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New London - Lesbian comedian Erin Foley of California, who emceed Saturday's Pride at the Beach festival at Ocean Beach, asked her audience what it was like to be gay in New London.
The crowd hooted and applauded.
The longer answer, from the organizers at OutCT and festival-goers, was that it is getting better all the time, and not just on a summer Saturday among other members of the LGBT community. At the festival, wearing a rainbow tutu, dressing in drag or kissing a same-sex partner every 10 seconds was expected and celebrated.
More importantly, acceptance is becoming the norm in the community at large.
Drag queen Melody Lucas recently moved to the area from South Carolina with her husband, who is in the military.
"The military has been amazing," Lucas said. "We've come a ways. I think there's always room for growth and change."
Festival organizer Keri Cannon, who is a member of OutCT's board of directors, said the Coast Guard Academy recently invited the group to a discussion of gays in the military, and that OutCT also hosted a discussion about religion and homosexuality.
"We've put on quite a bit of social and educational programs in and around New London," Cannon said. "What we would like to see is for OutCT to expand, to build a nice, big, visible, positive gay and lesbian community that incorporates business as well."
It doesn't hurt that New London's mayor, Daryl Justin Finizio, is a gay man. The mayor, attending the festival with his husband, Todd Ledbetter, performed the opening ceremony. Finizio, who moved here from Rhode Island, said he and Ledbetter had one of their first dates at Ocean Beach. He said it was there that he noticed the city had "an integrated diversity," unlike other cities, where members of various communities live in their own enclaves.
"When I came to New London I noticed more interracial couples than in any other city," Finizio said. "They were young and old, so this was ingrained. There was an obvious gay couple next to a Latino couple next to an African-American couple, and everybody was being so good to each other."
Foley, the comedian, congratulated Connecticut on being "a shining example" for gay marriage, having legalized it in 2008. But not so long ago, being gay here could be very lonely.
"When I was 18, I thought I was on the only gay kid in all of Connecticut," said Chris Deveau, a 42-year-old city resident who volunteered at a sign-up booth for youth programs. He eventually found some supportive people at Yale University and in the Quaker community in West Hartford. Today, there is so much more for young gay people, Deveau said.
"It's great to see there are opportunities for youth," he said.
Curtis Goodwin, director of OutCT's new youth program, said he signed up 20 people between the ages of 13 and 19 by about 4 p.m. Goodwin, 27, of New London, said there would be separate groups for middle school children and young adults and that the focus would be on learning life skills, creating social media platforms, starting businesses and healthy living. A mother from Springfield who heard about the program dropped off five kids, he said.
Goodwin said it took a long time for him to be comfortable in his own skin, and he wants to ease the way for others.
"They're facing HIV, peer pressure and suicide," he said. "At some point, someone has to step up. My life is worth something, and I want to show them their life is worth something."
While New London's gay community turned out in large numbers, and drag queens from the city's bars were the official festival divas, Saturday's event drew visitors from distant towns and several surrounding states. The organizers estimated that about 500 people had come through as of 4 p.m., based on the number of programs they handed out.
"We go out of state a lot for this type of thing, so it's exciting for it to be here," said Samantha Sanborn of Windsor, who was relaxing on the boardwalk with her partner, "Hype" Howard. Both of the women belong to the New England Nightmare women's football team.
"It exceeded my expectations," Sanborn said of the festival. "I thought we'd be gone in half an hour."