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.