By Rob Montana
The hate attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in June 2016, claimed the lives of 49 people and left 58 others with injuries.
It was the deadliest incident of violence against LGBT people in U.S. history. Not only that, but the attack came during Pride Month, which recognizes the impact the LGBT community has had – and does have – in the world.
While creating fear may have been an aim of the act of terrorism, it spurred a group of people in Tompkins County to form Finger Lakes PULSE, aimed at advocating for and serving the LGBTQ+ community locally.
“When the Orlando shooting happened, I did not feel safe on our streets,” said founding member Joanne Cipolla-Dennis. “Since the election of our current regime, I feel we are going backwards as far as human rights are concerned.
“We are here not only for the LGBTQ community, but to bring more perspectives to the table for a thriving community for everyone,” she added. “We don’t have enough seats at the table, and we are working to change that. This is a dynamic group of people.”
The group has been undertaking efforts to connect with municipalities in the county, asking them for official declarations of June being Pride Month, as well as flying Pride flags being offered by Finger Lakes PULSE. Dryden was the first town to raise a Pride flag, last year, and made the official declaration this year; Tompkins County, City of Ithaca, Village of Trumansburg and Town of Ulysses have all made the proclamations, and the county, city and village have all raised Pride flags this month.
In addition to Joanne Cipolla-Dennis, the other founding members of Finger Lakes PULSE are Sherron Brown, Deborah Cipolla-Dennis, Susie Gutierrez, Amber Harris, Kathy Jett, Anne Koreman and Carolyn Kreisel.
“From my perspective, (becoming part of the group) boiled down to helping people not be afraid to be out in public, to not be afraid to do what is needed to do,” Koreman said. “A lot of people in this community are afraid to be out. I don’t blame them – I’ve faced harassment at work and out in the community.”
Even having been out and having support, she noted she still feels apprehensive sometimes. A recent example, Koreman said, came after the Village of Trumansburg agreed to make a resolution identifying Pride Month and to fly the Pride flag at the village hall.
“When I went to take the flag, I put it off for a couple of days and had to get the courage up to take it,” she said, adding she was unsure what the staff’s reaction would be and whether they knew the village board had agreed to fly the flag, but everything was fine once she took the flag to the office. “When I got there, a clerk who’d been at the meeting came right out and said, ‘I know all about it, I know what to do with it.’”
Sherron Brown became aware of the group from Koreman.
“Because of my respect for her, I was open to hearing about what the group was trying to do,” she said. “Once I heard what PULSE was, I was on board.
“I feel like one thing we are to do is give voice to LGBTQIA+, the whole spectrum, to give voice to the community and to let the allies and people in Tompkins County know we are here,” Brown added. “We are an asset to the community here. We are spending money here, we are raising our children here, we are responsible and productive citizens. To me this is a platform where folks can come together, be seen and be heard, and celebrate what we are, safely.”
Harris grew up in Ithaca, coming out as bisexual while still in high school. After moving away for college in the mid-’90s, she eventually returned to her hometown about five years ago.
“Even though Ithaca is known to be welcoming, there have been instances of hate speech and harassment,” Harris said. “Hate can happen everywhere, and it’s important to stay vigilant.
“I am proud to be one of the founding members of Finger Lakes PULSE,” she added, “to be helping spur a movement not only for those who have come out, but also for those who will.”
Harris currently serves as executive director of the Ithaca Montessori School.
“We teach children to be accepting, from a young age,” she said. “We have many children from non-traditional families, and we make sure children are well supported.”
Jett moved to Tompkins County to raise her son in a place she felt would be more accepting.
“It felt like, to me, it was my best option, and I presumed it was an area already well organized with lots of support. I found that was not the case, and my son was in and out of schools in the county in the mid-2000s,” she said, adding she joined the group with an eye on helping support other LGBTQ families. “There are a lot of people in the LGBT community raising children in this place and they need support, too.”
The group is hosting its first event – PULSING The Night Away – from 7-11 p.m. Saturday, June 24, at The Space @ GreenStar, located at 700 W. Buffalo St. in Ithaca. The LGBTQ+ PRIDE celebration will feature live music from Encore, a tattoo contest and a drag show; a cash bar and light snacks also will be available.
The cost of tickets is a suggested donation of $12-$25, with the proceeds being split equally with Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes. Only 200 tickets are available for the event.
“It’s a feel-good event to say we’re here, we want to celebrate LGBT people, we want to celebrate Pride Month,” Brown said. “We are contributing to this society, to Tompkins County, and we want to create a space where people who are questioning or on the fence, they know there is a community. Hopefully it will be a huge event, where people will say, ‘I didn’t know there were so many people in Ithaca that support me.
“We want to be an organization that puts positive things forward, that steps up and speaks up when behavior is wrong and not acceptable,” she added. “This is basically our introduction to let folks know Finger Lakes PULSE is here, and here are the things we’re going to so. Come join us, sit with us – we’re going to make space for you.”
Jett is hopeful Pulsing the Night Away will bring the people in the county together in a meaningful way, beyond the event.
“I hope it inspires the community as a whole, that includes everybody, to invite real inclusiveness to exist – not just talk about it,” she said. “There is a lot of talking and not enough doing, and change will not happen if we don’t step up and do it.
“Through the years, I’ve heard a lot of complaints from people who expect others to do it because they should do it,” Jett added. “I hope this will help push the envelope for more action.”
One other event is taking place this week, with the organization presented its Ally of the Year Award to Tompkins County Legislator Leslyn McBean-Clairborne for her work on inclusion and policy change. The award will be presented at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, June 20, in the Tompkins County Legislature Chambers on the second floor at 121 W. Court St. in Ithaca.
“Thank you to all the organizations that are assisting us with the event,” Brown said, “and to all the groups who have raised flags and declared June to be Pride Month in the respective communities.
“And I want to take a moment to honor those who were lost, who were killed just for being who they are,” she added.
Cipolla-Dennis pointed out that Ithaca and Tompkins County have economic opportunities available by embracing the LGBTQ+ community.
“According to the last census, Tompkins County has the largest population of gay and trans people – outside of New York City – in the state,” she said. “There is an untapped market in Tompkins County and the Finger Lakes region – Ithaca could become a greater economic powerhouse.
“When I see a rainbow flag in a community I don’t live in, I tend to go there more often because I know it is a safe place,” Cipolla-Dennis added.
It is easy, Brown said, for people in historically marginalized groups to feel isolated.
“If people are living with a little bit of fear, of shame, who don’t feel safe to come out, to disclose, it’s important to me that we are visible,” she said. “So, if a person is not sure if they can come out, they can know they can come out in a safe way, that a community does exist. It is nice to be able to give people a space where they are accepted.”
“When you’re afraid to be out, you can’t be yourself,” Koreman added. “It takes energy to hide part of yourself. When you’re able to share with other people it is so freeing.”
Finger Lakes PULSE will help inspire people, Jett believes, of all ages and backgrounds to come together to support and celebrate each other.
“A lot of people in this oppressed, marginalized group no longer have their families. Those in their group become their families, and they work hard to maintain those relationships,” she said. “We want to ensure that everyone has that choice to create their own family.”
For more information and to purchase tickets for the June 24 event, visit PulsingTheNightAway.TicketLeap.com. To connect with Finger Lakes PULSE, email FingerLakesPulse@gmail.com or visit its Facebook page at Facebook.com/FLPULSE.