Clifton Raises Updated, More Inclusive Pride Flag

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Every year since 2016 - except for 2020, due to the pandemic - Clifton residents have gathered to celebrate Pride Month by raising the rainbow flag at City Hall. This year’s event, held on an unseasonably cool and breezy day, featured a diverse mix of speakers and the newer Progress flag. This more colorful version of the rainbow Pride flag includes light blue, pink, and white for the transgender community and black and brown for people of color who are also part of the queer community but who face the extra burden of racial discrimination.

Clifton resident Ray Robertello acted as the Master of Ceremonies, welcoming everyone and introducing some of the local officials in attendance. Ray is one of the original organizers and has played an active role in this annual event since its inception in 2016.

A couple of Clifton High School seniors were part of the morning’s program. Giuliana Lijeron, a Clifton High School senior and member of Madcaps, the school’s acapella choir, sang our national anthem. “I live in a world filled with colorful hopes and dreams,” her bio reads. Kevin Cruz, president of CHS’s Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA), spoke about the importance of LGBTQ youth having a place where they are and feel accepted. He expressed his great pride at being part of building a strong queer community at the high school. CHS teacher and advisor to the GSA, Jose Figueroa-Rivera, was there to support the students.

Rabbi Sharon Litwin, Director of Youth and Family Education at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, provided the invocation. She read a Pride-infused version of a standard prayer for Shabbat, acknowledging that we don’t hear enough stories about men who love men and women who love women. The prayer reminded everyone that we are all, each of us, created in the image of our Creator. Ner Tamid joyfully and proudly celebrates inclusivity, not just in June but all year long.

Speaker Tayler Szabo, a lifelong Clifton resident, 2015 graduate of Clifton High School, and current law student at Seton Hall, spoke about her early awareness of attraction to both boys and girls at around age ten. Bisexuality, the B in LGBTQ, is not always talked about despite those identifying as bisexual making up more than half of all people who identify as part of the wider LGBTQ community. During an interview several weeks ago Tayler explained the importance of having a Pride month - “Unfortunately, in the culture that we live in, which then ties into the curriculum we teach in schools, there is no emphasis on the ‘others’ of people. That’s why we have Black History Month, Women’s History Month, and now Pride Month. [They] are technically ‘others’ because they are not white, male, or heterosexual. Because we place such an emphasis on heteronormativity in our teachings, we have to intentionally carve out space for these ‘others.’”

In response to the question, “What is the gay agenda?” Tayler answered, “Creating a safe environment for people to come to terms with who they are.”

Next, Damien Alan Lopez, a young Puerto Rican who advocates for transgender rights and inclusion, shared a moving and heart-wrenching story of coming out to his mother. She responded by burning his Pride flag right in front of him. With the support of his “chosen family,” Damien moved out, earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Nutrition and Food Sciences, and authored a children’s book about coming out as transgender - I am a Prince. You can find it on Amazon. Says the author, “We see you. We hear you. You are valid and loved.”

Garden State Equality’s citizen sponsor since year two, John Traier thanked the City Council for allowing the Pride flag raising to be an annual event. A former Board of Education commissioner and former Passaic County Republican Chairman, John was Clifton’s first out elected official. It was John and husband Mark who raised the very first Pride flag at City Hall in 2016. Permission for that groundbreaking ceremony was narrowly granted with Mayor James Anzaldi casting the final needed “yes.” William Gibson, Ray Grabowski, and Steven Hatala had opposed the measure. Peter Eagler, Joe Kolodziej, and Lauren Murphy had all voted in favor.

Samantha DeRose, the school district’s Communications Technology Specialist, closed the ceremony with an emotional story about her Sicilian grandfather’s trials as a young immigrant in the United States. Anti-Italian discrimination caused him to try to hide his identity by changing his name to something “less ethnic.”

Samantha said, "I asked myself a question that I'm sure many have asked themselves. Why would I want to endure a life in which I'd constantly be a target simply for who I love? So, like my grandfather, I changed my identity. I adhered to a lifestyle that American society found acceptable. It didn't matter that I was a good mother, a good daughter, a good sister, a good friend, a good teacher, or a good citizen. I knew what would happen if I decided to live my life authentically, so I chose to pretend.

And don't think for a moment that it's lost on me that I had the luxury of being able to pretend to be someone else - a luxury not readily afforded to individuals who could not change the color of their skin or easily transition to the gender with which they identify.

Years later, I was sitting with the same relative who was dying of cancer. He asked a favor of me. He asked me to follow my life's true journey according to my own standards.”

In her struggle to be seen as acceptable to society, Samantha had married and become a mother before she was ready to fully embrace her truth and live the life that was in her heart. It’s a story that many in the LGBTQ community share and for many others there are less happy endings. According to a recent study by the Yale School of Public Health, as many as 83% of all LGBTQ folks remain closeted - hiding their sexual and/or gender identities - from most or all of the people in their lives. Since coming out, Samantha has been happily living an authentic life true to herself. She and her spouse of 15 years have four amazing children.

This year Samantha was given the honor of raising the flag, which waved brilliantly in the gusty sky as celebratory music played and the crowd erupted in applause. Like every year, seeing the colors lifted high elevated everyone’s spirits and for that moment, it felt like all people were truly accepted and embraced for exactly who they are.

So why do we need to raise the Pride flag each year? Ray Robertello answered, “As someone who struggled with my own sexual identity, I understand personally how important this event is. It sends a message - perhaps even from afar, that the community is supportive and there's a safe place here for you when you're ready. It means more to anyone struggling with their identity than most can ever imagine.”

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