In 1988, one Massachusetts student’s courage to confide in his teacher set in motion a chain of events that is bringing change and opportunity for LGBTQ youth in Greater Waterbury and the Litchfield Hills today.
That student shared with his teacher, Kevin Jennings, that he was gay, and struggling with keeping that fact a secret. Realizing he couldn’t fully support his student while remaining closeted himself, Jennings came out to the school community. Shortly after, when a straight student approached him about wanting to improve communication and understanding between straight and LGBTQ students, they formed the nation’s first Gay-Straight Alliance (now also known as Genders and Sexualities Alliances, or GSA), a program that soon spread clubs to schools across the country. Having launched a national movement, Jennings—now CEO of Lambda Legal, a national organization advocating for the civil rights of LGBTQ people and people living with HIV—still kept his eye on local needs.
When he moved to Southbury, Jennings was troubled by challenges facing LGBTQ youth in the community around him. “We know that when young people are isolated, [they] are at risk,” he said. “LGBTQ young people in Connecticut are four times more likely to attempt suicide than non-LGBTQ young people. And I wanted to do something about that.”
Jennings found others who shared his concerns, and eventually teamed up with Deb Fuller of Woodbury and Christopher Herrmann of Washington to create the Pride in the Hills Fund at Connecticut Community Foundation. The fund aims “to celebrate and improve the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) people in Greater Waterbury and the Litchfield Hills for generations to come.” To meet that bold goal, the trio knew they would need money.
Tapping into Herrmann’s experience and networks as a filmmaker and producer, a team of volunteers poured their efforts into “Pride in the Hills,” an outdoor festival held during Pride Month in June that drew hundreds of people. Speaking of what had been an untapped audience for such an effort, Jennings reflected that, “it’s kind of astounding and it shows that this community is extremely supportive of each other . . . and it wasn’t just the gay community. . . I would say half the people at the event were straight and so excited to be there.”
Pride in the Hills raised an astounding $150,000, which will be used to support programs benefiting the LGBTQ community, and particularly youth. A volunteer committee formed to recommend grants from the fund has already created a scholarship for LGBTQ students and their allies, and envisions supporting GSAs in local schools and enabling students throughout the region to attend the annual True Colors Conference in Hartford, the largest LGBTQ youth conference in the country. At the conference, they hope students will find a place they feel they belong. Said Jennings, “LGBTQ youth hear anti-LGBTQ comments every day at their schools. They spend their days in a place where they are constantly reminded that they’re a minority, where they’re constantly reminded that they’re outsiders, where they’re constantly being put down. Having a weekend where they can go to a place where they’re safe, where they feel like they belong, and where they’re not a minority maybe for the first time . . . can be a life changing experience.”