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Salem’s gay magic makers

Posted by Jim Lopata  October 8, 2013 05:19 AM

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NS Pride Parade - Elected Officials.jpg
Elected Officials at the North Shore Pride parade 2013 (photo: courtesy North Shore Pride Committee)

The famous North Shore town’s LGBT scene is thriving. Here are eight folks making it happen

by Scott Kearnan

There’s magic in the air in Salem. Thanks to a supportive city government, thriving social networking groups, and its distinction as the epicenter of newly created North Shore Pride, the “Witch City” is emerging as a major local hub of queer community. Fall is the season when America’s Halloween capital gets an abundance of attention,—but we wanted to highlight eight folks from the LGBT community who are making it a better and more diverse place to live, work and play all year round. Ta-da!

CallieL.jpgCallie Lipton
(photo: Sheila Roberts Orlando)

Salem’s live music scene rocks. Its annual Jazz and Soul Festival attracts great talent, and you’ll find independent artists tuning up at trendy bars and coffee shops like Gulu-Gulu Café. For the last seven years, Lipton has been the lead voice and guitar in The Dejas, an ethereal folk-pop duo that scores major music industry kudos, prominent song placements (listen for them in an upcoming film adaptation of the lesbian TV drama Lip Service), and huge gigs: from Pride performances to September’s inaugural Stargaze Festival, a women’s camping and music weekend in New Hampshire. As an out singer-songwriter, candid reflections on love and loss figure prominently in Lipton’s lyrics. But she also helps local youth explore their emotions, including those associated with bullying and coming out, through volunteer work with several area organizations: like the Salem Boys and Girls Club, where she and straight bandmate Aaron Katz are co-music directors. “It’s important to me to be a positive role model,” says Lipton. “The kids know they can come to me for mentorship and support about self-identity, and use music as an outlet to express these issues. I remember when I was their age, dealing with my own questioning, that releasing things via lyrics and music was extremely therapeutic.” It still is. The Dejas’ forthcoming album includes several songs Lipton wrote, like the uplifting “Rise Up,” about getting sober and becoming a happier, healthier artist. That process helped her undertake many surprising side projects, including an upcoming hip-hop collaboration with former New England Patriots champ Tully Banta-Cain, and joining the cast of Scary Mary and the Audio Corsette, a campy theatrical music group that lets her stretch her sonic legs (she inhabits the role of an ‘80s hair band chick)—and her real ones, too. “I learned to walk in high heels for it!” laughs Lipton. Girl, write a song about that. There’s no worse pain than a stiletto scorned.

Kristian Hoysradt 1.jpgKristian Hoysradt
(photo: courtesy Kristian Hoysradt)

During last year’s inaugural North Shore Pride, Salem became the first North Shore town to fly the Pride flag from its City Hall; Beverly, Newburyport, Lynn and others have since followed suit. But it’s the commitment to diversity that thrives inside that building which truly inspires, says Hoysradt, who this year was officially designated the Mayor Office’s first LGBT liaison by Kim Driscoll, the city’s first woman mayor. Lieutenant Conrad Prosniewski simultaneously became the police department’s LGBT liaison. The creation of the roles was a step suggested by the Salem No Place for Hate Committee, an anti-discrimination board on which Hoysradt and Prosniewski serve, to ready Salem for evaluation by the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index (MEI), an annual nationwide ranking of pro-LGBT city policies and services. “We hope to see it recognized that Salem is at the forefront of LGBT issues and promoting equality, a flagship on the North Shore,” says Hoysradt, who previously worked for the HRC in Washington, DC before returning to his native North Shore to serve as political director for Congressman John Tierney’s 2012 reelection campaign. He was then tapped to be Mayor Driscoll’s director of constituent services and special projects. The LGBT liaison role is a perfect fit for Hoysradt, for whom political activism was part of the coming out process. “I think supporting the [LGBT] community first as an ally really helped me be honest with myself,” says Hoysradt, who began by volunteering with MassEquality in his high school days. Now, he says, he is honestly thrilled to have a first-of-its kind role working for a mayor he considers a dedicated ally. “Mayor Driscoll brought her kids to this year’s Pride parade to help pass out rainbow stickers,” recalls Hoysradt. “I remember watching and thinking, I can’t believe I’m working for an elected official who is here with her family promoting LGBT equality so openly and honestly. It encourages others to step up to the plate.” Homerun.

MQ-W4.jpgMichael Quijano-West
(photo: courtesy Michael Quijano-West)

Even among those who work in preservation, things change. Just look at Quijano-West: the openly gay superintendent of Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the very first such site in America’s venerated National Park System. (It celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.) Yet though he’s dedicated his career to protecting clearly delineated parcels of valuable land, Quijano-West believes the best kind of world is one without borderlines. “We’re working to make the parks feel more dynamic and relevant to all populations,” says Quijano-West, who wants Salem Maritime Historic Site to more emphatically incorporate (in its festivals and educational programs) elements of far-flung global cultures that were long connected to America via Salem, once the country’s busiest seaport. Quijano-West, who studied cultural anthropology and speaks six languages, sees great value in the multicultural experience. He’s of part Native American descent and grew up in El Paso, Texas on the US/Mexico border, which fostered a value of inclusiveness that made coming out to his family relatively painless. “Growing up in two cultures, you learn to be flexible and not too entrenched in anything,” says Quijano-West. Assignments have taken him to park posts all over the country, often functioning as a liaison between tribal and state governments. But he says he and his husband appreciate the relative embrace of diversity in New England, where he’s also superintendent of Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site. The region leads the country on issues of LGBT equality, and he has “hope for the next generation” he sees visiting parks with schools and scouts groups: one to which differences between ethnicities and sexualities seem increasingly irrelevant. Still, he seizes the moment to serve as a role model for those who need one. “I want to show them that, though you can’t be a leader in your organization yet, you can be a leader in many other places,” says Quijano-West of the parks’ visiting Boy Scout groups. Hmm. It sounds like pride might be the most important thing he works to preserve.

Michael Quijano-WestMickey Northcutt
(photo: courtesy Mickey Northcutt)

Every community has the capacity for change. “That my old high school now has a GSA is shocking. That would have been unheard of in the mid-90s,” says Northcutt, who grew up outside of Houston, Texas, where his family was accepting but the greater culture more conservative. Now as CEO of North Shore Community Development Coalition (CDC), Northcutt wants others to enjoy the progressive, transformative potential of community. “Growing up in a white middle-class household, I took for granted not having to worry about a roof over my head,” says Northcutt, who was raised in Texas by a family that was accepting of his sexuality. “If you can offer access to quality housing, a lot of other social issues fall into place.” So several years ago he led the creation of North Shore CDC by merging his former agency, the active but understaffed Beverly Affordable Housing Coalition, with the well outfitted but inert Salem Harbor CDC. His resulting new, robust organization is paving the way for energy-efficient housing development in the region’s neighborhoods with large low-income and immigrant populations. That’s important to Northcutt. His role model is his 91–year old grandmother, whose Dutch village was occupied by the Germans during World War II until liberated by American troops. “She instilled in me a deep sense of social justice,” says Northcutt, whose CDC also looks to activate and revitalize a sense of neighborhood pride and engagement in community: through its YouthBuild program for low-income teens, for instance. The organization’s portfolio includes 300 housing units around the North Shore and of millions in investments. What’s next? This summer North Shore CDC kicked off a seven-year Action Plan to improve opportunities for housing, career development and civic engagement in Salem’s largely immigrant Point neighborhood; and it’s in talks to work with the city of Peabody to reactive the downtown. “I pinch myself every day for being able to do what I love,” says Northcutt. We think grandma is pretty proud too.

ChrisS2-CREDIT-JohnAndrews.jpgChristopher Sicuranza
(photo: John Andrews)

Sicuranza doesn’t like the status quo—or feeling silenced. He’s the marketing pro and vice-president of Go Out Loud, an LGBT networking group that works to “reclaim our backyards” by giving the community increased visibility on the North Shore. And as a longtime politico who has worked in multiple campaigns, he has witnessed the way in which sexuality can be perceived as a liability. “I recognized how important it is to have LGBT leadership on the Salem City Council,” says Sicuranza, who says he was encouraged not to “advertise” being gay during his own run to fill a vacant council seat earlier this year. That run started promising, but ultimately revealed the provincial and intransigent nature of local politics, where legacies and backroom deals can take priority over embracing new leadership and serving the public’s interest, says Sicuranza. (In one all-night session, council members submitted the same tied vote 300 times rather than change position.) So he launched Salem First Coalition, a web-based initiative to get more residents, especially those in the social media-savvy generation, engaged in civic issues and mobilized through voter drives and special events. Elected officials are also invited to submit their platforms on pressing issues, an approach Sicuranza says underscores Salem First’s role as a nonpartisan fact-finder for constituents. And if some in Salem’s ensconced political elite find that scary? Boo-hoo. “It’s about engaging our democratic roots and building community through accountability,” says Sicuranza, for whom being an active community member (he’s also communications director for the New England Police Benevolent Association) has swayed opinions from another important constituency: family. “My father knew I was gay, but comes from the perspective of this very old school Italian man,” says Sicuranza. This year his once reticent dad came to Salem Pride. “That my family showcased their support for me was really touching,” he says. And if living proud and transparently can move them, Salem politicians should be a cinch. “My family can be quite stubborn,” he laughs. “What I try to do is be a bridge.”

Christian-CREDIT-ScottLane.jpgChristian Day
(photo: Scott Lane)

Salem is famously associated with the witch trials of 1692. But Christian Day is the male face most famously associated with the modern witch community in Salem, and maybe the world. That Day is gay is somewhat fitting. “I see many powerful parallels between being a witch and owning your sexuality as a gay person,” says Day, who notes that gay and trans people have often been venerated within folk magic cultures. “In both cases you must challenge authority and find the inner bravery to say, ‘This is who I am, not the template society imposed on me.’” Reclamation of identity is something Day knows well. In the early ‘00s, Salem tried to downplay its witch history and encourage tourism around other associations. Day launched a powerful push to keep celebrating the city’s more magical qualities: now he runs the annual Festival of the Dead event series (a darker counterpoint to the city’s kitschy “Haunted Happenings”), authored The Witches’ Book of the Dead, owns three witchcraft stores (including one in New Orleans, where he splits his time), and has become the go-to guy when news media from CNN to TMZ need a talking head from the witch world. “I’ve been an agent of change, and it has taken a while for some people even in the witch world to embrace that,” says Day, who has been critiqued within his community as a too commercialized, controversy-baiting showman. (That he’s working with a major cable network to launch a reality show about modern witches won’t quiet those critics.) But Day says that ultimately, his methods educate mainstream crowds about witches and dispel assumptions of immorality to which, like the gay community, they’re often subjected. It’s a mission he undertakes with trademark smarts and sass. For instance, ask him why he calls himself a warlock, not a witch, and you’ll get two answers. The long one: “I embrace the divine feminine within, but don’t want to devalue the divine masculine.” The short one: “It’s ten times more fuck-able,” laughs Day. “Let’s call a spade a spade.”

Chad.jpgChad O’Connell
(photo: courtesy Chad O'Connell)

Gay kids hassled in high school might want to take a cue from O’Connell: get your freak on. “I wasn’t bulled in high school. I was a weirdo, but everyone was afraid of me,” laughs the Connecticut-raised Salem artist. The moment he laid childhood eyes on the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz, O’Connell became obsessed with makeup and masks: and by extension, Halloween, New England autumns, and anything other kids might find scary. At 14 years old he was the youngest artist accepted to train with Oscar-winning special effects makeup artist Dick Smith, the man who, among other claims to fame, transformed baby-faced Linda Blair into the grotesque Satanic spawn in The Exorcist. The mentorship with Smith helped O’Connell cultivate his eventual artistic specialty: intricate, strikingly lifelike wax figures that are ordered as personal commissions (The Craft star Fairuza Balk is a client), used for elaborate haunted attractions, and displayed in museums like Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery in Salem. It’s filled with many of his replicas of creepy characters, like Bette Midler from the Salem-filmed flick Hocus Pocus. Indeed, O’Connell draws much inspiration for his figures, which can take many painstaking months to sculpt, mold, and paint, from forgotten horror flicks and dark comedies of the ‘90s: those that, to a younger generation of gays, are now adopting an air of classic nostalgia. For instance, this year he launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the creation of Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn’s gothic-glam characters from the 1992’s campy Death Becomes Her. “I think anything with a cult following tends to find a place in the gay community,” says O’Connell of the gay horror and B-movie subculture embodied by stars like RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Sharon Needles. (Yes, he’s “waxed” her.) “It’s the gay community that tends to keep more obscure movies alive, and breathe new life into them.” And that’s exactly what this fabulous Dr. Frankenstein does better than anyone: make sure that in Salem and beyond, the most marvelous monsters never die.

Alyssa_Jones_photo.JPGAlyssa Jones
(photo: courtesy Alyssa Jones)

In her undergrad days as a sociology student at Mount Holyoke College, Jones learned the power of observation. “It informs me to this day,” she says of those studies. “I tend to stay on the fringe. I’m someone who likes to watch and observe phenomenon, take it all in before I get in the middle.” That approach serves her well in her current studies: besides a day job as a project coordinator for a digital media agency, Jones is earning her master’s degree at Bentley University in Human Factors in Information Design. (That’s a fancy way of saying that she studies the way people instinctively use objects—from cars to computers to ATM kiosks—in order to design more intuitive, user-friendly devices.) Yet as an activist, Jones seems anything but unwilling to jump right in. Over the last few years she has become increasingly active with the Human Rights Campaign, tracing a route that reminds us anyone with dedication and enthusiasm has the potential to be a player in his or her community. (Yes, even if you’re balancing volunteerism with work and school.) Jones serves on the HRC’s Boston steering committee as the marketing co-chair, a role she hopes will further a mission of making the organization feel more inclusive: to women, people of color, and trans folks in particular. Earlier this year she was one of just 24 women from around the country selected to attend the 2013 HRC Women’s Learning Retreat in Washington, DC, part of the organization’s Equality Leaders for the 21st Century program, which recognizes and develops promising LGBT leadership talent. She’s since been nominated to serve on the HRC Board of Governors. Observing from the sidelines can be fine; but Jones’s willingness to work toward increasingly active roles in her community is a humbling reminder that all LGBT folks can find ways to dive in and help out.  [x]

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About the author: Boston Spirit Magazine’s daily blog brings you all of the information you need on New England’s LGBT community. In addition to highlighting local and national LGBT news, we will also highlight local leaders from the worlds of business, politics, fashion and entertainment and keep you up-to-date on all the latest events and parties, hot spots for travel, shopping, dining, and more!
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