UConn Waterbury quite literally earned itself a gold star Tuesday as host of the city’s first-ever Pride event, with drag queen activist Mucha Mucha Placer marking the occasion by tacking one onto a state map dotted with smaller stars, each denoting an event held to support the LGBTQ+ community.
“Waterbury deserves a great, big Mucha star, wouldn’t you say, for all you’ve done,” Placer said. “Last year, we had 35 towns and cities throughout Connecticut participating (in Pride Month) and it’s shaping up that there will probably be as many this year. And you all put Waterbury on the map.”
Tuesday’s Pride Party – held a few months earlier than Pride Month in June to better coincide with the school calendar – was a first for UConn Waterbury, too, and drew about a hundred students, staff, and faculty members who meandered between booths with representatives from the Wheeler Clinic, Circle Care Center, Stonewall Speakers, and Radical Advocates for Cross-Cultural Education, among others.
Organizer Laura Donorfio, an associate professor in human development and family sciences, said she originally envisioned the event as a drag show, but it morphed into a Pride event as planning evolved.
“My hope is this is going to flourish,” she said. “After this event we’re going to put different signs around the campus to make folks feel included, like flags. We didn’t realize we were lacking all of that. If you walk around there’s not one sign that says LGBTQ+-friendly or ally-friendly.”
Now, there will be a permanent rainbow flag in the Student Center, she said, along with a newly launched club, Rainbow Spirit, to promote inclusivity.
Students need to feel “like this is a safe space, a space where they could thrive, and they could be themselves,” Donorfio said.
Placer, who served as keynote speaker, said they started to gain an interest in drag in college in the mid-1970s when they took a job as Santa Claus during winter break. That’s when Placer said they realized the power of wearing a costume – Santa could do no wrong.
A costume also allowed them to fairly easily cross between feminine and masculine, non-committal to either, and tiptoe into the culture during a time when nonbinary lifestyles weren’t widely accepted. It’s not much different that dressing up for Comic-Con, after all.
When Placer came out – Richard Stillson ’88 Ph.D. was a counseling psychology student at UConn in the 1980s – they said there was only a small room in the Student Union for LGBTQ+ students, a room that had a brown paper bag covering the door’s window – vastly different than the large space for the Rainbow Center today.
Fast forward 40 years and Placer, who gradually embraced drag, has become a well-known activist in Hartford and beyond, fundraising for various Pride-related causes as matriarch of the House of Pleasure, the collective name of their chosen family that now extends to grandchildren.
“I was able to nurture,” Placer said, noting strong mother and grandmother influences. “I didn’t know how to be a father. I knew how to be a mother.”
They’ve nursed broken hearts as matriarch, while bringing awareness to communities across the state, often attending various events in drag, whether Disney princess or villain, even a mermaid: “There’s a mermaid in me that just won’t let go.”
Placer started a Pride parade at Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown, and in 2015, upon the U.S. Supreme Court’s solidification of marriage equality, introduced Sen. Richard Blumenthal at the lectern – joking after hugging him that they’ve rubbed makeup on his lapel.
More recently, there have been appearances at Queer Black Lives Movement protests, London Pride celebrations, and public story hours during Mansfield Pride events. And all of that is the result of what happened at the Stonewall Inn.
“This whole movement started as a protest,” Placer said. “It was people like me who don’t dress like their picture ID. … I do drag to continue that protest, to continue to remind us never to forget.”
They added that with 400 pieces of proposed legislation across the country to curb LGBTQ+ rights, there’s a danger of being forced back into the closet, “There’s no way I can get back in there and neither should you.”
UConn Waterbury’s Pride Party, which is expected to become an annual event, is one way to celebrate LGBTQ+ students and break the stigma, Claudia Pima, co-chair of the campus’s 3-year-old Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice Committee, said.
It’s meant to “create an environment that people feel comfortable and welcomed,” Celina Torres, DEIJ co-chair, added. It’s so LGBTQ+ students “can see UConn Waterbury as a desirable place to be and they can be themselves.”
“I hope we also have more LGBTQ representation at UConn Waterbury,” student organizer Rose Gibbons ’23 (CLAS) said.