Opinion: In Search of Progressive Putnam

By Eileen McDermott

Many residents of New York City have heard of Cold Spring because they’ve visited the village or hiked Breakneck or other nearby trails.

But it’s less likely they’ve heard of Putnam Valley, Mahopac, Carmel, Kent or Brewster, which are more populated but less of a pull for tourists and decidedly more conservative. The particulars of their location and history have created a progressive desert of sorts — even as Manhattan’s ongoing ejection of its middle class and swiftly-rising costs in Hudson River towns sends more progressives, including those of us in the LGBTQ community, to the eastern reaches.

My wife, Laurie, and I moved to Brewster in 2016. I had lived in Manhattan since 2001; she since 2005. Our individual love affairs with New York City had enjoyed good runs but its many wonders had begun to pale in comparison with its many inconveniences and a growing sense of angst. And as a couple we don’t shun cliches: we hike, snowboard and have a pit bull, so we looked northward in our search for a new home, anticipating woods, more space and less traffic.

After months of searching in the usual gay flight meccas of Beacon, Cold Spring, Peekskill, Cortlandt Manor and other Hudson River spots, our real-estate agent forced us to face reality — we could not afford or handle a fixer-upper, and the prices and taxes for move-in ready houses in riverfront communities were beyond us. So, she showed us a house in Brewster — wherever that was.

It was perfect. It was a modest ranch with a decent-sized yard, the taxes were low, there were state-protected woods across the street and — most importantly — the house had just been gut-rehabbed to be flipped.

Brewster is a little farther from the city than we would have liked, and we knew little about the town or surrounding area, but the village was quaint and the house four minutes from the Metro-North Harlem Line and only an hour from Manhattan.

How different could it be?

Six months later, on Nov. 8, Donald Trump won the presidency, and at 3 a.m. we were awakened by a celebratory booming bass — our neighbors were elated. I had gone to bed hours earlier after sending off an angry Facebook message to no one in particular. Stirred by a party in our midst, I felt crushed, angry and scared — where was this place that I now lived?

Five of the six towns in Putnam voted for Trump in 2016. Philipstown, which includes Cold Spring, was the only one that went for Hillary Clinton. Trump won nearly 56 percent of the vote county-wide — and 61 percent in the Town of Carmel. Compare that to Westchester County — a five to 10-minute drive away — where Trump got 31 percent of the vote.

The dynamics at play don’t bode well for progressive and LGBTQ newcomers. While Putnam libraries and some organizations have hosted Pride events in recent years, and many of the schools have Gay-Straight Alliance groups, there is no nearby LGBTQ Community Center, no gay bar in Putnam or even within reasonable driving distance, and there has never been a Pride Parade.

LGBTQ people and artists can often be the lifeblood of progressive communities, but without public spaces for queer people to convene and be visible, communities remain insular and conservative, keeping progressive values in the shadows.

In response to this climate, I’ve joined with some other Putnam residents in an effort to hold the first Putnam Pride Parade on Saturday, June 6. The Cold Spring Village Board has given us tentative approval. The drag queen Angel Elektra, who recently read stories to children at the Putnam Valley Library and will make an appearance at Split Rock Books in Cold Spring in May, has agreed to emcee.

The event is badly needed, not just for Putnam’s LGBTQ residents who have nowhere to congregate, but to energize and bring visibility to the county’s queer community and to ensure that the arc of our state politics continues to bend forward rather than backward.

To be sure, other Lower Hudson Valley counties voted for Trump in 2016, but Putnam’s margins stand alone and its local governments are broadly Republican-controlled. The county Legislature recently passed resolutions opposing the New York State Reproductive Health Act (RHA) as “sanctioning infanticide” and objecting to New York’s “green light” bill to grant driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

During the hearing to approve the RHA resolution, one supporter of the effort sitting near me held a sign that decried abortion on one side and homosexuality on the other — as if he were hopping from one protest to another that night.

These kinds of politics persist only because the progressive community in this part of Putnam County has been silenced or become apathetic and disillusioned in light of it being a decades-long conservative stronghold. Like Beacon and Cold Spring, other communities in Putnam County have great potential for LGBTQ and other progressive families looking for more space, easy access to Manhattan via Metro-North, local arts, nature, farms and more. But as long as the queer community is encouraged to stay quiet, the dynamic will not change.

There are certainly many forces working for change — the Putnam Progressives, Putnam Young Democrats, Hudson Valley Stonewall Democrats and the Putnam County Democratic Committee, to name a few — with some recent successes that indicate Putnam may be trending toward change.

But we need more help. Join us for Putnam Pride or lend your support at putnampride.com, open an LGBTQ-friendly business in Putnam or consider moving here. If you’re up for helping to foster change somewhere not too far away, Putnam needs you.

A version of this column originally appeared in Gay City News.

14 thoughts on “Opinion: In Search of Progressive Putnam

  1. I have lived in eastern Putnam County for 10 years. It still amazes me how accepting many of the locals are to us. Yet, those same individuals voted for Trump and still believe in what he stands for. What’s really surprising is the number of LGBTQ people in Putnam also voted for him. I even know of a lesbian-owned eatery that threw a party on Election Night to celebrate his win. That’s what we are up against.

  2. I sincerely hope that the lesbian couple who moved to Brewster find a sense of welcome and belonging there. I look forward to the Pride parade in Cold Spring this June — a great idea and many thanks for their leadership on this issue — and I hope there will be as many LGBTQ bars, businesses and community centers in Brewster as there are in the “gay-flight meccas” of Cold Spring, Beacon and other river towns very soon.

    But to all on the progressive left in Putnam County, how about this: let’s each of us be a friendly, caring neighbor to some-one with a Trump sign on his lawn, whether the gesture is reciprocated or not, lest we come across as narrow-minded and bigoted as we often accuse our conservative counterparts of being.

    Tomorrow, I’ll fly back to my job in Texas, where I spend much of my time teaching college English to, interacting with and enjoying the company of persons not at all assumed to vote as I do. I’ve never been assigned a course called “My Political Soapbox” (although some of my colleagues seem to teach only that course), so my right-wing students are as glad for my interest in their learning and success as are my left-wing ones. My Republican landlady and I also get along great. Our bond was strengthened when I was able to play a supportive role during her bout with breast cancer.

    It was the kind of crisis that put my regular disagreement with her own yard signage into much-needed perspective.

  3. It is wonderful of Eileen McDermott and the Pride Day committee to organize Putnam’s first Pride Parade and join the rest of the world on Pride Day. I hope the committee will honor some of the wide range of gay women and men from Putnam who have contributed so positively in the past and present to our community. There are many gay leaders who have served, and are serving now, on boards of local organizations such as Scenic Hudson, Boscobel, the Desmond-Fish Public Library, Manitoga, Constitution Marsh, the Putnam History Museum, to name a few, and the Cold Spring and Beacon councils — to say nothing of Sean Patrick Maloney, who represents us in the U.S. House in Washington. I hope the day will be a positive expression of Putnam County.

  4. Does the Republican agenda threaten your human/civil rights or life? If not, you might not understand how some people have no interest in cozying up to people who either believe themselves or have no problem voting for people who believe that the existence/humanity of certain groups or classes of people is not important.

  5. I moved to the Hudson Valley two years ago. There is something here for everyone! I can hike Breakneck Ridge with a Democrat or a Republican, and I can share this wonderfully culturally rich area with anyone. There is room for all.

    I simply don’t understand why LGBT people need or deserve special attention and parades, or why they need to force their views on people. I feel blessed to live here and try to count my blessings every day. The world needs to forget politics — it doesn’t enrich people’s lives. Volunteer, do acts of kindness, build a garden, clean up our local parks, donate blood, help a family with special needs, make sure public spaces are wheelchair-accessible. All these things matter and help humanity as a whole.

    Live your lives, no one is stopping you, and leave people to believe and stand by their beliefs. They have the right. It is a free country. I have traveled the world and lived in Europe for 10 years. I have had to integrate myself into many cultures and learned to be open-minded and tolerant. I don’t feel the need to march my beliefs in a parade and change a place that I am a newcomer to in order to make myself feel more comfortable. Who am I to impose my views on a community that has existed in harmony for many years before my arrival?

    I advise you to study the rich history of the Hudson Valley, meet the people who have lived and farmed here for genera-tions, the people who toil to save our environment, and learn from them. Ask how you can help, not change things, and be humble. Your opinion is your opinion, and I respect that, but I believe your perspective is closed-minded and arrogant.

    • It’s fine if you don’t think gay people need to have parades — please don’t come. But the children from Putnam schools who have written to me saying, “Thanks for having this parade, my school is so homophobic,” and the many LGBTQ+ and progressive people here who have to deal with hateful comments on a daily basis will be there. I am able to volunteer in the community and have a parade. I moved here because I love the Hudson Valley, and I love the community I have sought out here, and the accessibility to nature. That does not in any way mean I have to shut up and deal with the bigotry I see.

  6. If I understand what both “closed-minded” and “arrogant” mean, you are feeling closed off from me and are feeling less superior to me, by my wanting to parade?

  7. Wanting to parade and celebrate who you are is not unique to the LGBTQ community. As a heterosexual Italian, I’ve participated in Columbus Day parades and celebrations. Celebrating your own culture in a public space is not harmful to others. Calling someone else “close-minded” and “arrogant” for wanting to celebrate their culture is hypocritical, no matter how someone tries to demonstrate that they are “worldly.” Also, putting one’s beliefs out there is as American as it gets.

    The need to research the history of the Hudson Valley belief system pales in comparison to the need to understand that speaking one’s mind is the epitome of the American Dream. Everyone has a right to voice their thoughts, even those who wish to silence others. Those with strong voices, though, need not heed those wishing to silence them, and I hope that never becomes a reality in our home of Putnam.

  8. Um. Well. Yes. In normal times, yes, this would be … a very interesting, and a fairly valid topic of discussion. Possibly even civil.

    However, well… um… at this time I would recommend indefinitely postponing all … parades and large gatherings of any kind. Probably shut down the bars and sit-down restaurants and similar establishments while you are at it given that this planet is in the still early stage of the most dangerous public health crisis, a pandemic, in, well, I guess, about 100 years. The 1918-1920 influenza epidemic persisted for almost three years.

    The schools? Don’t get me started.

    There is plenty of time to cancel any parade planned for this June. The St. Patrick’s Day parades, and there are so many of them, are imminent. They need to be cancelled. All of them.

    Don’t believe me? Nuts? There is an opinion piece in today’s Wall Street Journal, “Why Does the U.S. Have So Few Confirmed Coronavirus Cases?” The authors are Drs. Luciana Borio and Scott Gottlieb. Read carefully their third recommendation.

    There is a U.S. public health agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But what they are saying today in their press conference is apparently so unbelievable that people don’t know what to believe anymore.

  9. This is not simply about LGTBQ folks moving from the city, although I find the argument “Don’t move to a conservative county if you’re not conservative” problematic.

    A pride parade would be an enormous gift to the many teens and young adults I work with as a psychologist. These are gay, bisexual, trans and nonbinary young people — born and raised in Putnam County — who have been spit on, assaulted, mocked and discriminated against their entire lives.

    The intolerance of some of the comments posted online reflects the attitudes that lead these young people to become suicidal, engage in self-injury, and develop eating disorders and substance-abuse problems. Words matter. They have an impact that is more powerful than people realize.

    Several teens have wept in my office speaking about the possibility of a parade — tears of cautious optimism and disbelief that their identities and sense of self could be celebrated here. They almost can’t believe that a pride parade could happen in Putnam County. I look forward to the day when I can see them feel free and celebrated here. [via Facebook]

  10. This parade will be a chance for gay people to celebrate their identity in their own community. Awareness is needed because discrimination and violence against gay people is still prevalent in this country. Gay couples get attacked for holding hands in the street. A pride parade is a chance to say, “We will not hide; we are not ashamed.”
    [via Facebook]

  11. Gay people move to Putnam because they like it; now they want to change it. It’s a pretty conservative county. Why is this a surprise? They can hop on the train and go to a huge gay parade in the city, no big deal. [via Facebook]

  12. I find it mindboggling that people commenting always resort to the same comeback: Why do LGBT people need a parade? Or, as one person wrote, “Live your lives — no one is stopping you.”

    Don’t like it? Don’t go. Am I missing something here? I don’t like football, so I don’t watch it. I don’t go onto NFL.com and try to get people to stop playing. The defiance and negative comments prove the event is necessary. Thanks for the reassurance. [via Facebook]