‘We have to keep fighting’: History of Noho Pride celebrated 40 years on 

  • Athena Stylos of Northampton waves a Pride flag along Main Street, Saturday, to mark the 40th anniversary of the LGBTQ Pride March through the city. FOR THE GAZETTE/Sabato Visconti

  • Although the annual Northampton Pride Parade was canceled this year, participants gathered in Downtown for a Pride March to mark the 40th anniversary of the original, beginning on Masonic Street where the first march began, Saturday, in Northampton. FOR THE GAZETTE/Sabato Visconti

  • Jil Krolik talks to the crowd gathered at Pulaski Park for the annual Pride March, Saturday in Downtown Northampton, MA. Sabato Visconti—Copyright.2022

Staff Writer
Published: 5/8/2022 8:08:45 PM
Modified: 5/8/2022 8:07:05 PM

NORTHAMPTON — As the organizers of the Noho Pride parade and festival look to rebuild what’s become one of the state’s largest celebrations of LGBTQ+ rights, they took time Saturday to reflect and remember the origins of the annual event.

Rainbow flags worn like capes and hoisted in the air flapped in the wind as a crowd of roughly 30 people ambled down Main Street to Pulaski Park. The path taken was the original set forth by those that marched in the first liberation Pride march in Northampton, held 40 years ago in May of 1982.

“One way to hold hope for the future is to take a look back and connect with the origin story and roots of Noho Pride. The fight isn’t over,” said Anna Hoff, who took over as executive director of the event in March 2020. “We wanted to take time (Saturday) to walk the same route that was traversed 40 years ago to honor those who fought for rights, equality and visibility.”

The parade and festival was canceled this year as a new group of organizers set their sights on a celebration in 2023.

Among those marching Saturday were several of the original marchers and organizers from the first event as well as those that have stepped up throughout the different generations. At the end, Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra read a proclamation by the city of Northampton, which celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Northampton LGBTQ+ Pride March on Saturday, May 7.

“This important anniversary must also be a time for continued and increased vigilance and activism as our LGBTQ+ community members face escalating discrimination, violence and political efforts to roll back those hard-fought rights,” Sciarra said.

The gathering was a collaborative effort among Noho Pride, which has dwindled to three committee members, and Lilly Library, Forbes Library and Smith College.

What started as a student project for Adam Novitt, director of Lilly Library in Florence, while working toward his master’s degree in library and information science from Simmons University has transformed into a much bigger oral history project of Noho Pride. Through Novitt’s research, combined with some help from Forbes Library and Smith College, he found that there was no record of this kind of the long-standing event. Over the course of three years, more than 30 people have been interviewed about their participation in Noho Pride.

“What I learned is that civil rights in Northampton did not end with Sojourner Truth,” said Novitt. “And over the years, Noho Pride has been resurrected from the ashes, time and time again.”

A not-so ‘Happy Valley’

Jil Krolik, who was one of the original organizers of the first march, joined the crowd on Saturday. She moved to the Pioneer Valley from Chicago, having graduated high school early as a means to get out of her house after being disowned because she was gay. Her move, she says, was motivated by a want to do something to change people’s minds about gay people.

She ended up opening Womon Fyre bookstore, which carried women’s book authors and topics that other area bookstores did not offer. As the bookstore became a hub for women and lesbians in the area, she and others suffered harassment.

“We’re not just talking slurs … we’re talking death threats. … Because I was so visible, I had the store, I got more threats than anybody,” said Krolik.

Those threats quickly ramped up to bomb threats. She recalled when state troopers from Boston were called in to defuse a grenade. Krolik said that the troopers and an assistant district attorney at the time, David Anders, were the only groups helping during this time of turmoil.

The harassment, she said, is what ultimately led to the first liberation march in 1982, which she helped organize. A group of concerned residents organized Gay and Lesbian Activists, or GALA, and joined in the efforts.

In addition to the harassment, GALA opposed the Family Protection Act, which specifically targeted the rights of gay and lesbian people, according to Northampton’s proclamation.

“When we marched on Main Street, I remember there being eggs thrown from the windows and dodging eggs being thrown, and I was surprised. This is supposed to be the ‘Happy Valley,’ but it’s not necessarily the Happy Valley we all think about,” said Krolik.

In addition to harassment at work, Krolik also faced it at home. At her home in Holyoke, a group of people painted a sign saying “lezzies,” stuck it on her front lawn and set it on fire.

“I was inspired that things could change if I got involved and I wanted to show that the community could coexist with each other … I thought that if you see gay people, perhaps you can’t hate them as much,” she said.

Others that joined her during that first march included area educators, who wore paper bags on their heads to demonstrate they could lose their jobs for being lesbian or gay.

Fran Ryan of Easthampton, who was a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst at the time, served as a peacekeeper during the first march. In that role, she put herself between the marchers and the anti-gay protesters. At that time, it wasn’t uncommon to see gay people walking down the street and having a car drive by shouting vulgar homophobic slurs and on many occasions, people were physically assaulted, she said.

“During those times, there were a lot of hecklers and anti-gay protesters,” said Ryan. “We were told to look at the tops of buildings to make sure that no one was throwing anything or shooters or anything else like that.”

Evolving pride

While protesters continued to turn out in opposition of the annual event, the harassing shouts started to be drowned out by cheers and waving flags from storefronts in support of the efforts of those marching as time went by.

“I can remember thinking: ‘oh my God. They’re supporting us’ – it’s like an event now,” Ryan said.

As the director of Noho Pride from 1999 to 2009, Melinda Shaw of Florence said that Noho Pride has always meant a lot to her and that she considers many of the people in attendance on Saturday part of her family.

“For me, I’ve been out since I was 16, so having a gathering of like-minded people is always fun. It really meant a lot to me to be a part of this community, my adoptive community,” she said.

Shaw took over organizing the annual event when the previous director “decided to bail.” At that point, she was the president of the Northampton Area Lesbian & Gay Business Guild, and Noho Pride was set to go on in five weeks.

“We did it, we somehow did it. I’m not sure how, but we put it on,” said Shaw. “I was eight months pregnant when I started taking it over. I did that march eight months pregnant.”

Over time, the march, which has evolved into more of a parade, has processed a number of routes throughout the city. The annual event also began to feature a festival.

After Shaw passed the baton on, the event moved to the Fairgrounds and continued to amass more people in attendance year after year.

Lorelei Erisis, who describes herself as one of the founding board members of the current iterations of Noho Pride, beamed at the opportunity to walk among the generations of marchers and organizers.

“Marching, and turning out, and fighting for queer rights, for lesbian rights, for gay rights, bisexual rights, trans rights … for fighting for all of us,” said Erisis. “And I would encourage you to keep fighting. I know it’s exhausting. I am so freaking tired. But we have to keep fighting, and we have to keep fighting to honor the people in this crowd who fought for us.

“We need to show people that we will not go away. We are here. We have been here. We have fought and we are still fighting, and we will never stop fighting,” she continued.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.
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