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PRIDEfest celebration draws large crowd on town common

Winchester residents and visitors gathered on the town common June 4 for the fourth annual PRIDEfest celebration. WINCHESTER NEWS STAFF PHOTO/LISA SPENCER

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More than 200 residents and visitors filtered in and out of the town common Tuesday night as music pounded, rainbow flags waved and a feeling of community brought those who attended the fourth annual PRIDEfest celebration a sense of togetherness.

“I’m happily surprised,” said Rebecca Slisz, interim director of the Network for Social Justice, watching families taking in the booths and activities. “You’re never sure when you plan an event the number of people that will come.”

Emily Allen, from Wright-Locke Farm, speaks to a resident during PRIDEfest. WINCHESTER NEWS STAFF PHOTO/LISA SPENCER

About 20 organizations set up around the common featured informational material, crafts and other fundraising items, such as bracelets and ribbons.

Slisz said a number of invitations went out to elected officials as well as school administrators and members of the school community to attend the June 4 celebration.

“We got a positive response,” Slisz said, adding the evidence was in the number of people who had visited the two-hour event. “As Tim [Matthews, board member] said, we’ve made a lot of progress, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do. It’s great we are increasingly becoming a community LGBTQ people, adults and students, feel free to be who they are and feel a sense of belonging here.”

Tim Matthews, right, and his family grab a quick selfie during the PRIDEfest events. WINCHESTER NEWS STAFF PHOTO/LISA SPENCER

Matthews, who watched as his two children smiled and danced to the music, said PRIDEfest just gets bigger every year.

“I’m not surprised [by the number of people here],” he said, laughing. “I’m super happy to see the support from the community and glad to see the support for the community. Every year, I see someone coming here from a different community. Winchester is leading and showing our values and people see we’re an affirming community.”

Matthew poses a question: Do you know how the event started? He leads visitors to the McCall Middle School table, where the Queer Straight Alliance is hosting a table.

QSA Advisors Emmett Jorgenson and Sarah Mutter, special education teachers at the McCall, are thrilled to tell the tale of PRIDEfest.

“The idea for PRIDEfest came from a middle school student, who had a vision for it,” Jorgenson said. “We reached out to the Network to find out if they would be a partner and maybe help with the event.”

That first year, Jorgenson said, was a table and podium on the common. Three years later, it’s a big event.

“It’s gained traction,” Jorgenson said. “It’s definitely heartwarming, for sure. It speaks to good and positive change.”

The students, the teachers added, along with Winchester High School’s Spectrum Club, actually work to organize the event, along with the Network and sponsors.

At this year’s event, sixth-grader Gabe Pereira and seventh-grader Kei, who wished to be only known by a first name, sang “The Wish” from the Disney movie, “Wish,” which came out last November.

McCall Middle School students Gabe Pereira, left, and Kei finish their song, ‘The Wish’ with a flourish at PRIDEfest. WINCHESTER NEWS STAFF PHOTO/LISA SPENCER

Pereira said he had butterflies in his stomach, but it was worth the effort.

“It’s hard,” Kei agreed. “But there are people out there who need someone to do things that are hard and I willingly do that.”

Drag queen Maxine Harrison, who emceed the June 4 event, said she was enjoying the atmosphere at PRIDEfest. In her real life, she works at Whole Foods so she was familiar with some of the residents who were attending the evening.

She said her queen mother Miz Diamond hosted last year’s event and she suggested Maxine take over.

Drag queen Maxine Harrison emcees PRIDEfest on June 4 at the town common. WINCHESTER NEWS STAFF PHOTO/LISA SPENCER

“I’m so happy to see people here,” Harrison said. “We need to be visible, especially now more than ever. So, I’d say no, I’m not surprised by this great turnout.”

Tony Leone, program director at NAGLY (North Shore Alliance of GLBTQ Youth) in Salem, said he was excited by the entire PRIDEfest celebration Tuesday night. He said Winchester is one of 45 cities and towns in the NAGLY area and one of 31 communities where he’ll be attending Pride events in June.

“I’ve been doing this for two years now and the turnout is getting bigger,” he said. “The environment is more accepting at this [event], but there’s still a lot of work to do, but we’re making a lot of headway.”

Tony Leone, from NAGLY, watches the festivities at PRIDEfest. He will visit 31 Pride events in June. Winchester, he said, is one of the 45 communities his organization covers. WINCHESTER NEWS STAFF PHOTO/LISA SPENCER

Work being done statewide

Both Sen. Jason Lewis and Select Board member Anthea Brady, who spoke Tuesday night, said they were happy to see so many people enjoying PRIDEfest, whether it was families or teens or singles.

“Thank goodness that we live in a place that affirms and protects our LGBTQ+ family members, friends and neighbors,” Lewis said, adding Massachusetts in 1989 was the second state in the nation to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and the first state in 2004 to recognize same sex marriage.

Lewis said the state recently passed a law to protect access to gender-affirming healthcare and just last month, the Senate included provisions as part of the annual budget to ensure residents can change their gender identity on official documents.

Sen. Jason Lewis addresses the crowd at PRIDEfest. WINCHESTER NEWS STAFF PHOTO/LISA SPENCER

“But as we know, this is not the case in many other parts of our country,” Lewis said. “More than 500 pieces of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation have been filed in other states and some have been signed into law, including bans against educational materials, gender-affirming care, and books that feature LGBTQ+ characters.”

Lewis added trans people have especially faced hateful rhetoric, discrimination and physical violence.

Network for Social Justice Interim Director Rebecca Slisz checks in at the Book Ends table. WINCHESTER NEWS STAFF PHOTO/LISA SPENCER

“We must continue to stand up for LGBTQ+ rights — human rights — because as MLK said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”

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