Ricky Mestre performs. Lucy Gellman Photos.
After circling the floor to cheers, Ricky Mestre got serious about the canvas clasped in his left hand. He crouched down to the dance floor and stretched all the way out onto his stomach, a silver-studded belt pressed into the tile. He kicked his legs back and forth and began to draw. A black leather crown bobbed back and forth atop his head.
It set the scene for the New Haven Pride Center’s “Chocolate & Cheesecake,” a Friday night fundraiser to support the Center’s 2023 LGBTQ+ Youth Conference. Held just days after the Center announced the loss of its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and appointment of an interim executive director, the gala raised $24,200, which will go directly towards making the conference free for all attendees. It comes in a record year for anti-LGBTQ legislation, the bulk of which is aimed at trans children and teens.
The 2023 conference theme is “Chosen Family.” The conference, which launched at SCSU’s John Lyman Center for the Performing Arts earlier this year, takes the place of True Colors’ long-running conference that ended in 2020. The organization, which hosted the conference in person from 1994 to 2019, closed unexpectedly last year. “Chocolate & Cheesecake” was originally its fundraiser; True Colors Founder Robin McHaelen gave the Center her blessing to bring it back under the same name.
Top: Center Board Chair Dolores Dégagé Hopkins. Miss Frank is behind her. Bottom: Board member Jonathan Joseph records performances. He later called the gala a full-circle moment: His first speaking engagement was at a True Colors conference years ago.
“Truly, sometimes it’s important to be reminded of how much is at stake,” said co-emcee Miss Frank, board president of the Imperial Sovereign Court of All Connecticut, as she reflected on a rise in anti-trans attacks in state legislatures, schools, bathrooms, and on playing fields. “Write a letter. Pick up the phone and call somebody. Vote! There are forces at work against us, and we are more powerful than they.”
Throughout the night, dozens of attendees echoed that message, voicing their support for both the conference and the Center in remarks, performances, paddle-raises and a silent auction. Long before waiters sailed through the room with platters of cheesecake, artist Ricky Mestre took the dance floor, a canvas and thick blue marker cradled in his hands.
Just moments before, Center LGBTQ+ Youth Services Director Ochumare had made an appeal that would become a refrain by the end of the night: “Give! Us! Your! Money!”
Ochumare's call of "Give us your money!" became a refrain by the end of the night.
As Mestre looked out across the audience, a cover of Madonna’s “True Blue” drifted over the speakers. He began to move, uncapping the blue marker as he mouthed the words and started to draw. In the audience, several attendees began to sing silently along with him, the lyrics rising over the room. Close to the room’s entrance, drag royalty watched every move.
As he drew, cheers rose from every corner of the room. After the performance, Mestre said it had been a shock to his system to learn about the Center's recent transition, but that his support for the space hasn’t wavered. He knows how many people in the community rely on it—and is excited to be one of the champions of the space.
“This is one of the few organizations that I’m familiar with that provides specific services to the LGBT community, and we need that,” he said. As it joined the silent auction items, his finished canvas showed a cartoon of Madonna with her backup dancers surrounded with blue hearts. The design comes from a poppy, technicolor music video that has the late 1980s written all over it.
Top: "If we don’t support our own, who is gonna support us?” Bubbles said. Bottom: Erycka Ortiz and Jahnice Cajigas.
As she watched performances unfold from a hi-top table in the corner of the room, artist Tia Lynn Waters (or as she is affectionately known, Bubbles, or Bubblicious) said that she was excited to support the Center, and specifically its focus on young people who may need help the most right now. For decades, she has blazed a trail for LGBTQ+ youth in the city, with an arts-based kind of activism that has continued into the present.
Calling over the emcees as they chatted with the audience, she urged attendees to both vote and show up to events like the gala. “Get your friends to vote too!” she yelled to applause.
“The Center helps so many people,” she said when asked what brought her out Friday night. “The community needs it. If we don’t support our own, who is gonna support us?”
Shawn Banks and Nichole Mayweather-Banks.
Out in the hallway between songs, wives Nichole Mayweather-Banks and Shawn Banks said they had made the commute from Windsor for precisely that reason. In her work, Mayweather-Banks works as a licensed clinical social worker with a specialty in gender-affirming therapy and care.
For years, she was a presenter at the True Colors conference—and continued that work as she spoke on trans youth homelessness at the Center’s LGBTQ+ Youth conference this year. As someone who sees firsthand the effects of anti-trans policies, legislation, and speech—and the isolation that it breeds—she can’t not support an event like the gala, she said.
By the venue’s beach-facing windows, attendees Sarah Yarnes and Cassandra McQuaid agreed as they danced the night away with each other. Both raised in Northern Connecticut, the two are best friends—basically sisters, McQuaid said—and had come to support other friends who identify as queer and didn’t want to be at the gala alone.
Top: Friends Sarah Yarnes and Cassandra McQuaid. Bottom: Performer Cassandra Fiore.
For both of them, the conference is a lifeline well worth supporting. Yarnes became familiar with True Colors through its early-1990s precursor, “Children from the Shadows,” and attended the conference for years. It was the first place that she could remember anyone talking openly about safe sex, anti-bullying practices, and mental health.
“It was just about being comfortable,” she said. As a self-described ally, she wants that for fellow youth. Both she and McQuaid said they were also glad to hear the theme of “chosen family.”
“When you can’t go to your own family, you go to your best friend—and your best friend becomes your sister or your brother,” McQuaid said.
“We created an environment where everybody belonged,” McHaelen said. “It was life changing for people who were a part of it.”
McHaelen, who led True Colors until fall 2020, praised the Center for taking the conference on.
When the True Colors Conference began in 1994, there were only four known Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs, now sometimes referred to as Gender Sexuality Alliances) in the state. Three hundred and fifty kids came. Over the next 25 years, attendance rose into the thousands; the 2019 conference brought in 3,800 people. For some attendees, it was the only chance to be openly queer that they had ever experienced,
“We created an environment where everybody belonged,” she said. “It was life changing for people who were a part of it.”
When True Colors shuttered abruptly in the early months of last year, she had two primary concerns, she said. The first was the conference. The second was the organization’s severed relationship with the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF). When the Pride Center took on the conference, she breathed a sigh of relief. She’s still breathing it as the conference enters its second year.
Interim Executive Director Juancarlos Soto: Staying focused.
“Now more than ever, it’s critical because our kids are getting the message that they can’t be who they are,” she said, later using the entire LGBTQQIP2SAA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, pansexual, two-spirit, asexual, ally) acronym to cheers. “That is not okay. We need to counter that [sentiment] over and over. They need to know that we are here.”
As it stands, Ochumare said, the conference will comprise panels, workshops, keynote speakers and performances, and more safe spaces where youth can simply feel comfortable coming as they are, and spend time alone or in small groups if they need to. Some of the topics include how to choose family, effective communication, navigating trauma, and being comfortable in one’s body.
In addition to Ochumare, a planning team includes Center staff members Jahnice Cajigas and Erycka Ortiz, as well as four youth curators. This year, Ochumare said, the goal is to reach 500 students, approximately double the number that attended last year. Returning artists include Candyce “Marsh” John and Finn Lockwood among others.
“We’ve seen what it means for young people to be divested in,” said Ortiz, herself an artist and a writer. “We also know what it feels like to be safe, seen, and celebrated.” In a political climate that does not want young queer people to thrive, she said, she’s pushing back against that.
Center Board Chair Dolores Dégagé Hopkins stressed the conference’s role in vanquishing the isolation, depression, and suicidality that can happen to LGBTQ+ kids when they believe they are alone. According to the Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, 45 percent of LGBTQ+ youth “seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.” They were less likely to do so if they had a support system in place.
“Our youth, our teens, they need to come,” Hopkins said, becoming emotional as she spoke. “They need to make friends, they need someone to talk to.”
When asked about the recent loss of the Center’s 501(c)(3) status, she said that the board and staff are working to restore it as soon as possible. As of last week, the board had submitted all necessary documents to BryteBridge Nonprofit Solutions, Hopkins said. The current priority is now making payroll for this month, which totals about $20,000.
“We’re staying focused,” said interim Executive Director Juancarlos Soto. “We’re really focusing on the staff and the community.”