In Reading’s Centre Park this past Sunday afternoon, a young man wearing a lime green tutu and dangerously-high shoes relaxed near a group of Boomer-age men dressed in khaki shorts and polo t shirts. They were all enjoying a magic show, live music, food trucks, visiting vendors and socializing at this year’s Reading Pride Celebration.
The mission of Reading Pride Celebration, a 501(c)3 organization, is “to celebrate Gender and Sexual Diversity in greater Reading.” In addition to its flagstone event, the organization also hosts fundraising events, a night at the Reading Fightin Phils, remembrance events, like for the victims of the Pulse night club shooting, and it looks forward to expanding its activity in the year to come.
For many members of the queer community, especially youth, the Reading Pride Celebration is the first time that they’ve seen so many members of their community—especially from older generations—out together in one space and openly identifying as queer, “I didn’t know there was this many of us!” said Keyara Hunt, a Reading High School student attending with her friend Jerriliz Marrero.
The two students appreciated the safe-space of the Celebration, especially as they’re feeling worried that one of their only queer-youth-centric spaces, The Spectrum, hosted by Planned Parenthood, may change due to defunding.
Hunt and Marrero also noted how the Celebration made it easy for them to network and learn about local volunteer and advocacy opportunities from various organizations. They said that seeing that the organizations present were queer-friendly made them more likely to sign up to get information and maybe get involved with volunteering.
What they’d like to see in Reading moving forward would be some sort of campaign that designates more bully-free safe spaces for queer youth, something as simple as stores and businesses putting a sticker or sign in their windows.
And, they’d like to see some underage nightlife.
Shannon Leonhard, a Board of Directors member of the LGBT Center of Greater Reading, recalls, “When I came out 20 years ago, there were five gay bars in Reading. Now there’s zero.”
She notes that there are not a lot of community resources in Reading for the queer community and that increasing those resources is key to keeping youth and young adults in the city,
“Anything we can do to get young people not to leave…they don’t stay in Berks County because of a lack of resources and they often go to Philadelphia.”
Leonhard gets visibly excited as she imagines the year-old LGBT Center of Greater Reading five or ten years from now,
“[Reading] would be a place where the first thing you think of if you need resources, you’d think of our LGBT Center of Greater Reading right a way, no matter your age. We would be a resource for you to meet other people and find a sense of community.”
President of the Center, Jocelyn Young, believes that it’s time for the younger generation to step up and lead efforts like Pride and the work the Center does– and that the older or more experienced leaders also need to reach out to encourage the younger community members.
Reading Pride Celebration committee member Stephanie Sarti believes that Reading Pride Celebration gives young folks, specifically those who might be unsure where they fall along the spectrum and feel a little reserved, a safe place to volunteer and join a larger community and support system.
This is Sarti’s fifth Reading Pride Celebration as a Committee Member and she coordinated the event’s approximate 50 volunteers.
“I felt like I could be a part of something, to bring a safe place to people.”
She loves creating a space in which people are reminded that their voice matters, even if it’s only expressing what vendors they’d like to see next year. And Sarti takes participant feedback seriously, sitting at the exit throughout the event to ask folks who are leaving early what could be done next time to get them to stay longer,
“We want this event to be for everyone, we want to make sure everyone comes to Pride…and stays all day!”
She also values her volunteers, “Sometimes they are more important to this event than us [committee members]!” She and other committee members even personally paid for and made sandwiches to give to the volunteers who worked over lunchtime.
Sarti believes that the Reading Pride Celebration is one step towards changing the perception of Reading, even for its own residents. She wants to help show a younger generation of the queer community that Reading has something to offer them, noting that many travel to Allentown, Lancaster and Philadelphia just to “go out.” She hopes that the Pride Post Party is one small step towards changing that.
This year’s Pride Post Party was 80s and 90s themed, hosted at the DoubleTree By Hilton Reading, and featured music by DJ Evelyn and drag performances.
Sarti says that the Reading Pride Celebration group would love to partner with local restaurants or bars to create more queer nightlife spaces throughout the year.
Sean Meehan, a Pride participant, introduced himself as representing the LGBTQ Geeks. He likes that the Celebration offers a gathering place for the community, “that isn’t a bar or church” and would love to attend more events like Sunday’s Reading Pride Celebration.
Young looks forward to continued collaboration between organizations moving forward, “We [the LGBT Center of Greater Reading and Reading Pride Celebration] need to support each other. Our collaboration doesn’t end with Pride.”