FAIR LAWN, NJ – Bravery never seemed to resonate so loudly in the heart of Fair Lawn as on the balmy evening of June 19 when roughly five dozen residents gathered on the front lawn of Borough Hall to ring in the town’s first-ever Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Questioning (LGBTQ) event.
While a little late in the month to be celebrating Pride Month, one of the keynote speakers, Anna Wong, would agree that it's better late than never. Wong, 34, a New York City native who recently relocated to the area with her wife, Lexa, was 19 when she came out as lesbian. Then a Queens Borough resident, Wong, a first-generation Chinese-American and co-founder of NJ5 Coalition, it was at age 21 when she says she “found her community.” But, she added, 21 “is late for a lot of people.”
“Some people don’t make it to see 21. I grew up in New York City, I didn’t live in fear every day,” she mused while standing casually beside the podium to address the crowd filled with families and their children and dignitaries which included Assemblywoman Lisa Swain, Freeholder David Ganz, representatives from Congressman Josh Gottheimer’s office and Fair Lawn council members.
Wong said of the 1.6 million young people who are homeless, 40 percent of them comprise the LGBTQ community.
“When you put a flag up like this, it means a lot for the young people growing up in a town like Fair Lawn where they don’t have necessarily an outlet or visibility of other people who may look like me … This flag is more than just a flag. It’s an act of love. It’s an extension of acceptance. So when you put something like this out here for everyone to see, it gives people hope.”
It certainly brought hope to Jacob Reiffe. The 12-year-old borough resident spoke before the crowd in honor of his transgender sister.
“My name is Jacob. And I am the proud brother of a brave young sister who happens to be transgender,” he told the crowd in a sweet-sounding voice, his gentle eyes beneath blue framed glasses with his strawberry blond hair styled in an edgy cut. “Being transgender is just a small part of who she is. But it is not easy, and it is not a choice. My sister is a girl and always had been. We just didn’t know it right away.”
Jacob said his reason for his presence at the event was to inform the community of transgender people’s existence in all communities and their dire need of acceptance.
“Some transgender people are too afraid to be out because they have concerns about their safety,” he said to a riveted, concerned crowd. “I am glad to see so many of you here today. The world is changing, and that means my sister has a better chance of living the life she’s supposed to lead without the fear of discrimination.”
If there’s anyone thankful for the world becoming a more accepting society it’s Dan Donatacci – a Fair Lawn High School alumnus invited by Women of Action leader Jaymie Gerard and event organizer – who didn’t experience this kind of support when he was going to school in the 1990s, a “difficult and liberating time to be gay,” he said.
“It would have been 20 years next year since I took my boyfriend to the Fair Lawn High School prom. Try to start a Gay-Straight Alliance at the school – tried,” he said.
Donatacci said he was bullied at that time and was forced to handle situations in his own “colorful way.”
Waving a copy of a Record article that a friend had dug up for him from two decades ago, the newspaper wrote about Donatacci being the first to bring a same-sex date to the prom.
That time in his life wasn’t the easiest for him, as he recalled receiving hate mail and death threats and was even told by police to wear a bullet-proof vest beneath his gown at graduation.
During this time of being "hopeful and embattled," he teamed up with PFlag, an organization established in 1972 and the country’s first that boasts the biggest to unit families and allies with people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer, to speak at local high schools to raise LGBTQ awareness. He soon left the borough to pursue a career in poetry and the arts and was pleasantly surprised to return to his stomping grounds to see a different kind of town that is more tolerable and that returning was both an “uplifting and joyful experience.”
At the event, the Women of Action had a map of Fair Lawn on which residents signed their name in all the colors of the rainbow while a little girl held up a sign that read, “It Takes Courage to Grow Up and Be Who You Really Are.”
“I’m so glad to see this kind of effort being made for the LGBTQ community here,” he said before tickling the crowd with an original poem about gay liberation. “I hope it not only continues but increases in the future.”
It’s certainly a start. Fair Lawn Mayor Kurt Perluso called Fair Lawn “a community that’s very focused on recognizing our diversity and celebrating it.” EJ Beverly, another keynote speaker who has been out as a proud gay man for 24 years and is a member of the borough's Stigma-Free Committee, said he's seen changes he didn’t see as a closeted teen.
“Being in the closet was a very painful and lonely experience,” he recalled. "Living in fear that someone might discover my secret and that I didn’t belong. But when I finally came out at 25 years old I was welcomed by the LGBT community with open arms and love, and for that I am eternally grateful.”
Beverly noted the many accomplishments that have been made on a national scale which include striving for equality such as the ending of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy in the military and the Supreme Court ruling in favor of gay marriage. But despite these victories, Beverly noted the tragedies that still exist today such as the Pulse nightclub massacre in Miami, Florida two years ago.
“As we proceed in our ongoing efforts for equality, we must never forget those we have lost to senseless hatred and violence,” he said. “The LGBT community continues to fight for equality in other states that do not have some of the same protections that we enjoy here in New Jersey. There are still several states where you can be fired from employment, denied housing and denied the right to adopt just for being gay. I am grateful to be a Fair Lawn resident where I feel absolutely comfortable being myself.”
In the true spirit of speaking out, Fair Lawn’s Samantha Long rounded off that message performing an impassioned version of Sarah Bareille’s smash hit “Brave:” You can be amazing/You can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug/You can be the outcast or be the backlash of somebody’s lack of love/Or you can start speaking up...