Sixty years ago, when gay people felt unsafe holding hands in public, they socialized in certain clubs, which created a problem.
Police would raid the clubs, looking to arrest people on various charges.
On June 28, 1969, New York City police arrived at the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and began hauling patrons out of the club, but they did not disperse.
According to news accounts from the time, the patrons were fed up with the raids and social discrimination so, outside the Stonewall Inn, they began throwing stones and bottles, which turned into a riot involving hundreds of people.
Police broke up the crowd but protests near the Stonewall Inn continued for five days. It became known as the Stonewall Uprising, and was a catalyst for the gay rights movement in the U.S. and around the world.
Thirty years later, in 1999, the federal government recognized the significance of the event when President Bill Clinton declared June to be Gay and Lesbian Pride Month.
So it was a surprise, 20 years after that, to learn that Stamford – a diverse city in the shadow of New York – had no organization serving its lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community, said Chris Koutsovitis, 58, who grew up in Stamford.
A handful of people wanted to change that, Koutsovitis said.
“Like many things, it began with a conversation over a drink. People said, ‘We can’t believe it’s 2019 and Stamford doesn’t have any kind of LGBTQ+ group,’” Koutsovitis said. “No one knew why that was, but they decided it was important that we form one.”
They organized Stamford Pride, a nonprofit that supports LGBTQ+ members, their families, friends and allies by building connections in the community.
“The response has been incredible,” said Koutsovitis, who was not a founding member but now is president of the group. “We have gone from a couple hundred followers on social media in the first year to almost 2,000 now. Our fundraising is up significantly over each year, which shows us some real commitment from businesses.”
Stamford Pride is a member of the Stamford Chamber of Commerce and has been welcomed by the mayor’s office, police department, school system, houses of worship, and fellow nonprofits, Koutsovitis said.
Stamford Pride works with advisors to LGBTQ+ student groups in all three of the city’s high schools, he said.
“One of the first things kids wanted was for us to sponsor Youth Cafe, an afternoon where they come together. We did it at Honey Joe’s Coffeehouse” downtown, he said. “The other big thing the kids wanted was to bring back a tradition that started at (the Academy of Information Technology & Engineering) called the Rainbow Rave,” a prom for LGBTQ+ high school students.
“We’ve had the Rainbow Rave for the last two years,” Koutsovitis said.
Stamford Pride works with Lighthouse, a program of Kids in Crisis, a Greenwich agency that provides emergency shelter and counseling for children and families facing crisis.
“We meet every week. It’s an opportunity to support families,” Koutsovitis said. “And we just formed a Family Alliance and our own chapter of PFLAG,” formerly called Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
PFLAG is a national organization, formed three years after the Stonewall Uprising, that educates communities about LGBTQ+ people and their loved ones, and the unique challenges they face.
According to research from The Trevor Project, suicide attempts among LGBTQ+ teens are more than twice the rate of all teens in the U.S. Because LGBTQ+ teens struggle with family rejection, bullying, threats, violence, and more, they have higher rates of depression, which leads to higher rates of substance abuse.
Last month the Department of Homeland Security released a brief stating that threats of violence against the LGBTQ+ community have intensified. FBI statistics indicate that roughly 20 percent of hate crimes reported in the U.S. in 2021 were linked to sexual orientation.
Stamford Pride wants to do its part to promote tolerance and peace, Koutsovitis said.
Bake me a cake
“We just launched a Safe Space program that trains local businesses in understanding the needs of the LGBTQ+ community,” Koutsovitis said. “We help them think through everything – the way the business is presented, what the policies are like, whether they indicate during hiring that it is a safe environment, where an employee goes for support,” and more.
About 30 businesses have gone through the training so far, he said.
“They get a decal for the window or a logo for their website saying they are a certified safe space,” Koutsovitis said. “All we’re asking is to be respected, and all it takes sometimes is to see a pride flag in the window. If I go to a bakery to order a wedding cake and I tell you my spouse is a man, I hope you make the cake for me and have just as much fun doing it as you would with any couple.”
He was referencing court cases in Colorado and California in which bakers refused to make wedding cakes for same-sex couples because it would violate their religious beliefs.
Except for one incident last year, people in Stamford and surrounding communities have been very welcoming, Koutsovitis said.
“We have had pushback, as there has been nationally,” he said.
It happened in September, when Stamford Pride did a drag queen storytelling program at Ferguson Public Library.
Library staff members called police to report voice messages left on their office phones accusing them of trying to sexualize children, and warning them to watch their backs when they walk to their cars at night.
“We had hate outside the library, but inside it was packed with parents and kids. Families come out if their kids are not LGBTQ, and just as many parents say their son or daughter is LGBTQ,” he said. “Parents want their children to accept others. So love prevails.”
Pride Ride; Pride in the Pews
The group began Pride Month with a flag raising at the Stamford Government Center, and a party that ended with Old Town Hall lit in rainbow colors. Over the weekend there was a brunch at Town House Parlor, and Sunday offered a first – Pride in the Pews at First Congregational Church, a worship service open to all.
This weekend there will be a free Pride Ride spinning class at CycleBar Stamford, and the month ends with a “Gayme” Night at Mill River Park.
The gay rights movement fueled by the Stonewall Uprising in 1969 achieved much progress, but there’s a long way to go, Koutsovitis said.
The American Civil Liberties Union reported at the start of this year that state legislatures nationwide had introduced well over 100 bills restricting the rights of LGBTQ+ people, including their freedom of expression.
Koutsovitis said he’s been tracking the bills.
“We are in uncertain times about many things right now, and the LGBTQ+ community is no different,” he said. “We have to keep what we have, but at the same time not be afraid to build new things, like the programs in Stamford, to make people feel safe and supported.”