How I Made My College Town Feel Like Home

New Paltz has a history of LGBT activism, but it didn't always feel queer-friendly.

“There’s a rally in the park,” my partner told me excitedly. “Do you want to go?”

I didn’t. Honestly, I wanted nothing more than to sink into my mattress under a 10-pound mass of blankets and pillows: It was August 2017, and Trump had just announced he was rolling back protections for Dreamers.

I was already jaded with the administration’s sexist, homophobic, xenophobic ploys—just the thought of joining another rally was exhausting.

I was tired. I was frustrated. My surroundings exacerbated those feelings, too. New Paltz is a college town in upstate New York with about 14,000 year-round residents and the strangest mix of clashing ideologies—conservative townies live next door to liberal SUNY New Paltz students, who come and go in the way college students do.

And they take their progressive politics with them when they graduate.

Of course, many know about New Paltz because of its progressive politics: Sixteen years ago today, on February 27, 2004, Mayor Jason West officiated the weddings of 25 same-sex couples in front of the New Paltz Village Hall. Advocates praised West for defending LGBT rights even after the Ulster County District Attorney’s office charged him with 19 misdemeanors for solemnizing those marriages without a license.

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“Give it 10 or 20 years… It will just be a nonissue,” West told USA Today. And, to some extent, he was right.

I came to SUNY New Paltz a decade later knowing that history. The town’s laid-back, gay-friendly vibe wasn’t entirely a facade: Usually, I felt at home in New Paltz. Too often, though, I felt alienated by certain local politicians, business owners, and residents, who resented me and my fellow activists. They’d happily cash in on our presence at the university and local eateries and boutiques, only to chide us for wanting housing reform, a decreased police presence, and more inclusive representation in local government.

The rift between New Paltz “lifers” and SUNY students created a hostile environment for young activists, who were finding their voices and seeking their place in our shared community.

Reservations aside, I did eventually drag myself to the rally. It was an ad-hoc gathering organized by a small group of feminists. In the thick heat of summer, the public park felt unusually intimate. Entering the gathering, I was taken aback by the range of demonstrators: I saw people of color, queer people, women, men—and people whose identities intersected at every point. Some were folks I’d never encountered, even after three-and-a-half-years of running in the same feminist circles in a small town.

There was an open mic, and the people who spoke awed me with their grace and candor: A trans woman in her 50s spoke eloquently about growing up in a conservative family and how it related to today’s political climate. A middle-age Jewish man took the mic, sharing how he lost family in the Holocaust and his fears about the rise of white supremacy in America.

One queer person, who couldn’t have been more than 20, sang an original song. The crowd rocked and clapped in unison, relishing in the sense of community in spite of our differences. It was a beautiful, almost spiritual moment: Right then and there, nothing else existed. It was only myself, my partner, and our neighbors, standing side-by-side as we shared our stories in the fading light of day.

On that humid summer evening, I unintentionally found exactly what I needed: A community of like-minded individuals who joined in solidarity when our region (and our country) needed it most.

Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center/Facebook

I left the rally feeling renewed and empowered—and inspired to get more involved on the local level. I wanted to offer what little I could—my time, my enthusiasm, my skills as a writer. If there was any way I could make somebody else feel as safe, welcome, and valued as I had in the park, then I wanted to try.

I signed a mailing list for the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center in nearby Kingston. Something about the center spoke to me: Its welcoming facade on pedestrian-heavy Wall Street, emblazoned with a colorful sign and rainbow flags, proudly declared it a queer haven. But there were also advertisements for a plethora of inclusive, free events, resources, and health clinics.

I began attending more rallies and protests, some sanctioned by the center, some independent. I made friends at queer art shows, women-run music events, and drag shows. Every acoustic show and themed event helped me forge a new connection, or two, or three. It didn’t matter that the music wasn’t always to my taste, or that the scene wasn’t always in my comfort zone: Before I knew it, my circle of queer friends had grown exponentially, and I’d begun to break out of my shell.

Eventually, I connected with one of the center’s program managers and signed on as a volunteer, writing blurbs for promo materials. In the course of working on the project, I interviewed different activists about their work. The gig was easy, but connecting with passionate members of the local LGBT community was gratifying: I was finally putting faces to names I’d only heard about, from a queer black woman in her 30s who worked to protect the homeless, to a lesbian couple in their 70s who chartered our local chapter of Old Lesbians Organizing For Change (OLOC).

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My writing received grateful comments and positive feedback, and I could see that I was bringing joy and a renewed sense of purpose to both the people I interviewed and worked with. Comments from my subjects reminded me of the diversity of thought, personality, and experience in our wonderful LGBT community. Of course, we can’t be neatly lumped together—but, in the words of the OLOC ladies I spoke to, when push comes to shove, we help each other. And that’s something to celebrate.

I was finally surrounded with the heartfelt queer community I never thought I’d find anywhere, let alone in rural New York, where snow-capped mountains dotted the horizon (and the hip, gay city dwellers I’d always admired from afar only stopped by for weekend getaways). Suddenly, the mid-Hudson Valley felt more like home—and I felt like I was really doing something to better our community.

My volunteer work inspired a newfound sense of purpose, both as a journalist and as a member of the LGBT community: If I could spread love, positivity, and a push for political change on a local level, I could certainly do it on a broader level, too. I try to carry that sentiment with me, whether I’m writing from my home office, volunteering at an event, working in Times Square, or simply taking a moment for myself.

In 2018, I encourage everyone to get involved on a hyper-local level. Find your nearby LGBT center, or local ACLU chapter. Volunteer at the nearest food bank, or donate gently-used goods to your local community center.

Do something, whatever you can manage, to make your hometown a safer, more welcoming space.

Samantha Manzella is a writer and copy editor based out of the Hudson Valley. You can find her writing in a coffeehouse or searching Insta for the latest tattoo artist to hit the scene.