State Treasurer Erick Russell receives the Visionary Award. Kiomi Rincon Photos.
Juliana Dalmacio and Eliana Brito Castillo stood at a button-making station, surrounded by pocket-sized pride flags, pronouns, and cartoon-style llamas, frogs, owls and other animals. Every few minutes, a new student stopped by the station, chose their design, and left with a new piece of swag to celebrate Pride Month.
On a recent Friday, Hill Regional Career High School kicked off Pride Month by holding its first ever LGBTQ+ celebration at the school, a collaboration among the school’s Gay Straight Alliance and faculty advisor Kathleen Rooney. Students opened the school’s doors to both peers and invited speakers, hoping to spread a message of acceptance, education, and pride.
“Since a lot of us [members] are a part of the LGBTQIA+ community, it made it very easy for us to decide that we wanted to help out with this event,” Castillo said.
From the moments students arrived to the afternoon, that vision came to life. Just past 8 a.m., Career’s doors swung open to visitors, including speakers who would soon grace the school's stage. In a lobby normally dominated by the school’s colors, purple and yellow, an array of different pride flags, each with a short description, filled the space.
Leading into the school’s auditorium, student depictions of pride flags, a raised rainbow fist, and a call for peace and equality made the day into a full-fledged celebration. Visitors marveled at the different art pieces as they made their way towards the auditorium for the ceremony.
As crowds piled in, filling the front rows of the auditorium, Career sophomores and GSA members Josh Burgess and Alex Alvarado came up to the stage’s podium. Glowing beneath bright lights, Burgess introduced Connecticut State Treasurer Erick Russell, noting Russell's continuous work in Connecticut and in LGBTQ+ advocacy.
Alvarado then handed Russell a “Visibility Award” for being the first openly gay, Black state-wide government official in Connecticut.
Standing at the podium to receive the award, Russell pointed to the attacks on LGBTQ+ rights across the country, advocating for legislation that better protects LGBTQ+ and particularly trans people from coast to coast. He praised Connecticut for being a safe and welcoming state, but said that it still has work to do in protecting and affirming LGBTQ+ rights.
In response to a question from Career senior Leila Ayers, who asked about the growing number of bills opposing trans athletes, he criticized states that have passed legislation keeping LGBTQ+ people off the playing field for who they are.
“Taxpayer dollars that go to schools that fund sports is not about somebody winning a trophy,” he said. “It’s about people learning how to work as a team, it's about people getting skills, it’s about people getting to explore things outside of the classroom and find out what they're good at.”
“The idea that we’re going to weaponize these programs that are designed to help kids to try to dehumanize them, and say that you can’t be who you are, to me is absurd,” he added.
Russell said he plans to use his position to further amplify the voices of those who are currently facing oppression. “I want to bring a perspective into rooms that aren’t always heard, so that we can make sure we are advocating for policies that not only improves our state physically, but also lifts all of our communities up, particularly communities that have been marginalized and often left behind,” he said.
Speaking after Russell, PROUD Academy Founder Patricia Nicolari described the experiences in her own life that inspired her to found the private school she now runs for LGBTQ+ students. Students were surprised and sometimes shocked as Nicolari described harassment that she faced during her early years of being a teacher.
Being whispered about and called slurs became an everyday occurrence, she recalled. When she remembered learning that students had vandalized her car, numerous gasps were audible in the auditorium.
Nicolari found it empowering to come out to the community, despite the hostility towards her, she said. When students and staff shared that they felt pride and understanding after seeing her come out, she knew she had done the right thing.
After continuing to ensure that she was creating a safe space for LGBTQ+ students and faculty, Nicolari felt she needed to take the next step in the process by creating a school surrounding the safety and education of LGBTQ+ students, she said. She now hopes that PROUD Academy will become a place for more LGBTQ+ teachers to find an accepting non-discriminatory work environment.
“As adults we also need a safe place to work,” she said.
The First Of Many Pride Events To Come
Members of the school's GSA preparing for the event.
The event wasn’t always on Career’s mind. Earlier this year, members of the school’s GSA questioned what they could do to show more LGBTQIA+ representation throughout the school.
With National Pride Month coming up in June, the club thought that the best way to get the entirety of the community to join together was by holding a school-wide event.
Rooney started working with members of the GSA to decide what should be included in the event. They worked to organize a number of workshops run by other Career faculty, invite multiple guest speakers, and set up a schedule for everyone to follow.
“It’s good to have the conversation with a lot of the faculty and students because it really hasn’t been a big conversation in our school before,” Rooney said. She added that by hosting this event, she hopes people will become more educated on LGBTQ+ topics and be unafraid to open up the conversation about it.
School administrator Jonathan Q. Berryman also played a major role in the organization of this event. With Rooney, he helped to contact several state government officials to be guest speakers at the end-of-the-day ceremony. One of the most notable was Russell, who GSA students buzzed with excitement about before his arrival.
As they watched the event come together, many faculty members also said they wanted to help out to further the spread of LGBTQ+ education. Career High school librarian Marilyn Wilson planned on creating a workshop where she could discuss the importance of having representation within media.
On Friday, she shared multiple resources that New Haven Public Schools (NHPS) students can use in order to find multiple LGBT books for free. After discussing media representation, she also hosted a Love, Simon watch party.
“I think it’s really important that our LGBTQ community has both literature and films that they can relate to,” she said. “I want people to know that we have a diverse selection of resources to provide them with representation they may not often see” Wilson said.
Other Career groups decided to get creative with different workshops to host during the event. Career’s first Robotics team, the Elm City Robo Squad, hosted the button-making table. Members Dalmacio and Castillo said that they were happy to be a part of this new event. At the station, attendees could make different pride and pronoun buttons to recognize and celebrate different sexual and gender identities.
“We’re a very diverse team, so we want to spread messages of acceptance and pride to the rest of the community.” Dalmacio said.
Another key aspect the event wanted to recognize was the furthering education of LGBTQ+ history and current day activism. Career faculty James Osborne hosted a workshop dedicated to teaching the different key events of LGBTQ+ history. By teaching the history of LGBTQ+ struggles, he said, Career faculty hope to inspire students towards advocacy to prevent history from repeating itself.
This article comes from the 2023 Cohort of the Youth Arts Journalism Initiative. Kiomi Rincon is a senior at Hill Regional Career High School.