As he clicked the shutter button on his phone’s camera last Thursday afternoon, Southold teacher John Myers beamed with pride.
He snapped photos as students in the high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance put the final touches on a Christmas tree downtown to spread holiday cheer.
Decked out in tinsel and white bauble ornaments, the club also added a garland of LGBTQ+ flags, including the rainbow pride flag and a trans flag to celebrate inclusivity and visibility in their community.
Later that evening, as Mr. Myers drove down Main Road on his way home from work, he glanced at the tree to admire his students’ efforts, but instead was met with disappointment as he discovered that someone had removed the garland of pride flags, leaving the tree barren besides the tinsel and ornaments.
“My own reaction at first was clearly disappointment, and more for the students than for anyone else,” Mr. Myers said Friday afternoon. “I was the first one to discover what had happened and I shared the news with the club members soon after.”
Feeling dejected, Mr. Myers, an English as a New Language teacher who has taught in the district since 2003, turned to social media to share his frustration.
Mr. Myers said the students in the club, which is known as Southold SAFER — Students’ Alliance for Equality and Respect — “experienced a variety of negative emotions” after hearing about the tree and his post was shared dozens of times, drawing public outcry by community members, alumni and local leaders alike.
Upon learning about the incident, Camille Limongelli, program coordinator for the East End’s LGBT Network, said her initial reaction was one of shock and sadness.
“The next thought I had was ‘This isn’t Southold. We can do better,’” Ms. Limongelli explained in an interview Monday.
The Southold resident issued a call to action for her friends and neighbors and then, some holiday magic happened.
Equipped with a new batch of pride flags, homemade rainbow ornaments and multicolored garland, Ms. Limongelli was joined by nearly a dozen community members and businesses Saturday to restore the tree to its original glory.
Elizabeth Peeples, a Southold Town Trustee who runs Little Ram Oyster Co. with her wife, Stefanie Bassett, joined in redecorating the tree Saturday, hanging oyster ornaments with pride flags on the branches with their son.
“While we were there, we saw some other members of the lesbian community who were stopping by … we’ve seen a lot of handmade ornaments that kids had made and delivered,” Ms. Peeples said. “You could tell that the handmade ornaments from the kids had packing tape to keep them secure and color safe.”
The community response was heartwarming in light of a negative experience, Ms. Peeples said. “Just to see how the community could kind of come together and turn this into such a positive experience — and while we don’t wish that on our kids, for them to have to deal with that — hopefully that really positive outreach was kind of a silver lining.”
Decorations and ornaments were also supplied by Melinda Morris of Arni Paperie, Lori Panarello of Craft Hair in Greenport and students from Peconic Community School.
Sonia Spar, chair of the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force, helped redecorate the tree with her children and called on community members to let these students and club members know that they are safe.
“I think that we need to be the light of these students,” she said. “So we need to come and help redecorate this tree and tell them your place is here and we make sure that you’re safe, that we are here supporting you.”
The tree was completed just in time for the Southold Fire Department’s annual Santa Parade to make its way through town Saturday evening.
The vandalism was denounced by both town Supervisor Scott Russell and Police Chief Martin Flatley. Though no formal police report was filed with the department, Chief Flatley said he has assigned a detective to conduct an investigation into the incident.
Mr. Russell has also offered Silversmith’s Corner as a new location for the club’s pride tree, which is currently located outside of Polywoda Beverage. “Locating a tree on a town square in the middle of the village is a good way of showing that this community comes together to support each other,” the supervisor said.
Sara Serrano, 17, a senior at the high school, has been the SAFER club president for two years now and said Tuesday that the club plans to accept Mr. Russell’s offer to decorate a new tree later this week.
“We got a lot of donations,” she said, from friends, family and community members. “And we definitely have a lot of extra decorations that people left on the tree that can be used for the new tree. We felt really thankful that it got so much traction to get the attention of our town supervisor.”
The community response is what made a difference to club members, Sara said.
“A member of our club actually said this, and I thought it was really a great [representation] of what the whole tree is about. She said ‘It doesn’t matter who did it, it just matters how we respond to it.’ And I definitely think that the community has [taken] that and used it to the best of its ability.”
In an interview Friday, Angelica Klavas, a cashier at the beverage center, said the store’s security cameras did not catch footage of the person or people who vandalized the tree, but said she’d love it if the kids returned to decorate it again.
While results of a police inquiry are pending, many believe this incident specifically targets the LGBTQ+ community.
Other trees, including a tree with a garland of international flags by the school’s International Club, which Mr. Myers also advises, were untouched.
“It’s so much bigger than just a Christmas tree in town,” Ms. Limongelli said. “Right now, unfortunately, LGBT students are under attack across the country, but across Long Island as well.”
In June, the Smithtown Library made national headlines after voting to remove LGBTQ+ Pride displays from the children’s department at four of their buildings, a move that was widely scrutinized and ultimately rescinded.
Earlier this fall, the Connetquot Central School District faced backlash over a decision to ban all flags except the American and New York State flags after a student reportedly complained that a progressive pride flag on display in a classroom made them uncomfortable.
That flag, developed in 2018 by artist Daniel Quasar, includes a rainbow flag and adds black, brown, pink, light blue and white stripes to represent marginalized groups including people of color and the transgender community.
Gov. Kathy Hochul has since directed the state Department of Human Rights to investigate the district’s actions.
Founded in 1993, the LGBT Network provides a home and voice for LGBT people of all ages as well as for their families and support systems. They have centers all over Long Island, from Queens to Sag Harbor. The organization advocates for social change and promotes safe spaces where LBGT people can live, learn, work and pray.
Ms. Limongelli is particularly focused on community education, training and emphasizing the anti-bullying message to promote tolerance and acceptance, as LGBTQ+ students are at higher risk for mental health concerns, substance abuse and suicide.
The Trevor Project estimates that more than 1.8 million LGBTQ youth and young adults between ages 13 and 24 seriously consider suicide each year in the U.S. and at least one attempts suicide every 45 seconds.
As a member of the LGBTQ+ community who is raising a young child here, Ms. Limongelli said she’s always felt “comfortable and affirmed” in the area. “Obviously, I know there’s a variety of political and social views here, but I always felt that the concept of community has outweighed that.”
Last Thursday’s incident may have threatened that comfort, but couldn’t shake it, especially after seeing so many community members come out in support of the students.
In an email, high school principal Terence Rusch said he was proud of the student and community reaction. “The unwavering support from our Southold community is always inspiring,” Mr. Rusch said.
In the hours since the tree was defaced, Mr. Myers said the experience has turned into an unexpected “blessing” as the group has decided to focus on the positives that came out of it.
“Feedback from the community has been incredibly supportive and it leaves the students with a strong sense that the people in their hometown wholeheartedly support them for who they are,” Mr. Myers said. “That is as valuable a lesson as any I could have taught them. We expressed not anger but regret and pity towards whoever committed this act, for now they know that theirs is a small mind unto itself and that they are the ones at odds with the sentiments of their own community and not us.”