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Rainbow Connections: How dedicated activists forged the North Fork’s first pride parade

Photos by David Benthal

Greenport salon owner Lori Panarello remembers the exact moment she knew for sure that she and her wife had found a home on the North Fork, more than a decade after they bought their house in Mattituck.

Panarello, owner of Craft Hair on Front Street in Greenport, had worked hard to lay the groundwork for last year’s inaugural North Fork Pride parade. As the event got underway, she was marching south on Main Street, toward the corner of Front Street. 

“When we turned that corner and saw what was coming ahead of us—in terms of the amount of people and festivity and happiness and joy that was waiting for us to come down that street?” Panarello says. “I was with my two best friends and we all were crying because the amount of support was so beyond anything I ever imagined it would be. I mean, I thought we would have a nice parade but not that.” 

Panarello was a driving force in making that parade happen last June 24, but she knew she stood on the shoulders of—as well as shoulder to shoulder with—with an incredible group of women who both forged and found support in the string of small communities that make up the North Fork. 

Last year’s Pride parade in Greenport may have signaled new beginning on the North Fork, but the roots of the community stretch back generations—a march that started long before any parade whistle blew. 

Turning the tide 
(Photo credit: David Benthal)

“Just generally speaking, the North Fork has historically been a women’s community,” says Barbara Novick, president of North Fork Women, an organization founded in 1992 by a group of longtime North Fork lesbians to provide financial and health support, as well as socialization, to gay women. “That’s not to say there haven’t been gay men or transgender people or other LGBTQIA people. But it was a big women’s community—it was known for that.” 

Even if it was on the quiet side, it’s what Panarello and her wife, attorney Catherine Canadé, found when they first came to the North Fork in the early 2010s, and one of the reasons they stayed. On their very first visit, she says, “we fell in love with the place.” The Brooklyn couple bought a summer house in Mattituck about a decade ago and began spending more and more time out East until, during the pandemic, they sold their city apartment and moved to the North Fork for good. The longer they stayed, the more Panarello sensed a pervasive don’t-ask-don’t-tell vibe.

The more she met people, the more she realized how many were LGBTQ but afraid to identify as such. Women in their 60s and 70s who “had to literally hide inside their homes and couldn’t show their affection in any way, shape or form.” 

She recounts one incident shared with her just four years ago that stunned her. A local woman told her she worked at a library on the North Fork but had never admitted to anyone there that she was gay. One day, though, she decided to attend an area LGBTQIA party. 

“Someone who was there told another woman who worked at the library,” Panarello recounts. The gay woman returned to the library and was told in no uncertain terms to never do that again. Panarello was horrified. 

Parade or pariah
(Photo credit: David Benthal)

Michelle Demetillo, founder of Queerli, who uses the pronouns they/them, says initial concerns about a parade were justified. 

“I think some people thought it would offend people, or people were scared for their safety if they were going to march down the street with Pride flags,” Demetillo says. “I think there was a lot of fear—which is totally valid because a few years ago when Patchogue did a Pride event, they had gotten death threats.” 

About eight years ago, Panarello says, she was at a women’s group meeting.

“I brought up that I’d like to have a Pride parade, and some of the older women were like, ‘It’s never going to happen in Greenport. It’s never going to happen on the North Fork. You don’t know. You haven’t been out here long enough.’ I could see the fear and the pushback from them, and I just let it go.”

She opened her Greenport salon in the fall of 2020, just as the pandemic was taking hold and people were fleeing U.S. cities.

“When you’re a hairdresser and you’re working in your salon, you talk to so many people about so many different things,” she says. “So I knew what the temperature was in terms of the acceptance of LGBTQ on the North Fork, and in Greenport specifically.” 

Panarello says she began to notice how the pandemic was shifting the demographics of many East End communities, with more and more urban liberals settling down on the traditionally conservative North Fork. 

The time, she realized, was finally right.

“This is it,” she recalls thinking to herself. “This is the moment. This is our moment. 

She reached out to the LGBT Network, a nonprofit that has been active in New York since the early 1990s. She had gotten to know the organization’s leaders after inviting them to teach a seminar to her salon staffers “about pronouns and how things are changing, and how we have more and more trans people coming in to have their hair done.”

She said the LGBT Network has previously staged a Queens Pride parade, a Brooklyn Pride parade and a Long Island Pride parade, as well as Patchogue’s first Pride parade in 2019.

Panarello contacted LGBT Network CEO Robert Vitelli and development director Brian Rosen.

“I said, ‘Listen, it’s time out here. I want to do a parade. Will you help me?’ ” 

The men jumped on board. 

So did Sarah McNaughton of Southold, director at the cultural communications firm Resnicow & Associates, who is straight. 

McNaughton, who volunteers at the Center for Advocacy, Support and Transformation in Southold, got involved with the marketing and promotion of the parade last March.

“There was definitely a need here for bringing this kind of awareness and support to the LGBTQ community,” she says “There was a gap, a vacuum that needed to be filled.” 

McNaughton and her neighbor, Colleen Stellato—a sales executive and the current head of partnerships for, who is also straight—got to work. 

“We’re PR and sales girls so it was a perfect fit,” McNaughton says. 

They had three short months to get the word out, get people signed up to march and find vendors to bolster the festival, which was a true grassroots effort. 

“We had a kickoff party at Little Fish last year, the night before Pride, and that was sort of our baby. It was a pre-fundraising event where we made several thousand dollars from drink ticket sales,” says McNaughton. “There were breweries and vineyards that were happy to donate and sponsor that event. We had local businesses give to our raffle, which also made thousands of dollars. There was sort of no cap on what you could do, and so we were able to really just sink a lot of time and energy into it.”

By early spring, momentum was building. 

“We were selling sponsorships to raise money for the parade, and there were only very few—I would say one or two people—that weren’t interested,” Panarello recalls. “I think two things were happening: one, there was still the presence of fear for some people about having a parade in Greenport. ‘What if something bad happens?’ And the other thing I think came into play was they didn’t think we would have the response  that we did. I think they thought it would fizzle to a little nothing.”

To paraphrase the suffragette Nellie McClung: Never underestimate the power a group of determined women.

“Turning that corner—it was just really incredible. … People drove from all over for the North Fork Pride parade, and I think that speaks volumes, because you can see that people want Long Island and Eastern Suffolk to be this queer-affirming place for people,” says Demetillo. 

Novick had a similar experience.

“People were in tears,” she recalls. “People were choked up—people marching and people on the sides; wonderful organizations like [CAST]. They’re not a gay organization, but they had a little van and they had their rainbow signs and it just brought home to us all the support for us on the North Fork.”

Marching on
(Photo credit: David Benthal)

This year, the parade marches on. The date set for the second annual North Fork Pride parade is June 22—and this year, flags are flying. 

“I cannot tell you the amount of people who we had a hard time getting to jump on board last year who have jumped on board already this year,” says Panarello, “both gay and straight, who have come to me to thank me on behalf of their brothers, sisters, children, fathers, mothers and themselves.” 

McNaughton, too, is bullish on this year’s Pride parade. 

“It’s going to get bigger every year. The thing out here with a lot of businesses is that by mid-March or April—a lot of restaurants or food trucks and caterers, they’re committed for June,” says McNaughton. “A lot of people were like, ‘Shoot, I would love to do this, but I have two weddings I’m catering that day.’ That’s why this year we started right around New Year’s … We’re getting out early, and people know about it, and they saw how successful it was and they’re like, ‘I want to be on board with that.’ ”

The momentum generated by plans for the parade drew more traditional organizations like North Fork Women together with a new generation of LGBTQIA activists from younger groups like Queerli. The intergenerational unity is not lost on Panarello.

“The coming together of the younger folks and the older folks is so essential, because the young kids need to know who came before them and the fight that we had, and how hard it was,” she says. “They have to know that we fought and fought and fought, and now is not the time to give up.” 

And the examples Panarello has to back up that sentiment are seemingly endless. Like earlier this year, when she was approached by a woman in her 80s, who said she’s been on the North Fork since the 1960s. “She told me, ‘I want to tell you that I cried the whole day. I never thought that would happen in Greenport. Not in my time,’ ” Panarello recounts.

Novick agrees that it’s essential to pass the torch.  

“We don’t want to just be a bunch of old birds,” she says with a laugh. “[North Fork Women] was founded by a bunch of women in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and there’s a lot of very rich and important history there.” 

She says there’s also a lot to learn from younger generations. 

“I think it’s a breath of fresh air, an infusion and a boost. Bringing in Queerli, we also brought in new membership,” says Novick. “And the most wonderful thing about it is that where they are concerned, it’s mutual. They re so happy to learn from our experience and we’re so happy to share it and learn from them, as well. Where North Fork Women and Queerli are both concerned, it’s also about chosen family.”

The younger Demetillo says joining forces with like-minded people is what the LGBTQIA community is all about. 

“I think it’s important to have conversations with people who fought for women’s rights,” Demetillo says. “I obviously wasn’t alive at that point in time, but there’s so much that I can learn from the fight that some of these people have gone through for us to have marriage equality at this point. So I think there’s so much value and having that intergenerational connection.”

Panarello’s example, certainly, has been history in the making. And she’s definitely got some wisdom to share with the North Fork’s next LGBTQIA generation and those who support them: 

“Go forward and become educated—as to where we were, where we are now, and where we need to go.”  

Ed. note: This story has been updated from its original version.