The sun shone brilliantly on the friends and family who gathered on a breezy day to share food and make connections as queer families on June 13th, 2015, when Green Mountain Crossroads (GMC) hosted its first specifically family-oriented event at the Pride Family Picnic at Living Memorial Park in Brattleboro. Co-hosted in partnership with the Pride Center of Vermont, the picnic was inspired by one of the GMC board members, Emily Marker, a teacher in Brattleboro and parent of three-year-old, along with her girlfriend Ellen Rago.
"We really wanted to start doing stuff that was more inclusive and specifically geared towards families, especially with school-age kids," said GMC Executive Director HB Lozito.
Building relationships among queer rural folks and families is what GMC is all about.
Scout, who attended the picnic from North Charlestown, New Hampshire, said, "As a genderqueer queer dad of a 20-year-old, things like this, family picnics, that everybody can come to with friends, family, extended family, chosen family, were so important in my own confidence as a parent and in my son's confidence as a kid of a queer parent." Scout also noted that feeling alone and isolated as a rural queer person can feel like a lot to overcome and especially if you have family responsibilities.
"If you don't fit the stereotypical queer mold because you do have kids, there can be this assumption that you must be part of a heteronormative relationship," said Scout. "Even if you are living in a beautiful space, it’s good to know that you are not all by yourself."
Paula May Boyher has recently moved to the area from Maine, and says that GMC events provide a way for her to get out of the house and participate in the community. "I'm single! Dating is hard everywhere. I think events like this are important because it gets me out, and I really enjoy people. I'm transgender, and living and working as a male, my weekends are girl-time."
Rural areas often lack the infrastructure and organization to support and connect LGBTQ individuals and families, and GMC was founded, in part, to meet this need. The Pride Family Picnic was the first GMC event for Susan Buchan, who moved back to New England six months ago with her wife and young son and shared how different queer life was when they were living in Palm Springs.
"There were huge festivals and lots of signage, concerts and drag shows, all kinds of things all the time, if you wanted to go to them," she said. "You didn’t have to look very hard to find queer community."
Although this profusion of choice is mostly not the case for small town and rural queer folks, one upside to rural queer events is depth. Susan noted, "Those bigger events are less personal. After talking to people here, I can see how I might run into people and make connections with them after meeting them here, probably deeper and longer friendships with people. You just got to find each other."
Jennifer Shooer and Liz Sampson, now divorced and both remarried, co-parent their two children within a four-parent family unit, which includes the partners of their new marriages and a third child Liz raises with her current wife.
Jennifer asked 5-year-old Maisie to share what she'd said in the car on the way to the picnic. Why is it that Maisie feels so lucky?
"Because I have four moms!" Maisie said.
"We co-parent and we're all very close, so it works out very well," added Jennifer.
"I think it’s important for the world to see that we are families in all of our different ways," said Liz.
Ellen Rago, who lives of Putney with her girlfriend Emily Marker and three-year-old son Max, echoed this sentiment, saying, "It’s really nice to know that Max will grow up in a place where he can see other queer families and have it be normalized for him in that way."
Shela Linton, the mother of two daughters, said that she feels similarly. "I'm super excited to be here today and to connect with other family," offered Shela, who works as an organizer for the Vermont Workers' Center and is a collective member of the Root Social Justice Center. She attended the picnic with her 13-year old daughter and said, "I really want my daughter to grow up in a supportive community where she can be her full self and where others can be their full selves too. I think its great for networking, to see who else is out there, so we can support each other as parents and families."
Family events offer our queer community something that can be challenging to find for some: intergenerational opportunities.
Alex Fischer is 31 years old and active in the Brattleboro community as owner of Open Bookkeeping, a Root Social Justice Center collective member, and a GMC Board Member. But the main reason they were excited to come to the picnic?
"I get to hang out with my three-year-old friend Lucy Wren," says Fischer about the freckled daughter of mothers Laura Stamas and Abby Mnookin.
Showing up to GMC events is not only important for making social connections, said Jennifer Shooer. "I'm part of this community as a lesbian woman," she said, "and there are things I still don't know about, like issues for the trans community. I'm always learning. I feel it's important for us to know that we are all here, and we are all together."
GMC exists because queer space and events and community is a hard thing to find in rural places, and funding to support those things is even harder to come by. The support and funding to continue events like this and other engagements is dependent on community-based funding. What goes into throwing an event like this?
"I do everything from design and outreach to strategic planning, so some funding goes to support me and the time I put in. We also buy supplies like food and picnic materials, and we do a lot of outreach," explained HB. "Also, GMC doesn't have a physical space of our own, and space and visibility is something we think about a lot as a rural queer organization, and this is also related to funding."
HB says that GMC is trying to "move away from the unpredictability and volatility of grant funding" through this year's new fundraising strategies. "We are looking for 22 new one-time donors, first-time donors who are interested in supporting us financially this month, and we're also looking for five new monthly sustainers in June," said HB. This sort of grassroots financial support helps GMC "be more accountable to the people who are actually in our community, their needs and interests, instead of being beholden to the interests of outside funders who are not necessarily directly a part of our community."
GMC is a community organization with one part-time employee (HB!), which means that GMC is always looking for volunteers, committee members, and board members. Volunteer picnic photographer Davida Carta is originally from Italy and has lived in Brattleboro for several years. "I'm here because I like to take pictures," said Davida, "I found GMC on Facebook and I like contribute to the community. I'm still trying to get to know the area and know people, it’s still hard sometimes, and I thought this would be a good way to meet people and get involved."