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A Year After City Council Rejected A Rainbow Crosswalk, Ellsworth Gears Up For Its First-Ever Pride Celebration

kids crossing crosswalk-edit.jpg
Carrie Kutny
Ellsworth High School's GSDA students cross a freshly painted rainbow crosswalk at their high school in September 2020. While the Ellsworth City Council voted against painting a rainbow crosswalk in town, the school board approved painting crosswalks at the middle and high schools. (From right to left: Ben Snow, 18, GSDA President; Elizabeth Ford, 15, GSDA Treasurer and Secretary; other GSDA students)

Last summer, Elizabeth Ford, now 15, watched in awe as some of her Ellsworth High School classmates tried to persuade the Ellsworth City Council to approve a rainbow crosswalk on downtown Main Street. Their goal was simple: show the LGBTQ community that Ellsworth is an accepting and welcoming place.

The students were part of the school’s Gender and Sexuality Diversity Alliance, or GSDA, and they were looking for ways to safely celebrate pride during the pandemic. Ford watched the live-streamed City Council meeting from her home and was inspired by their message.

“It really resonated with me because like, I know so many people who are part of the LGBTQ+ community,” Ford says. “I wanted them to know they are supported, and that they shouldn't have to worry about our community being rude or disrespectful because of their sexuality or gender.”

The rainbow crosswalk proposal quickly turned in to a contentious debate among Ellsworth residents. Spoiler alert: it didn’t pass. The vote was 3-3, with one council member abstaining. Those who voted no primarily cited concerns around motorist and pedestrian safety.

“I applaud the kids for their thought, for their effort, for the work they’ve put in this, but in my mind, this all comes down to safety,” said city councilor Marc Blanchette at the meeting last August. “To turn the safety of a pedestrian crosswalk into a piece of art, with or without meaning, I think is the wrong message to send.”

Maine Public reached out to Marc Blanchette for this story, but he declined to comment.

Others on the City Council, like Heather Grindle, said this proposal could open the floodgates for others who might want to paint crosswalks in town.

“One reason I cannot support it at this point is what we allow for one, we allow for all,” Grindle said at the meeting. “And I think logistically, we don’t have enough crosswalks to allow all to come and paint the crosswalks.”

Heather Grindle did not respond to a request for interview.

Maine’s Department of Transportation guidance allows for municipalities to choose a fill-in pattern for crosswalks different from the traditional white stripes. Several other cities in Maine have painted rainbow crosswalks in recent years, including Bangor, Orono, Portland, and South Portland.

Students and others were skeptical about council members’ opposition.

“Honestly it felt like sort of thinly veiled homophobia to me because a lot of the issues that they had with it weren't really valid at all,” says Noe Burmeister, the vice president of the EHS GSDA. “I remember [the city councilors] saying that it would like be distracting…and, isn't that, like, the point of crosswalks, so that people see them, so people can walk across them? I remember being very upset, because I thought that they were being unreasonable, and they didn't really hear us out enough.”

“For me, it felt like our community wasn't as supportive as I thought it had been previously,” Ford says. A lesbian herself, Ford was too shy to join the group her freshman year. But after the council meeting, she decided she had to get involved. She began by writing letters to city councilors. Now she’s the GSDA secretary and treasurer.

According to the latest data from the 2019 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, 13.6% of Maine high school students identify as LGBT – that’s nearly one in seven students. Yet the data show that LGBT students experience more violence and discrimination than their peers at school, at home, and in the community.

LGBT students are twice as likely to feel unsafe at school, more than twice as likely to say they feel sad or hopeless, and nearly four times more likely to have considered suicide in the past year.

They are also less likely to feel supported by adults in their communities. Only 37% said they feel they matter to their community, compared to 60% of non-LGBT students.

“That is profound. As a teacher, as an adult who works with teenagers, that is a shockingly high number and it is devastating,” says Carrie Kutny, a Spanish and gifted and talented teacher at EHS and the GSDA faculty advisor

Jeanne Dooley, the executive director of OUT Maine, a nonprofit advocacy organization, says adults and communities need to do the work to show young people that they matter.

“Kids are still getting negative messages from their communities across Maine,” Dooley says. “Before the last administration, I would have said things are getting better for LGBTQ youth. But now, I’ve seen the pendulum swinging back. The latest bill targeting transgender youth in sports is a prime example.”

The Ellsworth city council’s vote set the stage for unprecedented support from local businesses and community members.

Paul Markosian, owner of Flexit Café & Bakery in Ellsworth, says he and other local business owners decided to demonstrate support on their own.

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Paul Markosian
The rainbow pride flag displayed outside Flexit Café & Bakery in Ellsworth. Owner Paul Markosian wanted to show his support for GSDA students after the city council did not approve rainbow crosswalks in town.

“So in the aftermath of the city council's decision, a lot of businesses went out and got pride flags and posters and put them up in their businesses and on the front windows,” Markosian says. “We created our own kind of little pride rainbow. We didn't have the crosswalks, but we had other ways of displaying the rainbow symbol.”

For students like Burmeister and Ford, it was a display of solidarity.

“And even though not all of our community supports us, which is very sad and disappointing, there's still so many people there who are safe for me to be around, who are very supportive,” Ford says.

Now, almost a year later, Ellsworth is holding its first-ever pride celebration on Sunday, June 13 in Knowlton Park.

“I think that the crosswalks were sort of a catalyst for this [Pride Fest],” Burmeister says. “They sort of got it moving.”

Kutny, who is one of the organizers for the Ellsworth Pride Fest, agrees. She says the efforts this past year by the GSDA students inspired the adults in the community to take action.

“That's a huge accomplishment for a teenager, in general, [let alone] to be part of a minority community,” Kutny says.

“I'm so, so excited to go,” Ford says. “I'm super excited just to finally be there and enjoy [the fact that] we did it.”

The schedule of events includes yoga classes, music performances by a local band and the EHS Jazz band, a drag performance, and a drag queen story hour.

The drag performances have caused some pushback by a few community members. Maine Public reached out to one local business owner who publicly expressed concerns about the drag performances, but that person did not respond to an interview request.

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Carrie Kutny
A rainbow ride banner hangs from a street pole on Main Street in Ellsworth. The city is hanging these banners downtown for pride month.

GSDA President Ben Snow thinks the criticism is unwarranted. “Would dressing up in a fairy costume not be appropriate for children? I mean, it's like Halloween early. You know? Like, they're just costumes. They're not gonna hurt you,” Snow says.

Overall, the GSDA students say there appears to be strong community excitement around the upcoming Pride Fest. They say it will be an important moment for the community.

GSDA students have already made their mark in other ways this past year. Last fall, the school board allowed students to paint rainbow crosswalks at the high school and middle school. More recently, the City of Ellsworth agreed to put up rainbow banners on the flag poles on Main Street for Pride month.

“We managed to get a whole pride fest, we managed to get banners all down Main Street,” Snow says. “I mean, even without the crosswalks, I think we managed to do quite a bit.”

As for Ford, she’s excited for what’s ahead now that she’s seen the momentum and support for LGBTQ issues in Ellsworth.

“I think younger me wouldn't believe it was able to happen in Ellsworth,” Ford says. “Now that I've seen how much support our community has – even with those who are very, very against it – there's still, I think, a majority of support and it's really nice to see. And I think now I can imagine this happening every year.”