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    Friday, December 02, 2022

    OutCT: Nonprofit serving region's LGBTQIA+ community is here to stay

    From left, Lillith Davies-Smith, back to camera, Edwin Ivey, Colleen Lavin, Gabrielle Martin, and Alix O'Neil have a discussion during their OutCT youth group facilitators meeting Friday, May 6, 2022, in their downtown New London office. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    New London — In its nine years of existence, OutCT has established itself as a leading voice for the LGBTQIA+ community in eastern Connecticut and beyond, its influence growing along with the number of dates on its programming calendar.

    Now, with light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, it has an office.

    “We’ve never had a brick-and-mortar place of our own,” Edwin Ivey, an OutCT board member, said one recent day as he scooped up a letter slid under the door at OutCT’s new downtown address, 300 State St., Suite 402, which replaced a post office box.

    When the COVID-19 positivity rate allows, they’ll have a proper ribbon-cutting ceremony, Ivey said.

    OutCT had long needed storage space, a room for board members and staff to meet and, most important, space for members of its youth group to gather, Ivey said. In the future, he’d like to schedule open office hours several times a week for staff members to interact with the public.

    “From my perspective, having a physical space is important,” said Kia Baird, an OutCT co-founder and former president. “The organization is growing — our youth program is huge, we just had a health symposium. At this point, we’re able to mentor other organizations. For example, Mohegan Sun is having a Pride event and they reached out to us to help plan it. It shows the level of respect we have.”

    To understand OutCT’s trajectory, it’s useful to recall its beginnings.

    More than a Pride festival

    While a graduate student at the University of New Haven in 2010, Constance Kristofik, OutCT's first president, conducted a feasibility study of whether New London could support a Pride festival celebrating the area’s LGBTQIA+ community. The results were favorable, Kristofik said, though she wasn’t prepared to get involved in organizing at that time. She well knew the hard work it would entail, having been a Pride organizer in Pennsylvania from 2001 to 2006.

    Former New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio met Kristofik during his 2011 campaign, and later, as the city's first elected mayor in 90 years, urged her to organize a Pride festival in the city.

    “I remember saying, ‘We really have to make your thesis a reality,’” Finizio said. “It made sense to do it in New London, of any city from New Haven to Providence to Hartford. In that area, it was one of the few spots with an active LGBTQ community. I was able to put some of the city’s resources behind it in terms of staff time and marketing, and that helped get it kick-started.”

    Finizio, who is gay, said OutCT’s success has much to do with New London’s long history of embracing diversity. He said gay bars appeared in the city decades ago when they were a rarity. A travel guide of gay-friendly establishments mentioned New London’s Hygienic Restaurant in the 1960s. Gay softball teams, bowling leagues, bars and establishments flourished in the city through the ’70s and ’80s, he said.

    “So that’s why it’s succeeded — because the LGBTQ community was here,” Finizio said of OutCT. “... It’s here to stay, a vibrant organization that will continue to add to the cultural landscape.”

    Mayor Michael Passero, who succeeded Finizio in 2015, was instrumental in helping OutCT secure its status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, enabling it to solicit tax-deductible donations. Passero had developed some expertise in that realm while serving on the City Council.

    “Constance was the most organized, motivated individual I had ever met,” Passero said. “Her application was fantastic.”

    Incorporated in June 2013, OutCT landed its nonprofit status just three months later.

    “Since I became mayor, I’ve stayed in touch with the organization,” Passero said. “It’s a very important partner and constituency. It’s really satisfying to see how it’s succeeded. I think the way the city and the people of this city support it sends a message to those who might not respect the rights of the LGBTQ community. In the city of New London, we do respect everybody.”

    With Finizio's encouragement, Kristofik turned to those who’d participated in her feasibility study to help her find board members for a new Pride organization. Baird, whom Kristofik met when both served on a committee that advocated for marriage equality, joined the effort.

    “We knew we wanted to do more than just a Pride festival,” Kristofik said. “We planned to offer cultural, social and education programming.”

    As a name for the new organization, they chose OutCT over New London Pride because it better reflected the breadth of their aspirations.

    “It was 2013 and our immediate goal was to hold a Pride festival,” Kristofik said. “Our short-term goal was to develop a queer youth program, and our long-term goal was to create an LGBTQ community center. As you know, the New London Pride Festival has been recurring annually for almost 10 years and the OutCT youth program is solid.”

    Kristofik said the organization’s State Street location opposite The Garde Arts Center is “a huge leap forward.”

    She plans to conduct another feasibility study to determine the level of interest and support for a community center. The study, likely to be undertaken next year, will focus on fundraising goals and a timeline for the project.

    An ever-changing program 

    Over the years, OutCT’s programming has reflected the changing makeup and varied interests and expertise of the members of its board of directors, according to Kristofik, who noted she created an annual film series when she served on the board.

    “When Leo Schumann was on the board, he created an annual scavenger hunt, and Amy Hannum created an annual art exhibit,” Kristofik said. “Kia Baird loved to develop educational programs and entertainment for the Pride festival. It was Mario DeLucia's passion that started the Born This Way Fashion Show to fundraise for the OutCT Youth Program, which was inspired by Curtis Goodwin.”

    The current board of directors includes Cecil Carter, who has started an annual Oscar Party, and Chevelle Moss-Savage, who just led OutCT’s inaugural health and wellness conference at Three Rivers Community College.

    Another fairly recent programming addition is “Who’s in the Neighborhood,” a monthly YouTube show introduced during the pandemic. Hosted by Moss-Savage, Interim OutCT president and chairman of OutCT's Education Committee, the show features a business in the region that's run by a member of the LGBTQIA+ community or an ally, according to Ivey, who just happens to have a background in TV production.

    Prospective subjects of upcoming shows include Heather Wright, owner of Tea & Tarot, an herbal wellness boutique in Madison whose outside-southeastern-Connecticut location is a testament to OutCT’s reach.

    Wright, who heard about OutCT through an acquaintance, said the organization asked her to participate in the health symposium at Three Rivers. She said she’s found Connecticut in general and the shoreline in particular to be hospitable to the LGBTQIA+ community, of which she is a member.

    “We happen to live in a very open part of the state,” she said. “I started my business not knowing how Madison would respond, and it’s been lovely. I haven’t experienced any sort of discrimination.”

    While political advocacy is not a major part of OutCT’s work, the organization does monitor legislation and encourages people to testify for or against bills affecting the LGBTQIA+ community. Five years ago, Baird recalled, OutCT actively lobbied in favor of legislation that sought to ban health care providers from engaging in conversion therapy aimed at altering a minor’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The legislation became law.

    “One of the major things we push for is funding,” Baird said.

    OutCT is part of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Health and Human Services Network the state established in 2019 for the benefit of the LGBTQIA+ community. The network hired a consultant to survey the community’s needs in such areas as housing, financial resources, medical care, mental health, addiction/substance abuse, sexual health and HIV prevention, legal services and violence.

    “We have a lot of LGBTQ people in the community and we want to support them all,” said Ivey, who noted OutCT’s youth group serves members as young as 12 years old.

    Though it doesn’t advertise itself as a hotline for those seeking help, OutCT staff never ignores a ringing phone. Ivey said he and others have taken calls from people who threatened to harm themselves or were looking for an LGBTQIA+-friendly church.

    During the pandemic’s lockdown phase, vulnerable youth were at risk, Baird said, noting that schools can be a safe haven for those who don't feel comfortable in their homes.

    “When schools and businesses closed it had a major impact on young folks,” she said. “It’s better now. Thankfully, there are more outdoor events.”

    Unfortunately, COVID-19 continues to complicate things, causing this spring’s postponement of the long-awaited return of the Born This Way Fashion Show, OutCT’s biggest fundraiser, which was canceled in each of the past two years. It's comeback was set for May 22, but the state's rising COVID-19 positivity rate belatedly caused it to be pushed back to Nov. 13.

    Baird envisions a time when OutCT can only concentrate on fashion shows, festivals and the like.

    “Don’t all nonprofits hope to put themselves out of business?” she said. “I can see us shifting to all celebratory events, just fully celebrating our differences. That is the vision — to be in the community, having events that bring joy to the community. We could do that forever.”

    b.hallenbeck@theday.com

    From left, Gabrielle Martin, Alix O´Neil, Lillith Davies-Smith, Edwin Ivey and Colleen Lavin have a discussion during their OutCT youth group facilitators meeting Friday, May 6, 2022, in their downtown New London office. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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