Last Sunday, LexPride hosted its sixth annual Pride Celebration, which took the form of an outdoor festival in a change from previous years’ picnics and pandemic-era car parades.
At the festival, LexPride awarded its third annual LGBTQIA+ Person of the Year and Ally of the Year honors, as well as a new award called School Stars “to honor educators who students recognize as being exceptionally inclusive and affirming,” LexPride President Valerie Overton wrote in an email.
These awards are granted based on three criteria: Consistently embodying the principles of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI); providing exceptional service to the community or a sector of the community; and contributing to improved support or climate for LGBTQIA+ people.
Koren Stembridge and the staff of Cary Library were named Ally of the Year. LHS Counselor Jeremie Bateman and LHS music teacher Rachel Jayson were awarded the first School Stars. And Larry Freeman, the first Black male and first openly gay male School Committee member, was unanimously nominated by community members and selected by LexPride’s board.
That nomination and selection unanimity are “exceptional,” according to Overton. “Larry’s contributions to the community are too numerous to list,” but include Human Rights Committee member, Town Meeting Member, and LexPride Board member, she added.
In a phone conversation, Freeman shared what it meant to receive this honor, reflected on the local and national climate surrounding Pride – and remembered how his own love story began 17 years ago.
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How long have you been involved with LexPride?
I have been working with LexPride for about four years now. It’s the first organization I joined when I moved to Lexington…from Jacksonville, Florida.
What role has LexPride played in your life in Lexington as an organization?
Lexpride has played a really huge role in our lives. It’s one of the organizations [where] we met many of our dear friends now – we met them through activities at LexPride. And it also let us meet people who were LGBTQ+, that ordinarily, we wouldn’t have had an opportunity to meet in a town like Lexington, the size of Lexington. So moving here, it was good to know that there was an establishment and an organization already in place that was welcoming us, and including us, and making us feel like family from the first time we met with them til today.
How do you feel about LGBTQIA+ representation and support in Lexington, including in local government?
I do believe LexPride really puts forth a lot of effort to be inclusive, and often has events on non-LGBTQ holidays/recognized days throughout the year, just so that people of color and any BIPOC people will have an opportunity to explore the holiday with all of their identities. For instance, me being African American, and being gay, having an event on Juneteenth gives me that opportunity to embrace both parts of my identity as they both are equally important to me. As far as representation here in town, you know, I think they go through a lot of efforts trying to be inclusive; there’s just not a lot of African Americans here in Lexington. So, participation may look limited. But most of the LGBTQIA people that I know of African American descent here in Lexington do participate and are part of LexPride. So I’m appreciative of that. And I’m also appreciative that…[for example] even for AAPI month, LexPride had an event just to be inclusive and allow people in our community who may not feel comfortable going to an event that’s hosted by cisgender straight people. Often you don’t feel comfortable going to those events when you’re gay. So LexPride gives us all an opportunity to participate in holidays, and the ability to bring our whole selves to an event throughout the year.
How did you react to receiving this award?
When I initially found out about it, I was very shocked. Typically, in years past, I played a part in selecting Person of the Year, but this year, I did not, and so it really caught me off guard. You know, coming off the [School Committee] campaign I had missed a lot of LexPride planning activities. So when Valerie Overton reached out to me and told me that I had been nominated and that I had won this distinction, initially, I was like, oh my God, what have I done?! What have I contributed to the community to deserve such an honor? Because, to me, it’s a huge honor to be recognized as Person of the Year. And the day of, I was extremely humbled and honored. And you know, quite often, I’m socially awkward anyway – so having to speak and explain to people that just going through everyday life, all you do is hope that you’re doing something right, doing something to make life better for the next human… I felt like being recognized as Person of the Year sort of gave me acknowledgement, and that LexPride and the community [were] saying, hey, Larry, we see what you do, and we appreciate you. So I was extremely moved by it.
It’s clear that there was a strong consensus, to put it mildly, about your contributions to the community – 100% unanimity in both nomination and selection is something special.
Yeah, and I just find it so remarkable. And I just can’t say how humbled I felt, and I still feel, that from being part of this in the past – [I know that] normally there are three or four different names that are tossed around. And to know that my name was even brought up in that type of conversation – to me, it just gives me a lot of validation, as some of the things I do, the things I say…it makes me feel like the seat at the table I have throughout the community, that I’m using that voice for good and those opportunities to try to make things better for all people, all humans.
On that note, I was thinking about the intersection of your School Committee role with this honor, as well as your longstanding involvement in the Lexington School Health Advisory Council (SHAC). One indicator that isn’t so great about the well-being of LGBTQIA+ youth in the community are results of the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) – as we unfortunately also tend to see nationally, Lexington had disproportionately high rates of reported bullying, suicide ideation and drug use among LGBTQIA+-identifying respondents on these most recent results. By no means can any one person come up with solutions to complex and entrenched challenges – I just wonder if, now that you’re on the School Committee, you’ve been thinking about how LGBTQIA+ youth in this community might be better supported in Lexington Public Schools?
Yes; anything that comes before School Committee, I definitely always look at it through a DEI lens. And that includes the gay community, the special education community, any marginalized groups within our community; I am particularly sensitive to those issues. And I try to think beyond what’s on the surface, and really try to visualize how those things that we are debating or having a dialogue about, how those things will impact those communities. And, I’m a strong believer, and I definitely learned this through SHAC, in saying that dialogue and conversation is key to making us all feel like we belong. Conversation is the key to inclusive behaviors. Treating people like it’s common, it’s not unusual – all of that comes from removing the awkwardness from having just a general conversation. And I definitely believe that having conversations, being curious, just don’t be judgmental… I think that’s what we should be teaching our youth; that’s what we should be teaching our students; and once we remove that judgment, then the mental health for our students, for our children, it automatically improves because then they feel open, and they feel safe to come to us as trusted adults and say, ‘This is who I am. This is who I want to be. Can you help me?’
Thinking beyond Lexington, we’re seeing a lot of cruelty toward LGBTQIA+ youth right now in the national political climate, including in states like Florida and Texas. What would you say to a young person who is maybe questioning their sexuality for the first time right now, who is seeing and trying to process some of the hate they’re seeing on the national level, but is living here in town?
Students, or children, or young people in general who are either curious or questioning their identity, their sexuality, here in Lexington, I would say: Find you a trusted adult. Find an organization that you feel comfortable talking to. And just talking through what you feel, what you’re thinking, and just help get some external analysis about those feelings and those thoughts you’re having. And most importantly, recognize you’re not alone. You are not the only one having those thoughts and those feelings. So take a step in trust and reach out to a trusted adult. And LexPride always welcomes young people…it gives them the opportunity to come and speak in confidentiality; you don’t have to worry about what you say being repeated [at] LexPride, and SHAC, [which] has an LGBTQIA subgroup. They’re there to service the community. So take advantage of those opportunities, and don’t try to walk this walk alone. Join hands with those of us who’ve walked this path before, and we can help provide guidance and support.
To LGBTQ people and parents outside of Lexington, particularly in states like Florida and Texas, I pray for you. Texas and Florida seem like very cruel places to live right now. And I lived in both states before. But I never felt the anger and the hatred from a state level like we’re seeing now. I mean, they’ve never been progressive states. But the level of hate has never been documented from a legal standpoint of really reinforcing hate and indifference and lack of tolerance. And it’s really scary to me. So to those people, I say, be very careful. But still be yourself.
You are not alone in Texas. You are not alone in Florida. So that isolation that you feel, it’s not really isolation. There are others there to support you.
Just thinking about Florida and Texas, parents of transgender children… if I had a transgender child, I would never even vacation in those places. I just would not feel safe sending…my trans child to an overnight camp in Florida, with the tone of the laws they have. In Texas, I definitely would not ever send a trans child there. It’s things like that, that when you have a trans child, you have to think about vacations differently. You have to think about baseball camps differently. And I think a lot of times people don’t really realize that. It never crossed my mind – and so I was talking to [a friend]. And she sort of brought it to my attention – when you have trans children, you just can’t book a vacation; you have to look up the laws of where you’re going in case your child needs medical attention. And I found that eye-opening that when we want to go on vacation, we just book it. Now, when we travel internationally, we look up laws in regards to LGBTQ issues – but not when we travel here in the United States. So I mean, it’s just a privilege that we have…I’m becoming more and more aware of my privilege, and how unfortunate it is that I can’t share the privilege with everyone. And I find that so disturbing.
In a more proactive vein, thinking about LexPride’s history of the Ally of the Year Award – I wonder if you have thoughts or suggestions on how you think one can be a meaningful ally on the local level, or even beyond, for the LGBTQIA+ community?
I mean, locally, we have so many allies. The LGBTQ community in Lexington is just so fortunate that we do have a lot of allies. And we do get support from the town as a whole. I mean, it’s not perfect, but I don’t think anywhere would be perfect. I don’t even know if there’s such a thing as perfection. But I do feel – Julie Fenn, who is the chair of SHAC, and she’s a town employee, and she also lives in Lexington – to me, she is one of the most meaningful allies that I’ve ever met, even outside of Lexington. And she’s a person who will first say, ‘I don’t know and understand everything. But I’m willing to learn. And I apologize for any mistakes I make along this journey. But I do support the community.’ And to me, that is so meaningful. And not only does she say those things – it’s clear in her actions that she means what she says; she does the work behind those words. And if anything makes you an ally, it’s the work behind the words. So if I had to pick, like, an all-time ally, it would be Julie Fenn. (Indeed, Fenn won LexPride’s first-ever Ally of the Year Award in 2020.)
Fantastic. Lastly, if this an answer you’d be comfortable and interested in sharing…how did you and your husband meet?
Ah, very interesting story. This is when we were living in Atlanta, Georgia. And just going out for happy hour, going out for drinks, we met – we bumped into each other. And we exchanged phone numbers that day. And so we talked every day for about three months without ever seeing each other again. Then, Labor Day, we made plans to actually see each other again. But…Labor Day, which is Pride in Atlanta, I had friends in town, and he had friends in town. And so when we met, all of our friends hated each other.
Yes. And my friends hated Charles, and his friends hated me. But I feel like those three months of doing nothing but talking had built such a strong foundation and connection between us so that nothing could have kept us apart.
And we’re going on, I believe, 17 years now.