Shared from the 10/16/2022 Albany Times Union eEdition

A new pride perspective

Nathaniel Gray, leader of center, draws from his past for new role

Jay Zhang Photography

Capital Pride Center’s Nathaniel Gray oversaw the return of the Pride Festival in his first year as executive director.

Katherine Kiessling / Times Union

The Capital Pride Center, at 332 Hudson Ave. in Albany, needs to provide supportive resources to the LGBTQ community because of the actions of others, from parents who weren’t educated on raising a transgender child to businesses struggling to build an inclusive work environment, says Executive Director Nathaniel Gray.

Jay Zhang Photography

Jenna Fraiser, left, the LGBTQ+ Empire Fellow with the Governor’s Office, stands next to Capital Pride Center Executive Director Nathaniel Gray, June 12 at the 2022 Albany Capital Pride Festival and Parade in Albany’s Washington Park.

Nathaniel Gray knows there’s a kid in Fulton County like his younger self: queer, confused and surrounded by a community that isn’t ready to accept him.

Gray grew up in rural, religious southern Ohio with two Marine parents. He experienced direct homophobia for the first time in second grade and became the target for bullying that brought him to suicidal thoughts. After high school, he found a welcoming escape in New York City where he thought he’d live forever working in theater, drag and public policy.

Gray’s past is his unintentional “secret sauce” that informs his approach to LGBTQaffirming public policymaking and his new role as executive director of Capital Pride Center.

“I have a good pulse on the people who are the conservative, sort of radical right wing of our country right now,” he said. “I grew up among a lot of them.” That perspective could help in an age when legislation like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and a Baptist church group protesting a school’s gender-inclusive bathroom policy exist.

When an exchange student opportunity in high school let Gray live in Denmark for a year, he realized there was a world beyond Ohio — and a world with queer communities. He moved to New York City to study musical theater at Pace University, running away from a space unwilling to accept him, he said.

Gray eventually transitioned out of theater to focus on a full-time drag career as Amanda Poupon, and spent his days baby-sitting in Brooklyn. One family had an effeminate son, Gray said, and he realized that even though this kid was growing up in a rich, white, progressive home, the world wouldn’t be as welcoming as his parents if he was gay, and neither child nor parent were equipped for what would come. Gray realized he was in a position to help.

He went to Fordham University for his master’s degree in social work where he focused on policymaking to support queer youth and worked closely with homeless LGBTQ youth at the Ali Forney Center and He-trick-Martin Institute, two prominent LGBTQ youth community centers in New York City.

But Gray realized the inclusive bubble of Brooklyn, where he lived for a decade, didn’t need another advocate.

In 2019, he relocated to Albany for the inaugural Edie Windsor, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera LGBTQ Fellowship, where he spent two years as a fellow working on policies in the Office of Children and Family Services for New York state. He continued working in the office as the diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator for a year after his fellowship ended.

“I got up here, and I realized that I have a real moral obligation to my own community,” Gray said. “While that may have originally been southern Ohio, it is now rural, queer folks.”

Here, Gray sees an opportunity to serve that community. He equates being gay in certain locations of the Capital Region to being in a zoo with how people gawk at his “radically queer” appearance, with rainbow hair and a pink and green manicure currently adorning his fingers. He recounted an incident from a couple of weeks ago where someone driving by felt comfortable enough to stick their head out the window and hurl a homophobic slur at Gray as he walked along Lark Street.

“I had forgotten what it feels like to walk through an atmosphere where there is the potential for violence around your identity,” Gray said.

That’s why the Pride Center is important, and why Gray wants to see its reach expand. Historically, he said, the center concentrated on the blocks surrounding the building on Hudson Avenue, but it is raising funds and working on initiatives to grow its visibility and support to better serve the whole region. The center’s goal is to hire a regional coordinator to oversee a team of social work interns who could run monthly events at public spaces in all of the Capital Region’s counties. It is more than some of the queer people, particularly queer youth, are getting.

“For those kids, it will change the world,” Gray said.

The Pride Center needs to provide supportive resources to the LGBTQ community because of the actions of others, Gray said, from parents who weren’t educated on raising a transgender child to businesses struggling to build an inclusive work environment. Bringing them into the conversation is important, too, and it’s what influenced The Proud Path, Gray’s early exploration of the work he wanted to do. The Proud Path gave parents and businesses the resources necessary to be affirming and welcoming to the queer community through educational materials and personal consultations with Gray. While the program is on pause with Gray’s new role, he integrates much of its resources into programming at the Pride Center.

Gray’s appointment as executive director in January came as the Pride Center was emerging from pandemic shutdowns, which limited resources, shifted the center to digital and canceled two Capital Pride festivals. Since stepping into the role, Gray oversaw the return of the festival and parade in June, and a successful Pride season where the center raised close to $160,000, surpassing the previous fundraising record of $91,000.

“I was a drag queen in New York City, I love throwing a party and I know how to get people excited,” Gray joked, though he doesn’t take full credit for the successes of this year’s Pride season. That, he said, goes not only to the hard work of staff and the center’s volunteers, but also to a driven millennial community, who never got to meet many of its queer elders because of the AIDS epidemic and are ready to move into a more diverse future.

The center’s upcoming gala on Nov. 18 embraces this movement with its theme “Rainbow Age.” This reflects the center stepping away from a white, cisgender focus to be more intergenerational, multiracial and gender expansive, Gray said.

The work will require “all hands on deck” from the community, be it through donations or volunteering, Gray said.

“The Pride Center must exist to protect the needs of over 100,000 LGTBQ people among the three (largest) cities of the Capital Region alone. The Pride Center has to be here … to protect and support all people.”


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