'We Are Everywhere': New Bennington LGBTQ Group Reaches For Visibility
At Lisa Carton's tiny house nestled in the hills of Bennington, there are a whole lot of rainbows. Wood panels painted purple, green, orange, yellow and blue frame Carton's front door. Inside, the main room is cushioned by a multi-hued, kaleidoscopic rug. Out the back door is a shed where, until a recent storm blew it down, a Pride flag flew.
Carton is the inaugural president of the community nonprofit Queer Connect, and to her knowledge, her flag was one of just a couple displayed in Bennington. She said that kind of visibility in a town she's lived in for 28 years — and, in all that time, found few other people like her — gave her anxiety. She wondered, for example: did the person who crashed a car into her mailbox do it on purpose?
Carton said it can become "seductive" to not correct people when they assume, wrongly, that she's not gay.
"The dynamic of just really not feeling like anyone really sees me for who I am is definitely, that's what I'm used to," she said.
But six months into leading Bennington's new and only LGBTQ organization, Carton has publicly broadcast her identity in the process of putting on events, leading meetings and reaching out to community members.
Around the time of Bennington's first Pride parade this past summer, Carton started carrying a rainbow lanyard, which she said has sparked compliments from strangers and, from there, conversation about Queer Connect.
And that, she said, has been exhilarating.
"Those are the things that need to happen," Carton said. "We just need to know that we're out and about, living our lives. We are everywhere."
Queer Connect has a two-pronged mission: increasing visibility and improving access to resources for LGBTQ Vermonters.
The first part means several different things for board member Sophie Nevin. When she thinks about visibility, Nevin said she's concerned about representation of the community's diversity.
"There's still so many stories that aren’t being told, and people who aren't being highlighted in the queer community," she said.
Nevin is excited about the television show Pose, for instance, which depicts New York City’s underground ball culture in the 1980s and '90s and features actors who are both transgender and people of color.
"Because people like me, who are white and gay, are pretty represented, pretty visible," she said. "If I say like, 'I'm a lesbian or I'm bisexual,' people kind of know what that means, whereas I don't feel that's as true for everyone else."
On a personal level, Nevin said visibility means feeling safe when she's out in the open in Bennington.
"The times that I think about my own visibility is when I’m scared," she said. "I've had a couple run-ins with some not-so-savory characters of Bennington. In the most recent experience that I had with said unsavory characters, I was actually kind of confronted on the corner of the street and, like, forced to give them my cell number. In the moment I was really shocked that this was what was happening."
It was sunset, Main Street was empty and Nevin was alone; she said she didn't feel she could use her usual rebuff — that she was gay, and uninterested.
"I would have to out myself with someone that I know does not care for queer people and has been very vocal about that fact," she said. "I was afraid of saying, 'no.' I was afraid of outing myself. And then I had to promptly ignore the inundation of unsavory text messages I was getting. Which just sucks, a lot."
Nevin said she knows of other people who have experienced sexist, homophobic and racist harassment in Bennington, but felt unable to speak up. The way local police have handled past incidents, she said, like former Bennington Rep. Kiah Morris’ allegations of racist harassment, makes Nevin feel like she and others don't have the backing of law enforcement.
"It's sort of this feeling of, there's a lot of people within the community who do not feel safe," she said.
Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette said he feels the department has "a wonderful working relationship with the people that have put together the Queer Connect program."
"We have provided some security details," Doucette said. His officers were at the Pride parade, for instance, and Doucette said they asked one individual to leave.
"We did have a little resistance to the parade," he said. "Some people felt that just because you're gay or lesbian, you shouldn't have the right to parade down the street."
But, Doucette added, "Everyone has their place here."
This is where the second part of Queer Connect's mission comes in: resources. Nevin attended Bennington College, and while she said it was assumed that everyone and everywhere was welcoming to LGBTQ people, she never knew of any specially-designated spaces.
Nevin said the events Queer Connect has organized are a welcome change.
"I'm really glad that there's a space designated for queer people now," she said, "where you can go to a situation and know everyone here is either queer or loves someone who is queer, is accepting of that. You don't always know for sure in non-validated spaces."
On a recent Friday evening, Nevin and her friend from Bennington College, Natalie Bates, donned costumes — a unicorn and Freddie Mercury, respectively — and drove to the Left Bank in North Bennington to attend Queer Boo!, Queer Connect's Halloween party for all ages.
Bates didn't have a feather duster to complete her Freddie Mercury ensemble, and while she wanted to stop by Walmart to get one, she already had her makeup and mustache on.
"When I'm in New York, I could get away with wearing this, going to Walmart, but in Bennington it may not be [OK]," she said.
Even at Queer Boo!, when she went out into the Left Bank parking lot, Bates said she had an encounter with someone who wasn't there for the party.
"I stood up and turned around, and he went, ‘Oh,’ and there was a physical aversion," she said. "I'm comfortable right now, but not everybody is comfortable with that."
Inside the party, though, Bates said, "I feel like I'm home."
She joined a couple dozen attendees mingling among the skeletons, spiders and gravestone decorations, munching on cupcakes and bopping along to Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody."
Some partygoers like Tim Gasper, who moved to Bennington after retiring and wanting to escape the heat of Virginia, came out to meet people — specifically for Gasper, older men.
"I am single, so I'm looking," he said, laughing.
Others like Rabbi Jarah Greenfield attended Queer Boo! with her wife and son to generally support the LGBTQ community's presence in Bennington. She said when she took the position leading Congregation Beth El in 2012, she was both the first female rabbi and the first lesbian rabbi it had ever had, and some congregants struggled with that change.
"This is a community that, it has not had queer visibility to date," Greenfield said. "And so the longer it's here, and the more normalized it becomes — the more easy for example it will become for a congregation in this area, like the congregation that I worked for, to accept having a rabbi or a clergy leader that is a lesbian, is a woman, is anything other than a cis-gendered white male."
Arik Gilbert was one of the younger attendees at Queer Boo! He didn't dress up because that's not really his thing — in fact, the 14-year-old said being involved with a LGBTQ organization isn't necessarily his first instinct, either.
"I'm not exactly the kind of person to be loud and proud about it," Gilbert said.
While he's happy to share that he's gay with other people, Gilbert said he doesn't want that to be his "only defining trait."
Gilbert said he puts that part of his identity out more when he participates in GLOW, the "Gay, Lesbian Or Whatever" club at Mount Anthony Union Middle School.
"Because there are other people putting it out front and center who don't exactly get to put it out front and center in their lives at home or in school," he said. "So I just want to put that part of myself out so they feel OK putting that part of themselves out in the group, where it's safe."
And while he's a little shy, Gilbert has also gone to events like Queer Boo! and the Pride parade, because once he's there, he's glad.
"Once I was out on the parade, I was having a great time," he said. "I was waving to people, I saw my mom in the crowd, and that was fun. She took my Pride flag out of my room and she was like, waving it around."
Stories like this are what Lisa Carton said motivate her to continue on with Queer Connect.
"As soon as you do something like this, people say, 'Wow, we had a great Pride, things are better,'" she said. "No, not really. It took a lot of work."
It's taken a lot of work, and Carton said she'd hoped more people would show up to the events after the Pride parade. But then she thinks about the students she's met in GLOW and in Mount Anthony Union High School's Sexuality And Gender Awareness Alliance (SAGAA), who said they needed to know there were adults like them in the community.
"The young people in the community, for me that's really been the core inspiration for everything, in terms of feeling the need to persevere of being visible," Carton said. "I see a glimmer of 'I can’t wait for Pride' in a 14-year-old's eyes, and that is it. It makes it worthwhile completely. Yeah, it's pretty amazing."
Update 6:30 p.m. A previous version of this post stylized Queer Connect as a single word; the formatting has been updated to reflect the organization's website. The audio for this story has also been updated to reflect the correct amount of time that has passed since Bennington's Pride parade.
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