By Gretchen Webster
WESTPORT — There was a lot of pride, and a lot of happiness, evident at Staples High School on Sunday as Westport Pride hosted its second annual Pride Celebration, with more than 100 people attending.
Town more welcoming
Several adults attending the event, which was moved from Jesup Green to the school as inclement weather threatened, said they initially found Westport was not as welcoming to LGBTQ people as they had expected.
But Westport Pride, they said, has helped the community to be more accepting of all sorts of diversity, making Westport a more welcoming place.
And, according to students at the celebration, the Westport Public Schools Pride Coalition at Staples supported them when they needed it most.
“Pride” in Westport
“Westport has this image of being inclusive. But I met a lot of LGBTQ people and parents who didn’t feel like they were getting attention,” Brian McGunagle, who founded the organization two years ago, said he discovered after moving to town. He started holding meetings and planning events, and the group now has 30 regular volunteers and “a lot of allies,” he said.
Last year’s Pride Celebration held on Jesup Green drew 400 people, and this year the group has held three events over the last several weeks in observance of Pride Month, including a “queer cookout” in Norwalk and a drag art show at MoCA Westport.
The group’s goals for the next year include creating a scholarship for an LGBTQ student, and “to focus on building more community … We’re just excited that this tradition is continuing next year,” he said of the annual Pride Celebration.
Tooker: Pride has made Westport better
McGunagle was praised at the event by First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker for his hard work creating Westport Pride. “Look at what he’s built … You have made us a better community,” she said during her remarks.
Tooker also issued a proclamation welcoming diversity of all sorts to the town. “Everyone — no matter who you are or who you love — has a place in Westport,” she said.
Dodig: Be proud of Westport
One of the speakers greeted with particular warmth was John Dodig, the former principal of Staples High School, who retired in 2015. He told the story of his life, recounting hardships he faced because his family would not accept a gay person, so he avoided coming out for years.
“I tried like hell to be straight,” he said. At 16, “I got to a point where I said to myself, ‘Is it worth living?’ ”
It wasn’t until Dodig came to Staples, after a career as a teacher and school administrator elsewhere, that he felt comfortable being who he was. Staples “changed my life. I felt for the first time in my adult life I could walk the halls and everyone knew I was gay,” he said.
Dodig told Staples students at the event to thank their parents for coming to Westport, because the town “is one of the few communities where you can be who you want to be,” he said. “Be proud of Westport.”
School programs making a difference
Several of the members of Westport Pride said they were proud of the work being done by Staples biology teacher Kayla Iannetta, chairwoman of the Westport Public Schools Pride Coalition.
When she came to Staples five years ago, Iannetta said, she was determined to be open about who she is.
Her childhood was similar to Dodig’s, she said. “I was super closeted, a really destructive teenager. My school was not safe for gay people,” she said of her upbringing in Southbury.
Iannetta took over the Gay Alliance at Staples when she arrived, and the program has grown. This year, the alliance began a mentorship program at the middle schools, with Staples coalition members visiting one of the town’s middle schools each week.
“It’s been getting rave reviews,” she said of the mentorship program.
During Sunday’s Pride Celebration, in addition to speakers and musical performances, there were tables set up with refreshments, face painting and more. Visitors milled about, listening to speakers, greeting one another and checking out activities.
Jen DeLoyd, who attended with her daughter, Eaden, moved here with her wife and children in 2018. At first, she said she felt a bit isolated, but the pandemic brought “an influx of outsiders” to Westport, both straight and gay, especially from New York, who she feels are more open to differences in lifestyle and diversity.
“They created a better community,” she said. “I feel Westport has moved in the right direction.”
Gretchen Webster is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Westport Journal. Learn more about us here.