NAUGATUCK — Rainbow-colored flags sprouted on several Hillside Avenue homes over the past week as residents there send a message of support for a neighbor targeted by hate speech.
Naugatuck Historical Society President Christopher Ritton-Stokes was sitting on his porch playing with his phone last Thursday when a shout broke through the silence.
“What up, gay faggot!” said a man in a car passing through the stop sign next to his house.
At the time, Ritton-Stokes’ home was the only one on the street flying a rainbow pride flag. They’d raised it for Pride Month in June.
The attack didn’t register at first. It was so out-of-place. “Was that for me?” Ritton-Stokes wondered.
The man turned his car around and shouted additional insults that made it clear that it was, indeed, for him.
At that moment, Ritton-Stokes was torn away from the comfortable life he enjoys with his husband, Michael Stokes, and their adopted 3-year-old daughter, Charlotte. He was pulled away from their beautifully restored six-bedroom Colonial-style home in a nice neighborhood with accepting and friendly neighbors.
For a moment, he felt like he was back in high school, in the 1990s, a rare openly-gay teenager who was frequently bullied for it.
“As a gay person that’s gotten picked on all through high school, it kind of brought me back there,” Ritton-Stokes said. “It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m in 12th grade again all those years ago.’ It took me off-guard more than anything.”
Ritton-Stokes regained his composure and wrote on Facebook.
“To the young gentleman that just drove by screaming out his window at me: ‘gay faggot’ is redundant.”
Joshua Dufresne, a school paraprofessional who lives a few doors down, was angered when he saw his neighbor was attacked. He’s gay but hadn’t put up a flag. Now one hangs from his balcony.
“If you are going to use that ugly word, maybe you should say it to everyone,” Dufresne said Monday. “You are shouting at a community that supports love and acceptance.”
Dufresne grew up on Hillside Avenue and loves the neighborhood. His parents still live there. His sister bought a house there. He told his mother, Peggy Dufresne, about the incident and said they should do something. She immediately bought four big pride flags on Amazon.com. They arrived Saturday and Dufresne walked around the neighborhood giving them out. There was one each for his home, his sister’s and his parents’.
Joan and John McCasland, both teachers in Seymour schools, got the fourth. It’s hanging from their front porch by a combination of metal clips and a hair clip.
“This is something we can do to make them feel better, make this a sign to people coming down our road that this is a nice place to be and we are going to keep it that way,” Joan McCasland said. “I hope the person who said that — this isn’t where they live, I hope — I hope they pass by and the next time they pass by they see the solidarity of the people on this street.”
Hillside Avenue is a street of older, handsome and largely well-kept homes near the borough center. The pride flags don’t immediately jump out at passers-by. Most houses don’t have one up.
But more are going up in and around Naugatuck. Michael Stokes wrote a short Facebook post about his neighbors’ gesture on Saturday. More than 900 people hit the “like” button by Monday evening. More than 60 had commented with support, some promising to put up flags of their own.
One of McCasland’s friends a few blocks away already put one out.
Michael Stokes said the response has helped turn his family’s focus away from the expression of hate. They took a walk through the neighborhood to look at the flags on Saturday.
“It really highlights the fact we are surrounded by people who love and care about us so much they would follow through with a sign of acceptance that is pretty amazing,” Stokes said.