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In year four, Woonsocket Pride comes into its own

Editor's note: This article was originally published on Steve Alquist's reader-supported Substack on June 11, 2024. It is reprinted here with his permission.

Gigi from the Youth Pride Union addresses the crowd at Woonsocket Pride
Gigi from the Youth Pride Union addresses the crowd at Woonsocket Pride. (Ahlquist)

It rained for the first hour, but as the clouds cleared and the sun came out, it turned into a beautiful and delightful event, an apt metaphor for Woonsocket Pride as a whole. Until this year, the annual Pride celebration in Woonsocket has been a battle. But with Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt having stepped down and the former City Council President Christopher Beauchamp filling out her term, the rain has stopped and the sun has come out. Everything has changed.

Read the words of Woonsocket Pride Board President Alex Kithes, who took the stage in Woonsocket’s River Island Park on Sunday to celebrate the biggest Pride event Woonsocket has ever seen, and recount the rocky history of the event.

Alex Kithes

“It is my distinct honor and pleasure to serve on the planning committee for Woonsocket Pride and as the board president next to Ken Barber and Leia Fifer, who are two of the most skilled progressive organizers and committed queer activists I have ever met.

“Today is pretty incredible, and as this soft music plays and the sun is coming out above us, I cannot believe the crowd that's in front of me right now. This is the biggest Pride event that we have ever held, thanks in no small part to the community support that we've received over the years - and especially over the last couple of months. But it hasn't always been this way.

“If 2020 Alex could see this event, I don't think he would've believed it. Picture this: the year is 2020. We are a few months into a global pandemic that has fundamentally reshaped life as we know it. It's made every injustice worse, and in turn, it's made every fight for social, racial, economic, and environmental justice that much more pressing. I had just come out of the closet a few months before.

[Side note: It is never too late to live as your authentic self, but what a thrilling experience it was to come out in my late twenties and immediately be a senior citizen in that wonderful hellscape of Grindr.]

“I had also been elected the previous year to the Woonsocket City Council, meaning I was a first-time leftist elected official at probably the worst time in contemporary history to be one. Not only because Lisa Baldelli-Hunt was the mayor and Jim Connoyer was the council overlord - I was fighting hard for our community and some semblance of economic protection as the pandemic worsened every inequity and injustice and the world crumbled around us. Our movement was shot down by the Mayor and city council time and time again. They were unsympathetic. They were hostile, and the creation of Woonsocket Pride was no exception.

“It started on that fateful day when I received my first direct message from Ken Barber. I don't know where Ken got this incredible idea of proposing a Pride Flag raising in Woonsocket. Ken had no idea what he was getting both of us into. As far as we could tell, Woonsocket had never done a Pride Flag raising before, which means that as a new idea, it was violently opposed by the former Mayor, per her usual pattern. So we built a lot of pressure and it involved a lot of you in the crowd today. Hundreds of petition signatures and hundreds of social media shares created so much buzz and pressure that we ultimately won out. We passed the resolution and we nominally had a Pride flag raised - except - fast forward a few days and in a move that had become her signature, the former Mayor ignored our planning committee's request to work with her to plan a Pride Flag raising.

“This kindled the flame of direct action and civil disobedience that has been central to the queer liberation movement forever. We held the Pride Flag-raising ceremony without the Mayor or any support or direction from the administration. In true form, and yet always surprising in the depths of her hatred and hostility, the Mayor had the flag taken down and started a smear campaign on local, fascist talk radio against us.

“That started the annual tradition of Woonsocket Pride. What we faced over the next few years could just as easily be themed, ‘Overcoming adversity’ as much as ‘You've got to be fucking kidding me.’

“The organizers and the planning committee came together with the recently formed organization Rebuild Woonsocket where I serve as the executive director. And we planned the first Woonsocket Pride Festival, in 2021, and every year after, we faced constant attempts at obstruction by the former mayor - including a hastily planned car show, wet paint signs on the stage, park construction that somehow didn't involve any equipment, material or labor, and even a hastily planned city leaf blowing on a Sunday afternoon... Wait, no, sorry. That was to obstruct an affordable housing protest, not Pride. That was a maneuver and obstruction was something she did a lot.

“Despite that, we planned events year after year, building our movement and serving our community. This year, with the new mayor and the new council majority, the city government has been great to work with. We've received support from some elected officials - and what a difference that has made.

“I urge you to walk around and check out everything we offer today. We have dozens of vendors and local artists who are selling incredible products and art. We have local organizations that have information about how to get involved and about local resources and programs. We have food trucks, we have activities to do, and we have another couple of hours of entertainment and speeches on this stage right here.

“Woonsocket Pride always has been and always will be by and for the community. We aren't buddying up to big corporations, fossil fuel companies, and weapons manufacturers. We're about social, racial, economic, and environmental justice. We're about Woonsocket and our queer community. We're about standing up for queer people, working-class people, and our neighborhoods, and standing against state violence, oppression, and genocide. (More on that in a couple of minutes.)”

Youth Pride Union

As detailed here, here and here, frontline staff at Youth Pride, Inc. (YPI), a Providence-based non-profit that provides direct service, support, advocacy, and education to meet the needs of LGBTQ+ youth and young adults, had voted overwhelmingly to join SEIU 1199NE. Since then, the road to a contract has been rocky. Union member Gigi Hill addressed Woonsocket Pride to talk about the important, life-saving mission of Youth Pride Inc. and the current state of union negotiations:

“I am a Center Coordinator at Youth Pride Inc. I am here to speak on behalf of the Youth Pride Union and catch you up on what's going on.

“Youth Pride is the only drop-in style resource center in Rhode Island for LGBTQIA+ youth. We offer drop-in space open to youth aged 14 to 24 where they can access services including rapid rehousing, clinical services, case management, programming, peer support groups, and more vital lifesaving resources.

“We recently, as staff, unionized. We've been making some progress on tentative agreements, which are things that both the union and the employer agree to, including an increase in hours. But we're still working to develop the sustainable and dignified working environment and partnership we set out to create when we filed our Petition to Unionize back in January.

“There's a lot you can do to support both the Union, Youth Pride as an organization, and all the vital work we do for the state of Rhode Island and Southern New England.

“First things first, you can donate. Any amount helps. That sustains the incredible, vital work we do. Be sure to leave a note in your donation that says you're donating in solidarity with the YPI Union.

“Our clothing closet offers youth gender-affirming undergarments like binders, tucking, underwear, packing, underwear, and more - all for free to our youth.

“You can also volunteer with us. We're going to be busy this month and it would mean a lot to us as staff, if you have the capacity, to have folks show up, show out, and help us get stuff done.

“Follow us on Instagram at YPI Union to keep up with any developments, negotiations, and where we'll be at the rest of Pride month, including the Dyke and Trans People of Color March in Providence on June 14th, 5:30 PM in Dexter Park. And then we'll also be at Rhode Island Pride. So keep an eye out for us there. Thank you all for your support and for your time, Woonsocket Pride!”

Palestine Solidarity

Speakers took the stage for a short rally in support of Palestine and an end to the war. This event was organized by the Board of Woonsocket Pride. Here’s the video:

See Steve Ahlquist's coverage of previous Woonsocket Pride events here:


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