Portland Pride! Co-Chair Jill Barkley on the importance of LGBT celebration and the road ahead

I had the great pleasure of talking with Jill Barkley, Co-chair, along with Christopher O’Connor, of Portland Pride! They oversaw the 10 days of events, lectures, and parties that celebrated LGBT pride in Southern Maine over the past week and a half. The event culminated in a massive parade and festival that took part on Saturday.

Barkley, who has been attending pride events in Portland for the past 10 years, identified this as the biggest she had ever seen. Portland Pride! is a new organization and in its first year. They took over upon hearing that Southern Maine Pride, which had run the events previously, was not planning on organizing events in 2014. “We exceeded expectations for our first year,” Barkley told me.

I talked with Barkley about the successes of the LGBT community, the road ahead, and why pride events remain important.

Photo Credit: Benn Marine

Jill Barkley and Christopher O’Connor PHOTO CREDIT: Benn Marine

While the event has been going on for nearly 30 years, Portland Pride! is pretty much an upstart. Were you able to take with you any of the institutional knowledge that Southern Maine Pride had picked up in their time organizing the event?

We were not able to. We were hopeful that there could be a transition from Southern Maine Pride to Pride Portland! but that didn’t come to fruition. What we were able to do was to use Equality Maine as our nonprofit fiscal sponsor so everything from our organization ran through them, which was fantastic. It allowed us to essentially function as a nonprofit without having our nonprofit status. That is something we are moving toward, becoming our own nonprofit and an independent organization.

What were some of the stand out events of the past week?

For me personally, the best event I attended was a history panel at the Portland Public Library. The panelists were LGBT activists who had started their activism 40 years ago at UMaine in Orono. They formed an organization called Wilde Stein, named after Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein, and started holding gay symposiums to raise awareness about LGBT people in our state. It was just tremendous to sit in a room and listen to these activists talk about their experience 40 years ago and what they did in their early 20s to try to change the world for LGBT Mainers. I was thinking of my early 20s, which is when I moved to Maine, and it is when I worked on the first successful non-discrimination campaign in Maine. And I was happy to think of how far we have come, even in the past 10 years, and how we could do that by standing on the shoulders of those activists. That was amazing.

As you just said, you came to Maine in your early 20s a decade ago. I am curious to know the role the pride events played in acclimating you to Maine?

10 years ago when I moved here it was very clear to me that Maine was on a path to full equality. I believe that we have come leaps and bounds since then. We passed nondiscrimination, we passed marriage once, we lost it, we passed it again successfully. We fought off attempts to undermine our nondiscrimination laws, especially in terms of how they would impact transgender Mainers. We have passed a non-bullying bill that talks specifically about LGBT youth. There are so many things that have happened in the 10 years since I moved here.

Nine years ago I was one of the founders of Dyke March in Portland and that was a Pride events that remains one of my favorites. To be involved this year as overseeing the whole week and all of the amazing things that are a part of it, it is really overwhelming to see what we have accomplished as a community and how much more we want to continue to do. Our work is not done, our activism is not done, and our celebration is certainly not done.

What are some of the challenges LGBT communities are still faced with that still need to be addressed?

We know that young people are still being bullied at school, especially LGBT youth and gender nonconforming youth. That is something we all have to remain committed to. Yes, we have come so far but there are kids who are still feeling discriminated against, bullied and picked on. And there are some who are developing really serious mental health issues as a result of being bullied. We need to pay attention to our youth.

We also need to make sure that every LGBT Mainer has access to healthcare and health coverage. We need to pay attention to our aging population, as Maine is one of the oldest states in the nation. Our LGBT population is aging as well and it is important that they have safe and inclusive places to go. Piper Shores is a retirement community from Saco and they marched in the parade this year. That was incredible to see. There was a 94-year-old woman marching in the pride parade and it was awesome. It was great that Piper Shores was there because we have heard from some older LGBT Mainers that when they go into retirement communities and nursing homes, it almost be like they have to go back into the closet. We don’t want that. These people have paved the way for me to live the life that I live. I certainly don’t want them to feel like they have to go back into the closet as they age.

It seems as though there were a great deal of politicians there, no? That strikes as a relatively new development.

We had two of the three candidates for governor (Democrat Mike Michaud, who served as grand marshal of the parade, and Independent Eliot Cutler) come to the parade, march in the parade, and speak at the festival. That was incredible. Two of the three people seeking the highest office in our state wanted to come, reach out to the LGBT community, and ask for their vote. I thought that was really powerful. There were many elected officials there. Candidate for US Senate Shenna Bellows was there, as well as members of the Maine legislature. That was very powerful for me, someone who works in politics, to see all of these politicians and elected officials vying for the LGBT vote.

I understand that this is probably the first day you have had to decompress, but what feedback have you received on the events?

Honestly, at every single event during the 10 days, and on Saturday especially (the festival), we had countless people come up to the info table and the booth where we were selling t-shirts and up to us individually to thank us. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. I can’t count the number of times we heard that this was the best pride ever.

I think that what had happened was Chris [O'Connor] and I had a vision that we could take on Pride and we would take this leap of faith and our community would catch us. They would join us in this effort. That is exactly what happened. So many people participated in this who had never even organized anything before. They wanted to try it out. There were so many skills that were built and there was so much leadership that was developed and nurtured through this process and so I feel like people really feel like they were a part of it this year. It was really about all of us. It wasn’t about the leadership or committees, it was about the entire community really stepping up.

One might look at all of the progress you highlighted and ask, “Why does there remain a need for pride celebrations?”

That’s a great question. There is still a need for a pride festival because we want to celebrate who we are. When I say we, I mean that the entire Portland community wants to celebrate our diversity. Portland is this growing, striving city. We have huge populations of immigrants and refugees. We have young people, old people, people coming in to start new businesses. And we have a thriving LGBT community here. Pride is about visibility and celebration and it is about raising awareness about the issues that we still feel committed to working on. Overall, though, it is about visibility and celebration. There were so many allies present at Saturday’s festival—young people who are married, older people who are married, children—it was so wonderful to see everybody come out. Portland has a thriving LGBT community and that diversity makes our community stronger and pride is about visibility and celebration of that.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.