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West Hartford Pride Celebrates Love at Rally Before Celebration

West Hartford Pride Co-Chair Barry Walters (left) with Miss Connecticut Shavana Clarke. West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Elected officials, community activists, and even Miss Connecticut rallied at West Hartford Town Hall Saturday morning preceding the West Hartford Pride Festival.

West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

By Ronni Newton

Members of the LGBTQ+ community, and allies – including many elected officials – stood on the steps of West Hartford Town Hall in the sweltering heat Saturday morning, calling for the celebration of diversity and the elimination of bias and prejudice.

“West Hartford and Pride go together. We are Pride, we are West Hartford,” said Deputy Mayor Ben Wenograd, who welcomed a crowd of about 150 people to the steps of Town Hall on Saturday morning. Wenograd, standing in for Mayor Shari Cantor who is out of town on vacation, read a proclamation marking lesbian, gay, queer, bisexual, and transgender Pride month in West Hartford, with the theme: “Be loud, be proud, stand against hate.”

Deputy Mayor Ben Wenograd reads a proclamation. West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Speakers, who initially had to shout to be heard due to technical challenges with the audio, paused often for applause from the crowd. Eventually someone brought out a bullhorn so those who spoke to the crowd could “be loud” in the sharing of their pride.

“America should wake up to Pride,” declared U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who was the first speaker.

“West Hartford is really a shining star,” he said. “West Hartford is at the forefront of working for equality. West Hartford says to the world, ‘We don’t care who you are, who you love, you deserved equality, respect, dignity.'”

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal. West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Across the country, and in the U.S. Senate, there is what Blumenthal called a “vile campaign to turn the clock back, to deny people basic rights.” He called for the community to continue to stand up for equality.

Equality for the LGBTQ+ community should be enshrined in law, he said, just like for other protected groups. “You are there, every day every month. You are there for this fight,” said Blumenthal, stating that he will be there as well, side-by-side, for the fight.

“This is what America looks like,” Blumenthal said.

West Hartford Pride Co-Chair Barry Walters. West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Barry Walters, co-chair of West Hartford Pride with Johanna Schubert, said five years ago he could not have imagined a festival like the one about to begin, with 147 vendors and an expected crowd in the thousands. “But what I wouldn’t have wished for five years ago was to live in an America more polarized than ever, to have a climate of fear and hate that seems to be growing rather than abating.”

Walters said while Connecticut fares better than many other states, it happens here, too, Walters said. He called for more “soldiers” to take on the front lines, to get involved by running for office, to vote.

“They will say that we are trying to indoctrinate their children … you do not have that power,” said Walters. “You only have the power to teach children to love and cherish each other as beautiful human beings. That is not a sin. Love is not a sin.”

Saturday is meant for celebration, Walters said, “because we all deserve it dammit,” but he urged those in the crowd to find its voice and act on Monday.

Connecticut Treasurer Erick Russell. West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

State Treasurer Erick Russell, the first openly gay Black person to win an election for state office, said West Hartford is leading the way, and there are now Pride festivals in communities throughout the state. “There are kids who are watching us … and wanting to know that they can live their true, authentic life,” he said.

“As we celebrate Pride … let’s keep in mind that folks are watching. While we have made a lot of progress there is still so much work left to do,” said Russell. “Let’s keep in mind that Pride started as a riot,” he added, but acts of joy can be acts of resistance.

Several members of West Hartford’s legislative delegation also addressed the crowd.

State Sen. Derek Slap. West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

State Sen. Derek Slap pointed out that six years ago there was no West Hartford Pride, but through the work of Walters and Schubert, there is now there is a powerful nonprofit spreading the powerful message that “love is love,” and West Hartford was the very first Pride to receive state support.

“We know that Pride is not just a month, it is a movement, and we all need to work together to keep fighting for equality, for equal rights, and equal protection,” he said.

State Rep. Kate Farrar. West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

“It is not an accident that West Hartford is leading the way. It’s also not an accident that here in Connecticut we have historically led the charge to lead on freedom and justice for our LGBTQIA community,” state Rep. Kate Farrar said. She urged the crowd to “use our joy as resistance.”

State Rep. Jillian Gilchrest noted that the work is not done, and “language has meaning … We need to be sure that our legislation needs is inclusive of everyone.”

State Rep. Jillian Gilchrest. West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Other important legislation that Gilchrest called for is statewide protection from book bans and legislation to ensure that anyone can have access to fertility coverage – including those in the LGBTQ community.

The remaining speakers included Dr. Nick Harriel, a third-year resident at UConn Health who also leads the graduate medical education LGBTQ+ affinity task force. He spoke about the gender-affirming care offered by Hartford HealthCare and St. Francis, with the goal of providing better care for all patients, including mental health services.

Dr. Nick Harriel. West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Theo Keitt, from Fairfield, CT, will be going to the Pratt Institute to study fashion design. They told the crowd about the support of their parents, and how they are lucky they are and how they have always been proud to be non-binary. But still, being transgender, was challenging growing up. “I was still terrified to come out to them,” they said.

Theo Keitt. West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

“If people love you and they respect you it is their responsibility to care about you no matter who you are,” Theo said. “I had to learn that I am not selfish for being queer. I am not selfish for being trans. And you are not selfish for being queer. You are not selfish for acting, or dressing, or loving in a way that is authentically you.”

Miss Connecticut USA, Shavana Clarke. West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The final speaker was the reigning Miss Connecticut USA, Shavana Clarke, who was crowned this April and is the first openly lesbian Miss Connecticut. Diagnosed with BPD, borderline personality disorder, Clarke is using her platform to advocate for mental health.

Clarke teared up when she spoke of the support of her mother, who also attended the rally. “Even after coming out I was struggling with shame due to lack of feeling accepted, loss of friendships, and my own internalized struggles,” Clarke said, but always had her mom’s support.

“There is incredible strength and freedom in being unapologetically you. Pride is celebration of who we are, what we stand for, and where we come from,” said Clarke.

“Love is love, is love, is love,” she said.

Hartford’s Proud Drill, Drum, and Dance team performed at the base of the steps, and then led the crowd around Town Hall and the festival commenced.

West Hartford Pride Co-Chair Johanna Schubert, (right) and Co-Chair Barry. Walters. West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Miss Connecticut USA, Shavana Clarke, poses with her mother. West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal. West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Connecticut Treasurer Erick Russell. . West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Pride Rally. June 22, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

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