“You don’t belong here. I’ll pray for you.” Tashena Marie says she grew up hearing comments like this, as a member of the LGBTQ community in a deeply conservative town.
She was on the receiving end of other threatening behavior and harassment as well, from having her tires slashed to threats while attending a concert with her girlfriend.
Marie grew up in North Brookfield.
“We’re the mini-Texas. North Brookfield is the Texas of Massachusetts,” said Marie, but she knows there are those who feel the same way about their own towns in the area. Members of the LGBTQ community across Central Massachusetts often feel isolated — cut off from needed services and support, while often being surrounded by open hostility.
Anthony Bovenzi wants to prevent others from going through the negative experiences Marie has had. Bovenzi is one of the founders of North Worcester County Pride, or NoWoCoPride as it is often called, and aims to be an advocate for minorities who often fall through the cracks — unintentionally left out of the larger Pride celebrations in Worcester, Boston and Springfield.
The group, founded in 2019 on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Protests in New York City, holds a Pride event the second week of July, but this is only their second in-person celebration, due to COVID. Bovenzi is confident this year's event, running from July 13 to 17, will be bigger and better with activities centered in Fitchburg, Lunenburg and Leominster.
“We represent everything north of Worcester starting with West Boylston up to the New Hampshire border,” Bovenzi said.
Bovenzi is no stranger to community organizing having served on the committee for Worcester Pride for 15 years. Upon announcing he was taking a break from the organization — “You just get burned out,” he said — he was approached by a number of friends about organizing an equivalent event in Fitchburg. Bovenzi jumped at the chance for a new adventure.
He said there was, “a need and a want for a Pride in the area."
The first year, while difficult, was a clear rebuke, Bovenzi said, to those who believe that the country has moved past the need for Pride celebrations and that LGBTQ Americans no longer face serious discrimination. It was particularly tough in Lunenburg, where the group encountered pushback.
Though Lunenburg was the most difficult, said Bovenzi, other cities had their own share of backlash. He said a Drag Story Time event at the Fitchburg library attracted protesters. The mayor deemed it necessary to speak before the event as well as bring in a plain clothes police officer to monitor the room. Despite the frightening situation, Bovenzi said, "(Fitchburg) has supported us from the beginning. Fitchburg has been right with us the whole time.”
The vitriol has its roots in a vocal religion-based minority in the area, Bovenzi believes.
”The priest was praying over rosary beads out in the hall during drag queen story time and they broke and scattered over the floor,” claimed Bovenzi.
'More determined than ever'
Despite, or maybe because of, setbacks and challenges, Bovenzi is more determined than ever. “(Minorities) are very isolated and the community doesn’t feel heard or seen,” he said. “With us raising the flags (at town centers), we’re getting that community out and feeling safe.”
Marie is a prime example of this galvanization. Her early 20s saw her essentially go back into the closet in her community, but she said “I’m 32 now and tired of hiding who I am. We’re here and not going anywhere and people need to recognize us for who we are.”
Supreme Court ruling
Marie’s own group, the Rural Justice Network, has drawn inspiration from NoWoCo Pride, as well as working in partnership. The recent Supreme Court ruling motivates her to keep fighting though she said she has considered moving to Canada.
“But I am a fighter. I am stubborn. If everyone left, then North Brookfield won’t move forward and that’s what keeps the status quo — when everyone leaves, the problem continues. I’ve lived here 27 years and am not going to let anyone scare me away from my community," she said.
Rural Justice Network
Samantha Laney, founder and treasurer of Rural Justice Network, said it was founded in wake of the nationwide BLM protests in 2020. They have organized BLM rallies in central Massachusetts, campaigns to return artifacts to indigenous tribes they belong to and voter registration campaigns.
“We love and believe in rural America which has so much to offer and they get counted out as far as social justice goes," she said.
RJN is working to educate and give people an opportunity to be the best versions of themselves and help marginalized groups feel like they are not alone, she explained.
Laney is hopeful because, she said, the next generation is more sensitive to the issues.
“I see the way kids talk to each other and they’re being better than we were so there’s a little bit of hope,” she said.
She objects to the idea that rural people are brainwashed to be bigots saying it doesn’t give them enough credit.
“We are trying to elevate and educate the people in rural America,” she said.
Mitchell James Cho, who grew up in the neighboring town of Oakham, welcomes the idea of a Pride event in West Brookfield.
“When I heard about Small Town Pride I was excited to be able to give back to the community," Cho said.
Cho has been doing sexual health outreach at Family Health Center of Worcester for some time and manned the group’s table at the event.
Cho feels that Central Massachusetts as a whole gets overlooked when it comes to progressive issues.
“I think the LGBTQIA+ community in small towns is taking on the issue of how to support each other. Agencies and organizations see the work being done so they lift up the events that these communities put together,” Cho said.
Worcester Pride too is different now, he added, and “decentralizing the work makes these Pride events even more community oriented. People in the community see the need and they do something about it.”
This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: North Worcester County Pride holds in-person event July 13-17 for those in northern Worcester County