NEWARK — Today in Essex County, several local leaders were honored for their struggle for equality for all in the LGBTQ community.
Bloomfield councilwoman Dr. Wartyna "Nina" Davis, Maplewood Town Committee member Dean Dafis and South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education member Shannon Cuttle were awarded for their advocacy.
"To say its humbling is an understatement," said Dr. Davis, who is also a scholar. Davis is the Associate Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at William Paterson University. She has published and presented works on intersectional identity and politics, and is committed to advocating for issues of justice and fairness.
While Dafis and Cuttle are the first open members of the LGBTQ community to be elected to their respective seats.
"I wanted to use my survivor story to do good, said Dafis, who is a survivor of gay conversion therapy. "Many folks never made it through that. They committed suicide. I certainly wanted to die myself during and after the abusive practices."
Prior to his election, Dafis was a tireless advocate for marriage equality and anti-conversion therapy. He is currently working to improve resources for LGTBQ youth and seniors, particularly affordable, safe housing; and access to health care, including addiction services and mental health services in schools.
Dafis, an accomplished Wall Street attorney and executive, notably pointed out how there are currently no elected officials serving within the New Jersey State Legislature who openly identify as LGBTQ.
"I ask you to do what you can everyday in your respective communities to talk about being inclusive," said Dafis.
In the back of the room watching these honors was the next generation.
"It shows me that I can be an elected official and be out as trans and its okay," said Christopher Berrios. He is now 29, but at a younger age he met his mentor Shannon Cuttle.
Cuttle is a respected social justice advocate and educator who earned national recognition for her leadership in the safe schools movement. In 2006, Cuttle launched the Safe Schools Action Network which allows students to network and connect, along with educators and communities, to deploy resources and materials that will improve school safety for LGBTQ students.
"I’m extremely humbled by this honor and this recognition," said Cuttle. "To be able to be here and visible with you today in this space."
Cuttle empowered Berrios to testify on behalf of a bill that allows trans people to change their gender on their birth certificate.
"Shannon had given me the opportunity to speak in front of the New Jersey State Senate," said Berrios. "It kind of helped me to find my voice."
This celebration is apart of Essex County LGBTQ Pride Month.
Next week, Maplewood is expected to become the first municipality in the state to host a graduation ceremony for specially for LGTBQ teens. Upwards of a dozen graduating high school seniors will receive rainbow tassels and honor chords on June 18 at 7:30 p.m. Any LGBTQ teen from town, regardless of what high school they attend, may register.