Pride Festival’s “Family” Theme Reflects Community’s Hopes about Marriage Equality


County Executive, Thomas DeGise & Hudson Pride Connections Center Members at the Hudson County Flag Raising for JC Pride Festival 2013

New Jersey is just one of only two states in the northeastern United States where marriage equality has not yet been achieved. When the Supreme Court ruled earlier this summer to overturn the Defense Of Marriage Act (DOMA), supporters grew more optimistic, hopeful that the Supreme Court ruling would be enough to immediately establish Civil Unions as full marriage equality in the state of New Jersey. That was not the case. In a hearing on Thursday, when advocates presented their case, Judge Mary Jacobson gave lawyers until September to make another attempt with their arguments.

Some Jersey City residents feel they’ve been forced to move out of the state in order to protect their families at the federal level, while others are hopeful, either marrying in New York or waiting for marriage rights to move forward here in New Jersey. Renata Moreira, Policy and Communications Director of the Our Family Coalition, and her fiance Lori Bilella are an example of the former.

“As a native New Jerseyan, Lori always thought she would one day marry the love of her life in her home state. I, too, had similar dreams while growing up in Brazil, ” said Moreira. In 1997, I immigrated to the United States (to be able to be out) and embraced Jersey City as my new home, not knowing the many challenges I’d also face as a queer woman in this new city that was still going through the early stages of building its LGBT and allied community,” said Moreira.

After graduating from New York University in 2001 with a degree in political science, Moreira decided to help build Jersey City’s LGBT community with her friends from Jersey City Lesbian + Gay Outreach (JCLGO) the organization that started JC Pride and is now disbanded  and Jersey City Connections, the former name of  the Hudson Pride Connections Center, a Jersey City-based non-profit organization that offers services, programs and events to northern New Jersey’s diverse LGBT community.

“We still cannot share in the dignity that marriage provides to our straight friends who choose to take that step in our own hometown. After being together for four years, we finally decided that enough was enough,” said Moreira.

Moreira and Bilella don’t want to wait any longer to celebrate their wedding because they want to be sure that Billela’s grandmothers will be able to participate.

“Besides, we are ready to start our family, and I’m not getting any younger,” said Moreira. “Our concern about how our kids will be protected and our family recognized from legal and emotional perspectives, has been a major factor in our residency decisions.”

Last year, the pair got engaged and moved to San Francisco. Though they’ll legally be married in California, Moreira and Billela will be hosting a wedding ceremony at Liberty State Park in September.

“I think that all folks should have the right to enter this state-regulated institution if they wish to do so,” said Moreira. “Besides, we believe that by loving and embracing ourselves and each other exactly for who we are (as a loving same-sex couple), we will also be better daughters, leaders, sisters, and friends.”

The 13th Annual Jersey City LGBT Pride Festival, which will be taking place this Saturday, August 24 from noon to 6 pm in Jersey City’s Exchange Place neighborhood, will bring together members of the community who are hopeful and anxious about the impending decision regarding marriage equality.

The Pride Festival is organized by Hudson Pride Connections Center and Humanity Pride Productions, a New York-based production company dedicated to producing film and television that inspires change. This year’s festival will mark Hudson Pride’s 20th anniversary.

The festivities already kicked off on Tuesday, August 20 at 6 pm at the Justice William Brennan Court House, where members of 2013 Pride committee were recognized by County Executive Thomas DeGise and members of the Hudson County Board of Freeholders during a flag-raising ceremony. (pictured above)

The theme for this year’s Pride Festival – “family” – is fitting. Not only will marriage equality in New Jersey allow couples to formalize their families, but it will also bond the members of Jersey City’s LGBT community in victory.

“The Hudson Pride Connections Center is a home for the community, and we wanted to figure out a way to incorporate the complementary themes of home and family and youth into the festival,” said Jonathan Lucas, chairman of the board of Hudson Pride Connections Center and co-chair of the Pride Festival. “The festival started to evolve and is like a family reunion. Family was a natural consequence of what we were creating.”

The family theme also appeals to feedback given by those who have attended past Pride Festivals.

“A couple of years ago, we collected feedback from people about Pride. Some feedback we got was that they wanted to see more things geared toward youth and family. Some of the things weren’t appropriate for young children. We were feeling the same way. It was a big party, and it felt like we were trying to simulate New York City,” said Lucas. “We didn’t want a situation where the parents had to find a babysitter. Now the kids could see how they celebrate Pride.”

To correspond with the family theme, the event organizers will be offering many more events geared not only to young people but also to allies of the LGBT community: diversity awareness, health presentations, performances by national and international entertainers, and youth-oriented activities including a dunk tank and a rock-climbing wall.

“Another thing that you will see is an emphasis on physical, emotional, and mental health. We’re pretty aggressive in terms of talking to providers in the area to provide information about health. It’s important for kids to get exercise and health screens,” said Lucas.

Rich Kiamco and his husband have lived in Jersey City since 2007 and were legally married in New York City on September 29, 2011. They had a formal wedding ceremony at the Loews Jersey City in Journal Square that afternoon. Kiamco has attended the Pride Festival on a number of occasions.

“The challenge is trying to connect Jersey City as a unit and attract people outside of the gay community. There are also people just living their lives as gay people,” said Kiamco. “I just like to be able to socialize and make new friends, say hello, reconnect with people you haven’t seen because we don’t always see each other. It’s sort of a gay homecoming. How do you create intimacy for a Pride event?”

Hudson Pride and Humanity Pride have tried to address questions like Kiamco’s in their planning for this year’s event.

“We’re shifting it from the focus on performances to entertainment that allows more mingling and socializing. One of the things that came up as highly rated was the opportunity to get reacquainted with people they haven’t seen in a long time. We’re going to have more dancing and more things people can do physically so they can mingle and talk with each other,” said Lucas.

In addition, speakers at this year’s event will include Mayor Steven Fulop, Senator Barbara Buono, Troy Stevenson, executive director of Garden State Equality, and possibly Newark Mayor and Democratic Senate candidate Cory Booker, though he hasn’t been confirmed.

“We think Jersey is going to be the next ground zero for marriage equality in terms of the fight. It’s important to make people aware of what’s going on, to speak up for rights of gays and lesbians,” said Lucas.

Charles Ignacio is a Jersey City resident and the former deputy director of Freedom to Marry, an organization that campaigns for marriage equality in the United States. In addition, he was a former executive producer of “In the Life,” a newsmagazine about gay life and culture that aired for 20 years on PBS. He and his husband John Catania run their own production company, Two Lions Productions, and together founded the LGBT film series Chillfest eight years ago. They married in New York City the first day that marriage licenses were made available to LGBT couples.

“One of the reasons my husband and I moved to New Jersey was because we found a growing LGBT population organizing especially here in Jersey City. New Jersey has a long history of accepting its gay members and people who live here,” said Ignacio. “My LGBT colleagues and friends have been working on the issue of same-sex marriage for a long, long time. I’m looking enviously across the Hudson and west to California. I’m hopeful that the Supreme Court will do the right thing.”

In his position at Hudson Pride, Lucas spends most of his time thinking about the current state of Jersey City’s LGBT community.

“We think that Jersey City has the potential to become the number one destination for LGBT in the country. When you look at the close proximity to New York City and the cost of living, we have a lot to offer. People who were basically New Yorkers are starting to live here and look to their own backyards,” said Lucas. “A number of things happening here are going to make Jersey City an exciting place over the next few years.”

The 13th Annual Jersey City LGBT Pride Festival will take place from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday, August 24, 2013 at Exchange Place Plaza in Jersey City, NJ. All events are free and open to the public.

Photo of flag raising by Jonathan Lucas, photo gallery by Mickey Mathis

Laryssa Wirstiuk

is a writer who teaches creative writing at Rutgers University. Born and raised in the suburbs of northern New Jersey, Laryssa moved to Jersey City because she was curious about the city where her mother was raised. Check her blog Craft Your Drafts.