You’re sitting down with a coworker at a conference. The group leader asks you to try out a simple exercise with the person next to you.
Have a five-minute conversation. Try to get as much information as you can from one another without disclosing anything about one specific topic: your sexual orientation.
How much time would you take considering your pronouns? How would you refer to your family members, spouse or children? What kind of information couldn’t you share?
Imagine working in a place where you couldn’t disclose that type of information; attending a school where you weren’t allowed to talk about it. That’s what it like, says NJEA staffer Richard Wilson, 55, of Collingswood, for a lot of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) Americans every day.
“If you haven’t had to do that, you don’t always grasp the amount of emotional and intellectual energy that that takes,” Wilson said. “For kids are just finding out about their sexuality and who can’t share, there’s a lot of energy going into it that could go into learning.”
Wilson, who relocated to Collingswood two years ago “largely because of its reputation for being gay-friendly,” said he’s used that exercise lots of times at professional development conferences. It underscores somewhat the kinds of challenges that workplaces, schools, and communities face in creating environments that are safe and welcoming.
Thursday night Wilson will hope to bring a similar message to the borough as it celebrates Night Out in Collingswood, an evening of dining and fundraising to benefit the local chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Friends & Families of Lesbians and Gays), a national organization dedicated to creating supportive social and familial environments for same-sex, bisexual, and transgendered individuals.
The event also coincides with National Coming Out Day, an unofficial holiday for LGBT people everywhere to try to eliminate those guarded five-minute conversations—and for those in their immediate social circles to help create an environment in which to do so.
“PFLAG has sort of always geared itself towards parents and helping them adjust [to the idea that their child might not be heterosexual],” Wilson said.
“[The group] provides that support to help them play catch-up to where their kids might be, or what they might have been thinking about for a while before they help them come out.”
Seeking 'the gay American Legion'
Collingswood is a remarkably comfortable and supportive environment for LGBT households, Wilson said, and in creating and fostering such a community, he doesn’t take any of that for granted. The purpose of Night Out in Collingswood isn’t to preach tolerance, he said. It’s more of a celebration of what the LGBT community brings to the town.
“I don’t think it’s something that the community owes to this group of folks,” Wilson said; “I think it’s something that gay folks need to say what can we do for the community.
“In Philadelphia, there are very defined places where you can find gay folks,” he said. “Here, the really positive thing is that gay folks are really integrated into the community—and the real challenge is that gay folks are really integrated into the community. So finding people and developing friendships and relationships is really more of a challenge that we thought it was going to be.”
In searching for a relevant simile to express the dilemma, Wilson brought up the case of his neighbor, an American Legion member. The Legion Hall is such a part of his life experience, Wilson said, that it’s where his neighbor goes to get recommendations for reliable repair work and just to share stories.
“So where’s the gay equivalent of the American Legion in Collingswood?” he asked. “I think an event like Thursday’s sort of gives us an opportunity to build some of those relationships or be a little bit more visible.”
'People are generally accepting'
Wilson knows well of what he speaks: he and his partner spent part of their lives in Indiana, where he says, they knew of exactly one other same-sex couple who lived the next state away.
“You didn’t know just how this was done,” Wilson said. “No visibility at all. So now, I take for granted that if I go to the Farmers Market on Saturday morning I’m probably going to see one or two other couples at the Farmers Market, which just makes life terribly comfortable.
“If you live in a place like Collingswood, or in the Northeast, where people are generally accepting, you just take for granted that that’s the way it is,” he said.
Night Out in Collingswood kicks off at 7 p.m. in the Pop Shop Party Room with a special LGBT-themed B.Y.O.B. trivia night hosted by drag queen Auntie Acid.
A $5 suggested donation gets you in the door, and a portion of the proceeds from your tab at The Pop Shop and Casona that evening will be donated to PFLAG. Raffles and door prizes will be awarded as well as prizes for trivia contest winners.
Wilson credits heavily the groundwork laid by organizers Lori Kerfren and Robb and Eric Sewell-Wolff, not only in publicizing the event but also in assembling an impressive array of goodies for the winning—some $3,300 worth.
The prizes include:
- 2 Gay Bingo Tickets
- Numerous Pottery Pieces
- 2 Haircut Gift Certificates
- Meditation/Spiritual Counseling
- 2 Seats for a Painting Party
- Jewelry Gift Card
- Educational Classes
- 1 night stay at Harrah's with a gourmet dinner for 2 people
- 60-Minute Massage
- Beauty Care Gift Certificates
- Six Book Packages
- Photography Session
- 2 $50 Collingswood Cash Gift Certificates
- Assorted Gift Certificates
- 2 Concert Tickets
- iMac Pet Bed
- 4 Theatre Tickets
- Candy Box
- Spa Package and Products
- Art Print
- Photo Print
- Floral Gift Card
- AIDS Fund
- Art Within Reach
- Aster's Flower Shop
- Bauhaus Hair Design Studio
- Bob Pileggi
- Canvas Mixers
- Chris Eckenrode
- David Gamber
- Deborah Allen Hamalainen
- Evelyn Taylor
- Extraordinary ED
- Frugal Resale
- Gem Casino Travel, LLC
- Groundwork Massage
- Heather Ossandon
- Jeffery Filbert
- Jubili Beads and Yarns
- LB Designs
- Lethe Press
- Lilac Blossom
- Lisa Confora
- Maley & Associates
- Michael Bruce Florist
- Mud and Fire
- Paul Lisicky
- Philadelphia Gay Men's Chorus
- Robb and Eric Sewell-Wolff
- Simply Gents
- Siobhan Keefe
- South Camden Theatre Company
- The Candy Jar
- The Treehouse Coffee Shop
- Verde Salon
- Whole Art Gallery & Studio
Couldn't make it to the event but still want to show your support? Pick up a "Night Out in Collingswood"-branded item from Cafe Press (designed by Liz Battaglia of LB Designs) and your purchase will help fund your local chapter of PFLAG.