MAPLEWOOD, NJ - This past weekend, Maplewood residents and visitors from across New Jersey converged on Maplewood’s own Memorial Field for the North Jersey Pride Festival.  Billed as an event that “brings together LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer] folks and straight allies from all over the Garden State to celebrate diversity and promote equality,” the Pride Festival is a day of community outreach. The festivities were accompanied by an enthusiastic speech by Newark Mayor and aspiring NJ Senator Cory Booker.

The North Jersey Pride Festival had rather humble origins, starting out as a small picnic event.  Now in its third year, the Festival features live music, a Kids’ Zone with arts and crafts activities, and a gourmet food court where “instead of the usual greasy stock, you’ll find lobster rolls and salad bars, vegan wraps and Ethiopian buffet, frappuccinos and rainbow cupcakes.” Some of the visitors to the earliest Pride Festival—such as John Heath of West Orange and his partner Gene Cholett—are delighted with how much the event has grown.  As Heath remarked, “we love doing this.  It has grown beyond Maplewood and our circle of friends is growing.”

This year, display booths were set up by a great variety of LGBTQ-friendly organizations.  The Gay and Lesbian Bowlers of Hudson County were on hand to distribute information about their 2013-2014 season.  According to Bowlers representative Joe Brady, “we’re more about socializing and community than about competition.”

Some of the other organizations that appeared at Pride Day are specifically designed to build a sense of community—and an awareness of LGBTQ issues—among young New Jersey residents. One such organization is Camp Highlight, a “one week sleep-away camp for children ages 8 to 15 who have a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender parent.” Since its founding three years ago, the camp has grown steadily, and many of the Camp Highlight campers return for the low-pressure atmosphere and the fun activities (including a few with Harry Potter-inspired touches).

Also represented was the LGBTQ Center at Montclair State University.  With its resource library and weekly discussion groups, the LGBTQ Center “presents educational, cultural, and social opportunities for students, faculty, and staff to challenge intolerance and promote acceptance.” Some of the Center’s 28 student volunteers were at the Pride Festival. “We're very excited to be here and represent the college age population,” noted Center Coordinator Brian Edwards.

Perhaps the biggest attraction of the day was Booker’s special appearance.  C.J. Prince, the executive director of North Jersey Pride, introduced Booker, hailing him as “a huge advocate for equality.” In his speech, Booker drew on his own childhood experiences of discrimination and called on his audience to uphold the principles set forward in the Pledge of Allegiance: “Liberty and justice for all.” Booker said, “nothing can stop people when they come together with conviction and courage, with love and respect.

 "We’re going to be Jersey strong for equality,” Booker said.