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Pride is Power: Rutgers LGBTQ+ students reflect on annual celebration

Rutgers students shared their thoughts on the significance of Pride month and what celebrating it means to them.  – Photo by Courtesy of Juliana Guerino, Kirsten Bennett, Nellie Mouton, Rakeem Shabazz, Taylor Crabtree, and Michelle Tsinker

From marching in the street to throwing parties and wearing rainbow t-shirts, every year, millions around the world celebrate Pride month, or “Pride.” 

Pride was first celebrated on June 28, 1970, a year after the Stonewall riots, where police raided the Stonewall Inn bar in Greenwich Village, New York.

The bar was one of the very few safe havens for members of the LGBTQ+ community in the city. The raid sparked major protest against the anti-gay sentiment in the United States, launching an era of resistance against the silencing and criminalization of LGBTQ+ individuals. 

Over the next few decades, the community gained major visibility in politics, and in June 2000 former President Bill Clinton federally recognized June as “Gay and Lesbian Pride Month.” In 2009, former President Barack Obama amended the title to “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month” to be more inclusive.

Since then, Pride has become a joyful time for the LGBTQ+ community to celebrate their identities and own their sexualities. 

In honor of this year’s Pride month, The Daily Targum interviewed LGBTQ+ Rutgers students to get their insight on being a member of the community and what Pride month means to them. 

What does Pride mean to you? 

For each member of the community, Pride has a unique meaning shaped by one’s experience and relationship with sexuality. For some, Pride means being loud and proud about sexuality and gender identity.

For School of Arts and Science junior Luke Zukowski, it means authentically knowing oneself and being heard. 

“To know yourself and lead with that can be incredibly difficult for people who do not have good support systems, which is why it is important to have Pride month,” Zukowski said. “Pride helps amplify the voices that often get lost, and give them meaning.” 

School of Arts and Sciences senior Michelle Tsinker shared a similar sentiment, stating that for her, Pride means being able to express herself without worrying about if others think “it’s wrong” or how they might perceive her sexuality. 

A stark reality for the many youth members of the community is feeling as though they don’t concisely fit into one particular part of the fluid spectrum of sexuality and gender, an isolating experience that can lead to dysphoria. 

School of Arts and Sciences senior Nellie Mouton, shares that for her, having pride doesn’t mean fitting neatly into one box of identity, but rather, authentically practicing self-love regardless of where one might fall on the spectrum.

“Coming to terms with your gender and/or sexuality if it's different from cisgender and heterosexual is hard, even in 2021 ... Something I struggled with for a long time, and I think much of queer youth today does too, is the pursuit to find the perfect label, but that is not what Pride is about,” Mouton said. “Pride is about being authentically you and loving it, instead of trying to fit yourself into a box or adhere to society's standards.” 

For School of Arts and Sciences sophomore Julian Guerino, Pride means acknowledging the significance of being comfortable with her sexuality and how it has shaped her. 

“I used to think my sexuality was 'no big deal,' but I now realize hiding the fact I am pansexual is hiding a key part of my identity. Representation is important to me. Pride means I will stand tall and embrace my sexuality,” Guerino said. 

But for School of Nursing junior Taylor Crabtree, Pride is more than just being comfortable with one’s sexuality, but rather defying societal standards.

“I realized I was a lesbian when I was around 14, and so much of my energy as a young teen went toward trying to project a false persona that conformed to heteronormative standards. I pursued conformity above all else,” she said. “For me, learning to be proud meant letting go of that pursuit and not only accepting my sexuality, but embracing all that it means to defy the standards society set for me as a woman.” 

As a nonbinary student, School of Arts and Sciences junior Kirsten Bennett shared that for them, Pride allows them to feel seen in a society that otherwise trivializes or dismisses the queer experience. 

“I’ve known that I was nonbinary since around the eighth grade. I never thought I would be able to be out (or) that I would ever know people who were nonbinary like me,” Bennett said. “I used to be insecure about being queer and nonbinary, but coming to Rutgers really helped me to be comfortable with who I am. Having other (transgender) and queer friends is uplifting, and I love knowing other people who are like me. Seeing other visibly (transgender) people helps me to be out, too.”

Mason Gross School of the Arts senior Rakeem Shabazz shared that he sees Pride as merely a source of inner empowerment, regardless of labels.

“Pride is knowing the power you have no matter how you label yourself, as long as you’re a good person,” he said.

Why is it important that we celebrate Pride? 

For each member of the community, celebrating Pride can look like many things. But regardless of what you do in June, celebrating is fundamentally about fostering a sense of belonging in an otherwise marginalized community. 

“Celebrating Pride allows people who may feel ostracized, to have a community and have a sense of family,” Zukowski said. “To have pride and celebrate is to have connections with those around you and feel genuinely supported for who you are. It’s important to not stifle the uncomfortable parts of ourselves and Pride helps humanize all parts of ourselves.”

Tsinker added on, stating that celebrating allows the community “to showcase themselves and be proud of who they are.”

For Bennett, celebrating Pride is an important factor in realizing that they could be accepted for who they are, despite the stereotypes about queer and transgender people.

“I was taught by so many people growing up that being queer and trans was 'bad'/dangerous. I was only out to a small group of my friends in high school, and I thought I was never able to be out until I came to Rutgers,” they said. “(I saw) that people do have the ability to accept me for who I am, and I shouldn’t take any less from people. Pride helps me to be who I am and not have to hide my gender identity. I don’t feel like I have to perform straightness/being cis anymore. I'm proud to be nonbinary and bisexual.” 

Guerino shared that for her, acceptance and celebration are inextricably linked and that it’s imperative for remembering what previous LGBTQ+ members have been through for the community to be where it is today.

“The only way one can be accepted for their true self is if they celebrate who they truly are. It’s important to acknowledge the injustices that have occurred in the past with the LGBTQ+ community, but it's also important to celebrate the triumphs and the victories. The LGBTQ+ community deserves to live openly and freely,” Guerino said. 

Mouton further reinforced this idea, sharing that celebrating allows us to honor the history and origins of Pride.

“The LGBTQ+ community wouldn’t have Pride celebrations or the rights we’ve been afforded today (though we still have a long way to go) without the dedication of the leaders of the Stonewall Riots such as Marsha P. Johnson and Stormé DeLarverie,” she said. “Genderqueer lesbians and transgender women of color are the foundation of the modern Pride movement and we owe Pride month to their activism and courage.”  

Shabazz shared that, for him, celebration is paying tribute to those who fought for the community and a reminder for the community to carry on their legacy. 

“It’s important to celebrate this month because so many of our ancestors marched, fought, died and were murdered because of bigotry. They made the future bright for LGBTQ+ people now and we must continue,” he said.

Crabtree stated that celebrating Pride is not only integral for reinstating the significance of the community’s visibility, but a reminder of the work that needs to be done to ensure the future well-being of the community.

“Some question why Pride celebrations still exist when so much progress has been made towards the acceptance of LGBTQ+ people in the past few decades …. rainbow billboards and Pride merchandise in stores doesn’t mean the work is done. There are still queer people in every part of the world who believe they are better off dead than living their truth,” she said. 

“Queer kids deserve to see people who share their identities living rich and fulfilling lives, not just despite their queerness, but in celebration of it … Before rainbows and parade floats, Pride is about honoring these people, their struggles and their triumphs. It’s a time of reflection and a celebration of queer bravery,” Crabtree said.

What’s your favorite part about being a member of the LGBTQ+ community? 

“The best part of the LGBTQ+ community is the spirit,” Zukowski said. “To know someone is to love someone. And many people I know in the community have that spirit when meeting them, and that’s a special feeling.”

Similarly, for Tsinker, knowing she has “a whole group of people” who can resonate with her struggles makes her “feel at home” and “a part of something,” instead of feeling isolated, is the best part of being a member of the community. 

Crabtree shared that for her, being able to openly be a lesbian allows her to feel free from oppressive societal standards and the male gaze. 

“My favorite part of being a lesbian is the freedom I feel in living a life irrespective of heteronormative standards — of beauty, behavior and ideals. In middle school, I felt like so much of my value as a girl was tied to what boys and men thought of me,” she said. “I never truly wanted to attract the male gaze, but it felt like that’s what I was 'supposed to' want. I had to give myself permission to base my self-expression on what I actually felt and not on the desire to find acceptance in a heteronormative world. Every day I am glad that I gave myself that freedom — I celebrate the courage it took my younger self to exist and grow despite an intense societal pressure to conform.” 

For Bennett, they said the community allows them to feel safe and loved in a time they felt otherwise.

“In the past I had to hide who I was because I thought being nonbinary would make me unlovable, and that I wouldn’t be understood by other people. I didn’t know any other nonbinary people in high school until way later on. I know that my community understands fully who I am, and that I always have a place where I can be my authentic self. Being nonbinary is one of my favorite things about myself,” they said.

Guerino shared a similar stance, citing the open-mindedness of the community as her favorite part of being in it.

“I am also disabled … in past experiences, certain groups were not accepting of my disability," she said. "Ultimately, the LGBTQ+ community accepted me despite my disability."

For Mouton, the community’s visibility and ability to make change is what stands out to her. 

“The recent rise in representation and visibility that we are receiving … the efforts made in classrooms to share pronouns, teach LGBTQ+ history (thanks, Gov. Murphy!) and the range of media being created that incorporates gay characters … is a real step in the right direction," she said. "There is nothing more affirming to me than having my identity acknowledged and validated by a professor, or seeing genderqueer and lesbian characters on my screen that aren't simply the butt of a joke or function as character development — they're just characters in the story as they are."

For him, Shabazz said that having others being able to relate to his experiences is what he enjoys the most about the community. 

“I can talk to another LGBTQ+ person about a specific issue or thing I’ve dealt with and they can completely understand because they’ve been through it too,” he said. “That comradery is crucial because there is still so much work to be done about people’s ideas and attitudes about the community."

Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, Pride month is a time for community and authentic celebration of oneself. To donate to charitable causes that support the LGBTQ+ community, check out The Pride Center of New Jersey or one of these organizations. 

Happy Pride!

Lexi Washburn contributed to reporting on this story.

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