Open door

Portsmouth's long-overdue Pride event shows the city living up to its motto

When Seacoast Outright announced it was sponsoring Portsmouth’s first official LGBTQ Pride event, it often prompted this follow-up question: “Why hasn’t Portsmouth done this before?”

Portsmouth is known as the “City of the Open Door,” a motto that conveys to residents and visitors alike that it is open to all, regardless of where you come from or how you live your life. Chuck Rhoades, the executive director of Seacoast Outright, said that in planning the event, city officials, local businesses and even random people who have signed up on Facebook have been extremely receptive to the idea. The challenge in planning wasn’t so much getting the city to buy in, said Rhoades. It’s trying to make sure this first-time event goes off without a hitch.

Portsmouth Pride will be held Saturday, June 27 across the city and over the bridge into Kittery, Maine. It’s part of Pride Month, an annual nationwide series of events — including pride parades in major cities – that recognize and honor the LGBTQ community. Seacoast Outright is a nonprofit that provides support and services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth and their allies in the region. The event is partially aimed at raising money for the group’s expanding programming, but Seacoast Outright’s main objective is to make this an annual tradition unique to Portsmouth, and one that will get LGBTQ young people to become more engaged in their community. The Seacoast Outright board vetted the Pride idea with its youth members and asked them to help develop aspects of the event, including selecting the theme, “You Be You,” a signal to the region that all are welcome.

“We’re not Boston or New York or San Francisco, but we have our own culture about our own communities here,” said Rhoades. “The ‘you be you’ theme fits with that as well. The family-friendly, youth-oriented aspect of it is very this community. … Hopefully this will become our signature event.”

Flying colors

On Saturday, students, LGBTQ organizations, friends, and family will meet at one of six staging locations across the city, each donning their own color of the pride rainbow flag. The Portsmouth High School Gay Straight Transgender Alliance and other student groups will meet at Portsmouth High wearing red T-shirts. City and school officials, AIDS Response Seacoast, and members of the South Church will meet at Portsmouth City Hall wearing green T-shirts. Other groups, like Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and the Seacoast Sisters 55+ Meetup group, will be staged at other areas wearing their own colors. Each group will march toward Market Square, where their colors will blend together to form a human rainbow flag.

All are welcome to march, but Seacoast Outright is also inviting people to simply observe. The actual marching will be done largely on city sidewalks. Pleasant Street between Market Square and State Street will be closed for a short rally, featuring the band As We Know It, singing group Women Sing Out!, and speakers like Portsmouth mayor Bob Lister.

The idea for Portsmouth Pride sprung from discussions Rhoades fostered in hopes of raising Seacoast Outright’s profile in the community and expanding opportunities for LGBTQ students to get involved. “The idea of Pride is such a significant event in the LGBT community,” said Rhoades. “To connect youth to that event seemed logical. It’s about how you get through to adolescents and become healthy adults and develop resiliency skills and become who you are. So much of that is belonging to a caring community. That’s what Pride does and this made a lot of sense for us.”

“We’re not Boston or New York or San Francisco, but we have our own culture about our own communities here. — Seacoast Outright executive director Chuck Rhoades

He contacted assistant mayor Jim Splaine, who sponsored the bill that legalized gay marriage in New Hampshire, and Hotel Portsmouth owners Dan Innis and Doug Palardy, who signed on to sponsor the event with Allegra Printing and Women Sing Out! City councilor Chris Dwyer was also involved and suggested the group find a “signature event” that would help the community associate Seacoast Outright with the work they do. The loosely formed group soon landed on a Pride parade.

“I’ve seen the real value of letting people know that there are many people who are gay and lesbian and transgender, and when people see people, we find ways to celebrate our diversity,” said Splaine. “Such is what happens with a Pride event.”

Years of change

Although Portsmouth touts itself as the “City of the Open Door,” it hasn’t always lived up to this standard. In 1993, Splaine, then a city councilor, sponsored an ordinance that would have made Portsmouth the first city in New Hampshire to add protections for gay and lesbian residents, a move supported by a group called the Open Door City Coalition. The plan was not only rejected, but prompted a backlash that cost some of its supporters their seats on the city council during the following election, including Splaine’s position as assistant mayor.

A lot has changed since then, as Splaine is happy to discuss. His work in the state legislature helped bring about laws that allow adoptions by gay parents, civil unions, and same-sex marriage.

“Today, we have about 3,350 same-sex marriages statewide,” said Splaine. “We were the fifth state to adopt gay marriage in 2009, and the first to do so legislatively.  Now there are 38, and maybe, if the U.S. Supreme Court acts positively, nationwide.”

Showing that the Seacoast can be a caring environment for LGBTQ young people is one thing, but making it happen is another. Seacoast Outright has been undertaking that task in one form or another for 22 years — eons ago in the timeline of gay rights. The group launched four years before Ellen DeGeneres came out on national TV and nearly two decades before the first “It Gets Better” videos were uploaded to YouTube. With a fresh slate of board members and Rhoades at the helm, Seacoast Outright is looking to add programming and get more young people and community leaders involved. They’ve added events like weekly drop-in youth group meetings from 7 to 9 p.m. at the South Church’s Karnan House on Court Street, and a poetry coffee house held last month at RiverRun Bookstore.

“When people see people, we find ways to celebrate our diversity.” — Portsmouth assistant mayor Jim Splaine

Although Seacoast Outright and Portsmouth Pride are focused on reaching the area’s LGBTQ youth, people like Innis are inspired by the idea there’s now an event in Portsmouth to bring the various Seacoast-area groups together, as well.

“It’s important for all of us to know we’re not here alone and, in that sense, I guess you could say it’s overdue,” said Innis. “Sometimes you feel a little bit alone in the Seacoast because there is no central focus (for the LGBTQ community). Sometimes you just need to come together to keep that community linkage. It’s not just true of gay and lesbians, but any community.”

The rapid advancement in LGBTQ rights, the interest in bringing the Seacoast gay community closer together, and a renewed effort to help LGBTQ young people navigate it all make this a good time to start a new pride tradition, said Rhoades. Hosting this event is also a way for Portsmouth to show it’s living up to its city motto, he said.

”It’s showing a segment of the community that hasn’t been as highlighted here, perhaps,” said Rhoades. “It says, ‘The community is here and we are very glad to be here and the community is glad to have the LGBT community here.’”

Portsmouth Pride takes place Saturday, June 27. Marchers will step off from various points throughout the city at 1:30 p.m.