Fynn Specchio, a community college student, traveled for an hour on Saturday, June 10, to get to Montclair to do something unusual – to dress as he wanted.
Specchio is a transgender and gay 20-year-old who traveled with his boyfriend, Saylor Whiteman, a transgender man. Besides wearing his green crochet halter top, the plan was that Specchio also wanted to hang out with his boyfriend and hold hands without worrying that someone would stare at them or throw something at them, which has happened before.
“Just for walking together,” Specchio and Whiteman remembered. “We weren’t even holding hands at that point.”
The couple joined about 20,000 people at the second Montclair Pride 2023, a daylong festival that took over most of Downtown Montclair. The festival was organized by Out Montclair, a non-profit civil rights organization that advocates for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer/questioning, and asexual (LGBTQ+). The event featured three stages that, with upbeat music and the performance of many state artists and advocates, celebrated and supported the LGBTQ+ community in Montclair and other towns in the area.
“Being trans in the United States is pretty scary right now,” Specchio said while resting close to the Bravitas Family Stage on Park Street. “But here, I feel I can be who I am, and I could wear what I want and people would still see me as a guy and like myself instead of something that needs to be fixed or erased.”
Peter Yacobellis, executive director of Out Montclair and township councilor-at-large, said: “We design Montclair Pride to showcase what true inclusivity looks like. Turns out the result of everyone feeling truly welcome is a palpable joy in the air that has everyone smiling, dancing and being happy.”
From the first hours of the Montclair Pride Festival on Saturday, the LGBTQ+ community and allies showed up to demonstrate support. After experiencing days of hazardous air quality indexes caused by the smoke from Canadian wildfires earlier that week, people of all ages and backgrounds gathered on a clear, safer, and sunny day around the stages and vendors while dancing to the rhythm of the music, clapping along with karaoke singers, eating, drinking and sharing fun moments.
For many, the festival also felt like a clear environment from the recent rise of threats facing the LGBTQ+ community. Days before the festival, the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ+ civil rights organization in the country, declared a national state of emergency in response to the number of anti-LGBTQ+ bills signed into laws across the country. Among the legislation are pronoun refusal laws, drag bans, LGBTQ+ erasure laws and forced student outing laws.
“We want to congratulate Montclair on taking strides and moving forward, becoming progressive, and celebrating the LGBTQ+,” said Albert Michael, nephew of the activist Marsha P. Johnson and one of the speakers invited to Montclair Pride 2023’s main stage, along with James Carey, who is Marsha P. Johnson’s cousin.
“We want to come out here and speak out against the violence that’s being perpetrated against trans people of color in our family member Marsha B. Johnson’s name,” Carey said.
Artists, many of them born and raised in Montclair, performed on the three different stages. Mariah Ayscue, a transgender artist and activist, reflected on his fight for equity through his art.
“You can’t do everything,” Ayscue said. “We all have to stagger our breathing so we don’t lose our breath. … The best that I can do is do it through my story, do it through the poetry, and try to connect with people in that way.”
Joe Colwell, singer, songwriter, and guitarist, his excitement before going on stage for the first time at the festival. “The spirit of bringing people together is so Montclair to me and is the value that I felt represented this town growing up,” Colwell said. “I’m so happy that we have this festival where music is bringing people together.”
The role of an affirming community
Specchio also brought his mother to the Montclair Pride Festival, which he considered a big step for her. She had had a hard time accepting the identity her son announced when he was in early middle school, and reinforced years later when he started hormone therapy on his own – his parents did not support the treatment.
“My mother is working on it now, but she did not accept me,” Specchio said. “She called me a lot of names. She cried. For a lot of years, I knew I was trans, but I couldn’t do anything about it because my family didn’t accept me. My mom said I was going to turn into some horrible monster if I started hormones and it took a long time. But today, I’m here with my mom and she is still a work in progress. … She’s still not fully there, but she’s come a long way and I really appreciate the support.”
A report from The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ+ youth, warns that young people are at higher risk because of the stigma and mistreatment they receive from society. When there is an affirming community that young LGBTQ+ people can turn to, they see mental health benefits.
“LGBTQ youth who live in a community that is accepting of LGBTQ people reported significantly lower rates of attempting suicide than those who do not,” the report said.
The sea of festival-goers at Montclair Pride gave Specchio more than a feeling of safety; it gave him a reason to keep fighting for a place in his community. He shared that in the next few days, he will be part of a protest against the Monmouth County School Board and the actions he considers to be violations of the rights of young trans students.
“It’s so messed up that they’re trying to take all the rights away from trans children,” Specchio said.