P lain white walls and round tables: exactly what you’d expect from a space meant to be utilized for a great variety of purposes. But even if this particular room within the Savin Rock Conference Center is largely unremarkable, the crowd filling it is having a remarkably good time.
Welcome to the New Haven Pride Center’s 2012 Annual Wine Tasting, where mingling is easy, hellos are enthusiastic and, of course, there’s plenty of wine to go with the bubbly energy bouncing around the room. Supplied by Coastal Wines & Spirits in Branford, bottles are lined up for tasting and available for order at a special price.
The gathering is one of a number of regular Pride Center events and, at $20 a ticket, raises funds for the all-volunteer group, which serves south-central Connecticut’s GLBTQI (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning and intersex) community and its allies. In addition to other get-togethers like the Tasting (many of them free of charge), NHPC’s impressive range of activities includes support group meetings, fitness classes, lectures and drop-in hours at its headquarters at 14 Gilbert Street in West Haven.
The building is somewhat run-down, but the vast second-floor room the group calls home is welcoming, with a disparate array of salvaged armchairs, posters lining the walls and shelves of books and relevant periodicals like Metrosource and The Advocate. It’s a conference room, hangout space, reference library or any number of other things depending on who’s using it.
“It really can be whatever anyone wants it to be,” says John Allen, one of the original founders of the Pride Center, which opened its doors in 1996. For one example, the space hosts the Rainbow Support Group, which Allen organizes for developmentally disabled adults who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender; active since 1998, I’m told it’s one of the only groups of its kind in America.
While constituencies with especially great needs may be given special attention, the Pride Center is available to help anyone who feels confused, alone or troubled, whatever their gender or sexual identity—though Allen remarks that these efforts don’t seem as urgent as they once did.
“Those were pre-Ellen days,” he says, recalling the show and its eventually famously gay star, Ellen DeGeneres, who came out on both the program and in real life in 1997. “Connecticut was still very much in the closet.”
Not so much anymore. Connecticut legalized civil unions for same-sex couples in 2005 followed by marriage in 2008. Those advances and the cultural shift they underscore have paved the way for a new kind of advocacy. “I find the Center brings understanding across boundaries that used to be impenetrable,” says Kathryn Thomas, the Pride Center’s secretary, who, along with husband Dennis Titley, counts herself an ally of the group.
Josh O’Connell, one of the group’s co-presidents, added, “I think what we do best is bring the community together for events and form friendships. What’s really impressive to me is the number of new faces at each event.”
I spoke with some of those new faces—trying a sparkling red here, an unoaked Chardonnay there—at the wine tasting. Sarah O’Grady told me she attended in order to get more involved in the LGBTQI community. Jake Scatton, on the other hand, noted that he had recently turned 21 and simply wanted to learn more about wine.
Whatever the reason for arriving, there’s a good chance of leaving a Pride Center event with a few new friends—and maybe even a few new engagements. Donovan Linder, a graduate student at University of New Haven and new to the area, came to see what the group was all about; he left agreeing to help plan the Center’s biggest yearly event, the Dorothy Awards gala.
Just a few nights later, Linder found himself in those comfy armchairs discussing the upcoming March soiree—featuring a panel of honorees along with dinner, drinks and dancing—with several committee members. It’s the gala’s tenth anniversary this year and there are decisions to make. Undoubtedly, it will be a memorable night of celebrating how far they’ve come, and of celebrating for its own sake.
Because it’s easy to have fun when you can just be yourself. “All that we care about is what is in your mind and in your heart,” says Thomas. “What more can you ask for?”
New Haven Pride Center
14 Gilbert Street, West Haven (map)
Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.