- Associated Press - Sunday, June 24, 2018

SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. (AP) - South Orange’s Spiotta Park was filled with people Thursday night volunteering their time to create a symbol of inclusion and diversity in their town: rainbow painted lampposts.

Inspired by their sister city of Maplewood’s new permanent rainbow crosswalks, South Orange created an event to involve the community in honoring their town’s motto of “everybody belongs here.”

Six gas lamps were chosen to be painted with horizontal stripes representing the eight colors of the Philly Pride Flag, including the six colors for LGBTQ pride as well as black and brown for the intersection and inclusion of all members of the LGBTQ community.

“We have a great turnout and we’re expecting more and more residents. We also have members from our surrounding governing bodies supporting us, specifically from Maplewood,” said Sheena Collum, Village President.

Dean Dafis, the first openly LGBTQ Maplewood Township Committee member who initiated the rainbow crosswalk project, as well as other committee members and Maplewood citizens attended to help paint and support the cause.

“All of us, whoever we are, we are so thirsty to connect with each other right now. We really need to lock hands. We need to stand together. South Orange’s motto is ‘everyone belongs here.’ In Maplewood there are signs that say ‘this is a stigma free town’ and so we’re trying to do what we can do to live out our values and at a distressful time such as this one we can create these symbols of inclusiveness,” said Dafis.

The event was sponsored by South Orange Village Center Alliance which paid for paints and supplies using its budget for place-making projects for business improvement in the Village Center.

Marty Finkle, who along with his husband Mike, has been a citizen of South Orange since 2001. He arrived proudly wearing a shirt featuring six Labrador retrievers in the six colors of the pride flag.

“This means a lot to me,” said Finkle. “Mike and I were the first domestic partners in New Jersey in 2004.”

The community project has also helped a new generation of activists feel safer to be themselves.

“We’re very lucky to have a town like this,” said Zee Shaheen, 15 years old. “It’s easier to be yourself when there are so many community projects like this. It makes us feel like it’s so much more normal to be queer in the world.”

Zee and Isora Shaheen and Chloe Kaplan are three 15-year-old members of the LGBTQ community. Zee and Chloe are members of Columbia High School’s Spectrum Club which has hosted events such as a pride day where students come to speak about their own experiences at school and of finding themselves. Isora, who attends Newmark High School, wants to start a Spectrum Club there.

“At my school I tried to push for a Spectrum Club of our own but so far I’m the only person who really wants it. If I work really hard and find a teacher who wants to support me I may be able to do it,” said Isora.

When asked if they had faced any backlash all three said “yes” simultaneously.

Zee, who is transgender, said he heard classmates talking about him outside of school on Wednesday, referring to him as “it.”

“These two people walk by me and one of them says ‘It looks like a boy’, and then the other says ‘But it’s a girl.’ It’s like first of all they called me ‘it’ and second of all I am a boy. This event gives the community more recognition and soon hate is gonna be so minimized that it’s not gonna make sense anymore,” said Zee.

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Online:

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Information from: NJ Advance Media.

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