Out and proud: Keene celebrates Pride Month with parade and festival
KEENE VALLEY — It’s always been about more than just accepting others. Keene’s Pride event, hosted by a group of locals on Saturday, was about being proud of every part of one’s self.
At the edge of Marcy Field, a group of about 30 people — several of them wearing rainbow-colored garb and waving LGBTQ-plus Pride flags — watched cars pass and waited for something to happen. The sky above was cloudy but a bright blue, and sunlight broke through the clouds unfettered.
Shortly after noon, a siren’s din echoed from the distance. A young boy in the crowd turned around and excitedly told his parents he saw a fire truck on its way.
The Keene Valley Volunteer Fire Department led the pride parade again this year. Firefighters kicked things off with blaring sirens and flashing lights, their fire truck decked out in rainbow flags.
The parade that followed included a hay bale truck with an enormous blow-up unicorn inside, pickup trucks and cars festooned with Pride flags, a patrol car from the Essex County Sheriff’s Department, and a truck carrying Mhisty Knights, a drag queen from Peru, New York.
No longer operating under capacity restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic, Keene’s Pride Parade was extended this year to include a small festival in Marcy Field. A few local organizations had tables set up there, including the Adirondack North Country Gender Alliance and the Essex County Building Resilience in Essex Families Coalition, or BRIEF. There was a tie-dye station, an airbrush tattoo station, a small petting zoo with animals from Keene’s Rookery Ranch, lawn games and a performance from D Major, a reggae artist from Jamaica. All of the attractions were free.
Keene hosts possibly the only town-wide Pride celebration in the Adirondacks, and this year, it was among only a handful of Pride celebrations in New York that weren’t held virtually.
One of the parade’s lead organizers, Keene Valley resident and state forest ranger Robbi Mecus, told a crowd at Marcy Field about how she’d been accepted by her community after coming out five years ago.
About a year after she moved to Keene Valley, she decided to come out as transgender and started transitioning.
“I didn’t see anybody like me. I didn’t see anybody being who I wanted to be,” she said. “I thought everyone was going to reject me, that I was going to have to quit my job and move out of town.
“But something amazing happened,” she added. “I was accepted by everybody in town. They were welcoming, with open arms. I think somebody asked me, ‘Well, am I still going to get my burning permit?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And they’re like, ‘OK, so, good.'”
But she realized that she wanted more than acceptance.
“I needed to create a space here in town that I wanted to see. I wanted the visibility that was missing for me,” she said. “I want people who want to move here, I want people who want to visit here, who want to recreate here, to spend time here, to know that we’re not just accepting. We’re openly welcoming. That’s what I want to see here and that’s why we created this here.”
Growing up in the North Country and being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or part of the broader LGBTQ-plus community has been challenging for some.
“All through high school — I graduated in 2001 — I kind of had a feeling of who I was,” Knights, who has performed as a drag queen since 2004, said after the parade on Saturday. “But with it being the late ’90s and everything else, I was terrified of being out and proud. In Peru (High) School, there was a (gay) student that was stabbed with a needle in the cafeteria, the year ahead of me. Plus, back then, Peru was that jock school. If you felt you were gay or anything, you were going to have issues.”
It was two years after graduating high school that Knights came out, went to K-Mart and bought a pair of “flaming pajama pants.”
“I blew the closet doors off,” Knights said.
Knights said performing as a drag queen provides an opportunity to speak to people and give them the courage to “go forward with their lives and be happy with themselves.” Celebrating Pride Month, too, gives people a chance to be proud of who they are, according to Knights.
“You walk through the hall, you walk down the street, and you see straight pride,” Knights said. “You see straight couples holding hands, not afraid to show their love for each other. … Even in Plattsburgh, I’ve walked down the street and had ‘faggot’ yelled at me through car windows. We’re scared to be ourselves. But Pride gives us that chance, that community, where we can come together and be happy about ourselves.”
Keene’s Pride celebration on Saturday was the first such event that SUNY Potsdam student Katelin Guerin, of Altona, had ever been to.
“I’ve always been interested but I’ve never actually, physically, been,” she said. “I’m really happy to be here.”
Guerin said Pride celebrations like Keene’s are important because people want to be seen and heard.
“One of the biggest things about having a community like this, events like this: It’s a way to tell people that they’re not alone and they’re not the only one,” she said. “Especially in the North Country, that’s really important. I know I grew up very isolated and didn’t know anything LGBTQ-plus until I got to college. Then when I got to college, it was like a world opened. Now I’m meeting people in the community and I’m really enjoying it. I love this, and I love knowing that there are other people here as well.”
Jericho Reigns, of Mooers, has been to multiple Pride events in the past, including larger celebrations in cities like Washington, D.C. She said having more local events is good so “people who are isolated or who aren’t even out yet have a sense of being seen and belonging.”
Keene town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson Jr., speaking to a crowd from a stage behind the Holt House in Marcy Field, said he hoped the Pride event would become a tradition and part of the town’s yearly calendar.
Adirondack Diversity Initiative Executive Director Nicole Hylton-Patterson spoke about Juneteenth, the new federal holiday celebrating the emancipation of slaves, held on the anniversary of an 1865 proclamation from a Union Army general proclaiming to the people of Texas that all slaves were free. She underscored the work of Marsha P. Johnson, a Black gay rights activist, and spoke about the atrocities and discrimination perpetrated against queer Black Americans today.
“For all of us, all of you, who consider yourselves allies, accomplices or at the very least co-conspirators, I want you to step up,” Hylton-Patterson said. “I want you to be an active bystander. I want you to be culturally conscious about bullying, become culturally conscious about what it means to be a queer person in this country, in this moment.”