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How the burning of a Pride flag ignited the Sussex County LGBTQ community

“I do sometimes wonder if the person or people who set the flags on fire realize what has become of the situation. As a result or somewhat of a result of their actions, it has truly motivated us to take the cause up, and to make things better for people who are affected by actions like that."

Season 3, Episode 4 of the HBO series We’re Here opens on a sun-beaten field crammed with pickup trucks. We get a quick montage of scene-setting visual shorthand: black T-shirts with bald eagles, MAGA hats, stickers of the Confederate flag. 

Into this scene strut Shangela, Bob the Drag Queen and Eureka O’Hara in eye-popping plumes of glitter and confidence. The camera cuts to onlookers. It’s all suspicious squints and zero recognition. We assume that these folks are not regular viewers of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Bob the Drag Queen surveys the scene. “I think I am closer to Manhattan than some parts of Brooklyn, time-wise,” he observes, “but it really feels like I’m in Idaho.”

“This is not the Jersey shore,” Shangela agrees. “This is inland Jersey.”

Sussex County, NJ, to be specific. The episode follows three folks from the NJ Skylands as they take on their first drag performances under the encouraging gaze of their new drag mothers. Filmed in late summer 2022, the episode dropped this past December. It’s had some time to sink in.

Now, the LGBTQ folks of Sussex County have some things to say. The story of queer life in NJ’s northernmost county didn’t begin last summer after a montage of farmland and Trump flags. It started in 2017 with a 16-year-old Parks and Rec fan. It reached a crisis point last year with the repeated desecration of a church’s Pride flag. And now it is bigger, stronger and, against all odds, more joyful than HBO’s cameras captured.

‘In Sussex, it’s very 1949’

Sussex County is rural, overwhelmingly white, and Trump won almost 60% of the vote there in 2020. These characteristics encourage certain assumptions about who belongs here and who doesn’t; who gets to feel seen, represented, safe. As Ashley Craig says, “In Sussex, it’s very 1949.” 

Craig is one of the three people who tried drag for the first time in the Sussex County episode of We’re Here. She’s grateful that her own family has always been accepting, but she knows that many people aren’t so lucky. 

“We’ve had multiple kids who have come out to their families and stay on our couch, because their family said, ‘Absolutely not. Either you’re straight, or you’re gonna find another place to go,’” she says. 

Craig came out as a lesbian at age 19. There are still people in the neighborhood who no longer speak with her family, unable to condone the family’s acceptance. To many people, no one is born queer. Being queer is a deliberate choice, an unnatural one. 

“That’s the sentiment I feel is very alive and well in Sussex County,” Craig says. “It’s that, well, you choose to be [queer], or it’s equal to something like pedophilia.”

In an environment like this, putting up a Pride flag isn’t a cheerful decoration for the month of June. Queer visibility feels vulnerable and scary out here in a way that’s alien to denser areas like Morristown or Jersey City, where businesses plaster Safe Space stickers on their doors. 

Flash back six years ago, and this was even truer. In 2017, Zoe Heath was a 16-year-old high school student in Vernon, a Sussex County town 10 minutes from the New York state line.

Zoe Heath

She remembers growing up queer in Sussex County. Obergefell v. Hodges may have made marriage equality a national reality in 2015, but the Supreme Court decision hadn’t changed the everyday experiences of LGBTQ people in rural NJ. There was virtually no queer visibility in Sussex, much less positivity or acceptance.

Luckily, Heath was, and still is, a relentlessly energetic organizer and activist. “I spent my prom money going to a leadership conference in D.C.,” Heath says. “I watched Parks and Rec and I was like, I want to do that. Like, I was not the average teenager.”

Heath founded her high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. At 16, she was also the vice president of the local National Organization for Women (NOW) chapter, where the seed for Sussex County Pride began. One of NOW’s six core tenets is LGBTQ rights, which Heath’s chapter hoped to practice with an event honoring LGBTQ Pride. In 2017, no such event existed anywhere nearby, especially for youth—something that Heath knew well as her school’s GSA founder.

“Morris County Pride didn’t exist,” she says. “Montclair Pride didn’t exist. It was either New York City or [youth] would go up to the Catskills… which is not possible in Sussex County when you’re a child.”

So Heath and the NOW chapter president made the plan for the first Sussex County Pride, which wouldn’t be an event so much as a mini-rally, a dream, and a lot of youthful enthusiasm. Heath and the other NOW members figured that even if the “event” was nothing but a few of them standing on the Newton Green holding Pride flags, it would still be enough: a chance to make history in Sussex County. 

“Even though we’re always aware of present dangers, we weren’t really thinking about that,” Heath says. “We’re just like, oh my gosh, we get to do this really cool event—like, have gay people in Sussex County, visibly and openly. Let’s show people in Sussex County that queer people do exist here. And that we’re excited to be here.”

A small group gathered in the middle of Newton, the county seat. Then the people came: those who spotted the event on social media or who were simply driving by, saw the first Pride event in Sussex County history and pulled over to join in. But the group that made the biggest impact on Heath were the families, kids and parents who hadn’t known that an accepting community existed there.

The importance of Pride is hard to explain to someone who isn’t queer. Although every LGBTQ person takes a different route to knowing and embracing their identity, many of us don’t come to it easily. We in the millennial crowd probably first heard our identities used as playground insults, synonyms for freak, monster, not-us, mistakes of nature who did not deserve belonging. Faced with knee-jerk hostility before we understood why, some of us chose repression and the closet, a devil’s bargain trading selfhood for conditional acceptance. Others chose the scarier, lonelier option of pointing to identities that had become synonymous with pariah and saying, “Yeah, that’s me,” and then suffered the social and societal consequences.

So the very concept of Pride offers many of us a personal revolution: the revelation that we don’t have to be ashamed. 

For Heath, Pride’s historical roots speak to political revolution, too. As the T-shirt says, the first Pride was a riot. In late June 1969, the LGBTQ patrons of the Mafia-owned Stonewall Inn fought back against the police raids that were a regular occurrence at the time. Activists organized the Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day a year later in commemoration, which evolved into the Pride March that has since spanned the globe.

This history can’t be forgotten during Pride month, Heath insists. What’s more, the revolution that started with a brick (or shotglass, or beer glass—sources disagree) thrown by a Black drag queen (or transwoman, or butch lesbian—see again about sources) isn’t finished. 

Sussex County Pride 2020. Credit: Nicole Yori-Gibson

“If I had it my way, Sussex County Pride would be a very political organization,” Heath says. “I am a very political person. I consider Pride to be very political. I have been accused of politicizing Pride… Pride will be political until people stop trying to make legislation about it. Until there are no more anti-trans laws, Pride will be political. Until every single trans child, every single queer child, is free of worrying about things like conversion therapy, Pride will be political. As long as there are queer suicides, Pride will be political. As long as there are hate crimes, Pride will be political. LGBTQ+ people don’t actually have protections under the federal government. The Equality Act is still dying in the House and Senate—as much as we want to rabble rouse about the Equal Marriage Act that actually doesn’t make gay marriage legal forever, Pride will be political. Until I don’t have to come out, Pride will be political.”

Pride on the Newton Green has grown every year since it started in 2017; the only exception was 2020… not solely due to COVID, but also because they also donated their demonstration permit to a Black Lives Matter rally. 

Sussex County Pride left the auspices of NOW, got its own social media and launched political calls to action. The first Pride flag in Sussex County was raised in Vernon, Heath’s hometown, followed by Newton and Sparta. 

Then, in 2021, SCP’s visibility exploded thanks to the nocturnal witchy NJ event Lunar Faire. Held on new and full moons during the warmer months, Lunar Faire draws an eclectic crowd of woo-woo practitioners, crystal collectors and glitter enthusiasts to outdoor venues around NJ including the Sussex County Fairgrounds in Augusta. 

The organizers of Lunar Faire wanted drag queens at their events; Heath, who knew them all, wanted a table at Lunar Faire’s Sussex County events. It was a good trade. Sussex County Pride went from hosting one event a year to participating in four events in two months. Their social media presence, budget and network of performers and vendors rocketed upward. And, Lunar Faire itself donated over $4,000 to EDGE (End Discrimination Gain Equality), an AIDS service organization in Morris County.

For a few months in late 2021, it felt as if queer people might find an accepting home in Sussex County, a place to feel safe. 

‘It’s the one group you’re still allowed to hate’

Two illustrative stats from the year 2022 for LGBTQ people in the U.S.:

  • Tweets that mentioned “grooming” on March 29, 2022, the day after the instatement of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill: 7,959 (per Alejandra Caraballo of Harvard Law’s Cyber Law Clinic)
  • Tweets that mentioned “groomer” in the seven days following the Club Q shooting in November 2022: 112,140 (Montclair State University)

Next to the Mohawk House in Sparta, off bustling-for-Sussex-County Sparta Ave., you’ll spot a defiant flare of color: the Pride flag waving outside Sparta United Methodist Church. The flag caught the attention of Jill Kubin and Sue Harris when they moved to Sparta from Morristown four years ago. 

“We would drive past this church and be like, ‘Oh my god, they have a flag,’” Kubin says. “So when we started thinking about joining the church, this was the only choice.”

The Sparta UMC congregation voted to hang the flag about seven years ago. Their outspoken support for LGBTQ rights goes back even further to 1972, the year that the United Methodists’ annual conference added language to the Book of Discipline that they found objectionable. The statement reads: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” 

“We’ve been trying to get it out for all those 50 years,” says Pat Schutz, a longtime volunteer with the church. “Every year, it comes up. Every year, there’s a lot of people who are so upset that we can’t get it out of there.”

The statement in the Book of Discipline has led to a split in the United Methodists; Sparta UMC is a Reconciling congregation, a Methodist branch that believes in the full inclusion of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the church. For the better part of a decade, Sparta UMC has been highly public about its defiance of the Book of Discipline and its support for LGBTQ rights. 

So, when Kubin and Harris discovered the Pride flag burnt and trampled outside the church on Jan. 2, 2022, the shock hit hard. 

This wasn’t the first time that the UMC’s Pride flag had been damaged in some way. In years past it had been stolen a handful of times, and once it was torn down and thrown by the dumpsters. But the brazenness of leaving the flag’s melted remnants in the open and the hateful connotations of flag-burning conveyed a new intensity to the violence. This did not feel like a random act of teen boredom; it felt like an attack. 

The Sparta Police Department and the FBI investigated the flag-burning incident as a hate crime. At first the incident, horrible as it was, might seem too small to attract the attention of the country’s top law enforcement agency. But the burning of Sparta UMC’s flag took place in a national environment of escalating risk for the LGBTQ community, which included an increase in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, anti-LGBTQ demonstrations, and involvement of far-right extremist groups like the Proud Boys in those demonstrations. 

Sparta UMC replaced the Pride flag. It was burned again three months later.

Damaris Lira remembers witnessing the slow, creeping influx of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. She’s had a front row seat as a member of Sussex Borough’s Community and Cultural Events Advisory Committee and Economic Development Committee, as well as a Sussex County Pride volunteer. 

“My involvement with the LGBTQ [community] is understanding how closely the struggles—women’s struggles, POC struggles, indigenous struggles—it’s a joint struggle against the system, against patriarchy,” Lira says. “Everybody needs to be an ally for each other and be there for each other if we’re actually going to get anything done.”

She first noticed a general level of heightened rhetoric in the run up to the 2020 election. The word choices from conservatives were oddly similar. Eventually, she realized that the comments came from one source. “I’m saying this with all honesty,” Lira says. “Whatever Fox News said yesterday, it’s what they’re talking about the next day, in the town meeting… [In] commissioner meetings, council meetings. It’s really bizarre.”

It’s no accident that Lira heard the same soundbites parroted from Fox News specifically. According to Pew Research, Fox News is the main news outlet for 93% of Republicans. Whatever Fox News pumps out, you’ll find floating in the collective conservative consciousness downstream. 

And what it pumps out has become more extremist and polarizing over time. One of Fox’s favorite flavors of bullshit targets the LGBTQ community with a trope from the 1960s: They’re coming for your children. Media Matters analyzed Fox News segments in the first half of 2022 for anti-LGBTQ language and found that Fox produced anti-LGBTQ segments 106 out of 181 days. 

And though NJ ranks highly for LGBTQ quality of life, the broader assault on the community is still felt here. Zoe Heath is no stranger to online threats and sometimes bizarre harassment from far-right strangers. She’s been doxxed, threatened, even called a cult leader of Baal. 

But the escalation of credible threats against her and Sussex County Pride reached new heights in 2022. “Our online threats increased tenfold,” she says. The police investigated an online threat that called for people to show up with their guns to the Newton Green. After the Pride event ended, someone stood on the Green praying a rosary for all of their souls. That was once a staple of LGBTQ harassment back in the ’90s heyday of the Westboro Baptist Church and its “God Hates F*gs” signs, but SCP’s events had never received that kind of bigotry in religious drag. 

Heath sees a direct cause and effect between anti-LGBTQ rhetoric nationally and the threats in Sussex County. “For years, the Republican Party was talking about Black Lives Matter and riots as—ah, vote, they’re gonna burn down your Target,” she says. “And then that didn’t work. So now they’re using queer people as their scapegoat.”

She mentions a small weekly gathering in Sparta that many of my interviewees brought up: a collection of generally older men in lawn chairs carrying protest signs. During the pandemic, it was anti-mask and anti-vaccines. Now, like a mood ring reflecting Fox’s fixation of the moment, their signs have changed to protest the acknowledgment of LGBTQ existence in NJ’s new sex education standards—or, in their words, the signs are now anti-“groomer.” 

Those people don’t bother Heath. Instead, “it’s these people who have come out of the woodwork in the past six to nine months, calling us groomers and pedophiles and talking about wanting to protest our drag shows, who want to bring their guns to the Newton Green,” she says. “That’s what really worries me. Because I’ve been doing this for a while. This isn’t new. But the constant anti-queer rhetoric that has been repeated on a national scale is new.” 

Damaris Lira can even pinpoint a two-week period in the summer of 2022 when the tone shifted. She hosted a drag show on Main Street in Sussex Borough as part of her campaign for county commissioner. Would a drag show in such a public, exposed place go over well? 

Good news this time: it did. People had fun, businesses on Main Street made money, nobody threw a fit. 

“They welcomed us with open arms, you know?” Lira says. Then, Tucker must have said some real zingers. “Two weeks later, everyone was up in arms about our next show, which was just a regular show.” No drag queens were coming, but people called asking where they should protest them anyway. Anti-drag queen fever had hit. 

Lira sees the same evolution in the right’s cultural targets as Heath. “You’re not allowed to be racist anymore, right?” she says. But if you are someone who kind of liked the year 1949, and all the changes since then have felt like societal betrayals, you still need a nefarious agent to blame. Then you can “you know, dip your toe in a little bit of homophobia and then see if it’s OK. 

“And unfortunately, that’s what’s happening right now… it’s the one group you’re still allowed to hate.”

‘I felt seen for the first time’

Some numbers from the Trevor Project: 

  • LGBTQ youth are 3.5 times more likely to attempt suicide vs. straight youth
  • Trans teens are 5.87 times more likely to attempt suicide vs. the average of all teens
  • Having at least one accepting adult lowers an LGBTQ youth’s risk of suicide by 40%

Simone Kraus is a resilient Sussex County transwoman who transitioned late in life. When she came out, she lost lifelong friendships and the dojo where she’d practiced for 33 years. Now in her 60s, with the hardest parts of her transition behind her, she sees her role as a guardian for the next generation.

“When I was hiding these demons, you know, being transgender and keeping this great secret, they were just my demons that I had to deal with,” Kraus says. “These young trans kids today have governments, laws, state governments going after them. How terrifying is that?”

She’s a fierce advocate for LGBTQ rights, especially for trans youth. So when she got word HBO was looking to scout locations for Season 3 of We’re Here, she agreed to help them find suitable locations and potential cast members. 

The show tends to highlight rural places like Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, or cities in the Deep South like Selma, Alabama—places badly in need of what one show representative called “the transformative power of drag.” In January 2022, news of the flag-burning at Sparta UMC was painfully fresh. Kraus sent articles about the incident to an HBO representative as evidence of the climate here, along with suggestions for local LGBTQ people with powerful stories. She argued that Sussex County was the perfect place for HBO to film. After a scouting visit, the show’s producers agreed. 

Simone Kraus, Mimi Sashimi, Kay Gorgeous, Ashley Craig, Ditto

Ashley Craig hadn’t expected to add “drag queen” to her resume, but she had been selected for the Sussex County episode. Her memories of the filming bubble with love and positivity, especially the moment she was paired with Bob the Drag Queen. “That connection was instant,” she says. “And it was so magical. Because I just felt like they understood in that moment… It wasn’t just-for-TV magic. I felt seen for probably the first time in my life.” 

One particular moment of connection stands out: the night that Craig and Bob drove to the city so Craig could see her first lesbian bar. Bob asked about Craig’s gender journey and Craig mentioned that she was looking into hormone replacement therapy and getting top surgery, a gender-affirming surgery that creates a flatter, more masculine chest. 

Bob told the camera crew to stop filming. Craig remembers him saying: “I want this to be about you. And I want you to feel the love and acceptance on your journey without the pressure of these cameras.”

Craig decided to let the cameras roll anyway. She knew the importance of acceptance in the journey toward becoming yourself. Her friendship with Simone Kraus, whom Craig calls her “trans Oracle” only half-jokingly, was instrumental in helping her realize what she needed to embody her authentic self. “But what about the people who are gonna watch this show?” Craig says. “Who might realize, that’s me?”

The night at the lesbian bar turns into a major success—she quickly finds a supportive group of people, and her joy is visible. She looks a bit less enthusiastic, however, the day of the performance itself. Putting on the makeup, wig and seven-piece hand-beaded dress took seven hours, and Craig was electric with stagefright. Once she stepped out onto the stage with Bob to perform, though, the terror fell away. “Hands down, that two minutes of time was still probably one of the most impactful and powerful moments of my life,” she says. 

After the song ends and she and Bob bask in the applause, Craig takes the mic. “To the deepest corners and closets in this country,” she says, “I hope you know that if you don’t have a support system at all, we’re your family now.” And the crowd erupts. 

‘Sometimes, we have to create one for ourselves’

Months passed. HBO worked their post-production magic and aired the Sussex County episode of We’re Here on Dec. 16, 2022. 

Afterward, Craig heard variations of the same feedback. Summarized, it goes: “We’ve always wanted a community, and thanks for trying to start that here.” 

She was a bit abashed at first. Heartfelt as her onstage comments were, she hadn’t exactly intended to start a movement. But then, she saw the platform that the show had given her, and the lack of community that had defined her own queer experience. “I have known the struggle of not having that community and wanting it so badly,” she says. “And something that Bob said on the show was, ‘I’m trying to show her that, as much as we want to find that community, sometimes we have to create one for ourselves.’”

So she did, in the form of a 501(c)(3) organization called Homeward, which Craig calls “a safe place for anyone who’s ever felt different.” With both in-person and online meetings, resource shares, business spotlights and personal stories, Homeward is meant to be a place for people in Sussex County of any identity to find connection and support. In its January viewing party at Muckraker Beer in Franklin, Homeward raised over $1,200 for EDGE NJ. 

Meanwhile, the volunteers of Sparta UMC had their own community-building plans. After news of the flag-burning went viral, the church received piles of replacement Pride flags. One person sent a check accompanied by a simple note: “Buy more fucking flags.” Behind the scenes, the UMC worked to create their own chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), the country’s largest advocacy, education and support organization for LGBTQ people and their families and allies. 

Ten months later, PFLAG Sussex County became one of the organization’s 400 official chapters and held their first meeting, which hosted a spectrum of queer identities, allies, local government, law enforcement and clergy. Though PFLAG meetings are confidential, they could tell me, “it was clear that these opportunities to speak openly with one another were very much appreciated and must continue.” 

“I do sometimes wonder if the person or people who set the flags on fire realize what has become of the situation,” Jill Kubin of Sparta UMC and now PFLAG Sussex County says. “As a result or somewhat of a result of their actions, it has truly motivated us to take the cause up, and to make things better for people who are affected by actions like that. So, I kind of hope that whoever set these flags on fire hears about what that led to. It led to We’re Here being here. It led people to donate money and flags to our church, and lots of support came with that, too. It led to PFLAG Sussex County.”

‘We have to be the fight’

The LGBTQ people of Sussex County have made this choice over the years: connection over isolation, action over resignation, empathy over hostility—even with those who would erase their existence. 

But why for, anyway? What is the danger of queerness to Tucker Carlson’s legions? 

“It’s just fear,” says Damaris Lira. “Not in my backyard.”

“It’s change,” says Ashley Craig. “And in a place like this, they don’t want change.”

Chris Budin is a military veteran, a transman, a board member of the statewide LGBTQ advocacy group Garden State Equality, and a resident of Hopatcong since 2020. He didn’t grow up in Sussex, but in a place much like it—rural Rockland County, New York, where he internalized the regular stream of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric that surrounded him. 

“I know how toxic that mindset can be,” Budin says. “When you’re not considering someone as a human, you’re only labeling them as a thing that’s already been presented with such misinformation that there’s no [humanity] behind it.”

The question itself is degrading, but LGBTQ people have been cast in the role of monster so often, they’re forced to answer it: how do you convince someone that you’re human? 

Because to everyone else, we aren’t. We’re symbols. To the far right, we are incarnations of unacceptable change. We’re wild liberal ideas violating nature and defying God. To liberals, we are proof positive of open-mindedness. If an institution is hanging a trans pride flag, it’s a loud emblem of progressive acceptance. Our population is too small to have any political power of our own, and so we become field goals in the wider attempt to make a culture war out of drive-home grumblings.

Some put their hopes in increased visibility. To know us is to love us, at least hate us less. “Every single time a straight person meets a gay person, their idea of the drag queen coming to make their children trans on TV fades away a little bit,” says Zoe Heath. 

Me, I’m not so sure. 

At my day job, my older coworkers have adopted a certain phrase for specific situations. By now, I can almost time it. They use it when they need to remind themselves of someone’s pronouns or when they get the thousandth reminder that non-binary is a thing.

They say, with a little smile, a head shake, a sigh: “It’s a different world.” 

Is it?

In the world of my childhood, a Central Jersey Catholic school in the ’90s, people like me did not exist. I didn’t have the phrases “LGBTQ community,” “transman,” “assigned female at birth.” Hell, I didn’t have dial-up internet until freshman year. I knew what my experience taught me: that I was freakish, out of place, a “he-she,” a “f*ggot,” the thing that an entire class could joke about like-liking. The shameful secret that the first girl I fell in love with hid from her parents. 

The EDGE Fundraiser Viewing Party took place at Muckraker Beermaker in Franklin in January.

Now, we’re post-Schitt’s Creek. Marriage equality is the law of the land, X is an option on U.S. passports, and Esquire ran a cover story starring Elliot Page’s serious abs.

What has all of that visibility gotten us? 315 anti-trans bills in 2022. More hate, and hate turned into action: governors banning gender-affirming care, advisories from the feds that domestic terrorists are increasingly targeting LGBTQ people.

NJ’s laws protect queer and trans people against discrimination, but our protections aren’t impenetrable. We don’t live behind blue walls in NJ. We live on an iceberg that, like any other iceberg in the Anthropocene Age, might break off at any second and melt away—consider reproductive rights as an example. 

Budin, like me, has trouble finding confidence in our alleged different world. “I’m not sure about anything,” he says. “I’m not sure because I see how quickly things change.” 

But before you start looking for his just-in-case bunker: “I’m also really hopeful because of the folks that I’ve met,” he says. “And the folks that I’m going to meet and the folks that we’re going to do really powerful work together [with].”

It made me smile and think of something that Zoe Heath said: “Queer joy is also a form of resistance.”

In these times, out here. Joy. 

That’s the real aim of the drag queens credited with destroying the fabric of American society and other supernaturally powerful acts. Or, in the words of the drag queen Cookie Doh aka Michael Vogt, who hosts regular drag performances at the Stanhope House, she aims for “Cloud Nine, where you’re just giddy and happy… It boosts everybody up. You leave there feeling good about yourself. You leave there feeling almost like, I can take on the world.”

Everybody knows that drag is powerful. It has the capacity to drive old red-hatted men into fits of wild hysteria and bar crowds into euphoric cheers. “It’s like your superhero costume,” Cookie Doh says, “your second identity, but it gives you the power… It gives you the confidence to really step up. Then when you start to train your confidence, and giving it to other people through your performance or hosting, it gives them the confidence, too.”

It’s something I got to see twice as of this writing. The January drag show at the Stanhope House was well-attended, I thought at the time. Heath had her table for Sussex County Pride, and Cookie Doh ran the show with verve and style. We witnessed a surprisingly thrilling thumb-wrestling contest.

Then I squeezed into the February show. Allegedly, the bar owner said that January’s crowd was 25% of this one. The hall monitor inside me wondered about fire code. 

It’s electric in the air, in the tips that pile at the drag queens’ heels like lawn clippings. Joy. That’s what lives here, scratched from the earth like everything else in farm country, NJ. Fought-for and war-scarred, and better than hope because it’s already here, and it will grow.

Because here’s one last stat about Sussex County: in the last 10 years, it was the fastest-growing county in NJ. Change is coming no matter how many times we’re scapegoated. A new generation is coming full of queer kids who have not been taught to hate themselves, who will grow into powerful queer adults. We may not live to see the world they create. But we will be part of it, because we are here, now, clearing the way. 

Or, in Cookie’s words: “We are not in a situation in our communities here where there’s gay bars, and we can just walk in and be OK. We have to be the fight. We are go-getters. We are leaders, we are people who are not scared to step up. … At the end of the day, we are Sussex County, and we’re not going anywhere. 

“That’s who I think we are here in Sussex County. We are the change.”