also hope to finish my novel before I start collecting Social Security.