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    Tuesday, April 16, 2024

    What it means to be an ally

    STAND ALONE::8/25/18::Rebecca Morea, left, of Groton hugs Alex Waid of Mystic, holding his Free Dad Hugs!!, a hug during the New London Pride Festival at Ocean Beach Park Saturday, Aug. 25, 2018. Waid and his wife, Janice Waid, not shown, who carried a Free Mom Hugs!! sign, walked around the festival hugging anybody who took them up on their offer. The Waids said they have friends in the LGBTQ community and wanted to show their support. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    In 1976, when she started teaching and was living in Willimantic, retired Ledyard High School teacher Barbara Althen recalls losing her roommate at the same time her neighbor lost his. She proposed they share a place and solve both of their problems.  

    Before they agreed, Althen said her neighbor told her he had something important to tell her.

    "'I'm gay. My parents think I could jeopardize your teaching career if I move in with you,'" the neighbor had told Althen.

    Althen, who is straight, shrugged it off and answered “I don’t really care. They can’t tell me who to have as a roommate.”

    Althen didn't know much about the gay community at the time, but the two ended up forming a long-term friendship and it served as a learning experience that led her to become what is known as an ally to the LGBTIQA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, questioning and asexual and other gender non-conforming identities) community.

    “An ally is someone who is there for you, someone to talk to and listen, and they really hear what you have to say and will work with you to build a community of support. They’re on your side. They take the time to learn about what is really important. The LGBT community needs straight allies and that’s what I am,” Althen said.

    Althen is the former advisor to the Gay-Straight Alliance at Ledyard High School and president of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays of Southeastern Connecticut.

    She got involved with PFLAG when she realized it wasn’t just the youth who were having problems associated with their sexuality — it was their parents, family and friends. She recalls a mother who showed up at a meeting to talk about her daughter, who came out as transgender.

    “She flipped out. She didn’t want a daughter who is trans. She didn’t want the name her child had picked out,” Althen said. “I looked at her and said, ‘You know what, you are on a pathway to losing your child. Is that what you want? If you’re worried about your kid, you have a legitimate reason, but be an ally. What’s unconditional love? That’s an ally. Be there is a positive way.’”

    Constance Kristofik, the founder of New London-based OutCT, calls Althen a perfect example of what the LGBTIQA+ community needs more of: “Someone supportive of LGBTQ people and not just supportive but willing to stand up for queer people,” like in instances where they hear discrimination or someone making jokes in poor taste.

    “An ally would say that’s not appropriate and speak up,” Kristofik said.

    Outright Action International, a human rights organization, defines allies as people who identify as "cisgender and straight, and believe in social and legal equality for LGBTQIA+ people." Cisgender describes a person whose personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex. 

    Kristofik points to Ocean Beach Park Manager Dave Sugrue as an ally to the local LGBTQIA+ community.

    She said Sugrue has welcomed OutCT to hold its annual Pride Festival at the beach since its inception in 2013 in addition to the Born This Way Fashion Show. The beach has also been a home for the OutCT youth program.

    “In the beginning, (Sugrue) fielded a few calls from people who were upset that Pride was happening at the beach,” Kristofik said. “He stood up for us.”

    Sugrue said Ocean Beach Park opened up to the LGBTQIA+ community simply because it was the right thing to do. The park is supposed to be a diverse place and free of discrimination. He admits he did receive some hate mail, threats and rumblings of a boycott early on.

    “But the outcome …. it’s been phenomenal," he said.

    The Pride event is one of Sugrue’s favorite days of the year and he said being mentioned as an ally “made my day.”

    “Coming from (Kristofik) it’s a real big deal. We will always embrace and welcome everybody. Everybody should be as lucky as I am to have made friends in that group. It’s really positive. We’ve benefited more than we’ve given,” Sugrue said.

    Althen said her example of an ally is retired Noank Baptist Church Pastor Paul Hayes, one of the people who was pivotal in welcoming members of the gay and lesbian community into the church, one of only a handful of churches in the nation that did so. The Noank Baptist Church became the meeting place for PFLAG of southeastern Connecticut “because of these amazing people like Paul,” she said.

    g.smith@theday.com

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