Changing of the Guard
By Lucy Gellman
Patrick Comerford looked to True Colors when he may have needed it most. Now the organization is looking to him as it moves into uncharted territory.
Comerford is the second-ever director of True Colors, Inc., a statewide organization designed to serve LGBTQ+ youth and adults through robust programming, leadership training, and its now-beloved annual conference. The 39-year-old, who has over a decade of organizing experience, follows founding director Robin McHaelen. She founded the organization in 1992.
“It’s this really pivotal moment,” he said in a recent Zoom call. “We get to say as an organization: Who do we wanna be? How has the landscape changed? What do we need to be doing to move forward, and what is the future? What are the next 20 years of this organization? That was just too tempting to not step into.”
Comerford’s experience with True Colors goes decades back to his childhood, when he was an 11-year-old kid living in Glastonbury (“a lot of farms,” he joked). He first came out to a friend in 1992—the same year McHaelen held the inaugural “Children from the Shadows” (CFS) conference at the University of Connecticut. The event later became known as the True Colors Annual Conference, with attendance of 5,000 in the years leading up to COVID-19.
At the time, Comerford was growing up unsure of what the future looked like for a gay kid in small-town Connecticut. There wasn’t yet a Gay-Straight Alliance at his school. He remembered feeling profoundly lonely. Then he walked into an early CFS conference. Something clicked.
“I don’t think I went to a single workshop or talked to a single person that day,” he recalled. “I probably sat plastered against the wall in total paralysis. But I saw a room full of people who were LGBTQ, wrestling with their identity, living, thriving, and creating community. It opened up a possibility and a future for me in my mind.”
Over the next several years, Comerford returned to the conference—first as an attendee, then as a presenter, and then a mentor for other young people just coming out themselves. His experience there gave him a springboard into high school theater, including Once Upon A Mattress and Studs Terkel’s 1974 Working. He now credits that outlet with changing his life.
As Comerford got older, he watched attendance at CFS/the True Colors Annual Conference grow from a few hundred to a few thousand. When he finished school, he took a pause before heading to college. He started doing what True Colors had done for him: LGBTQ+ youth advocacy work.
“There’s a trauma of coming out in the early nineties,” he said. “LGBTQ folks don’t get to have an adolescence in the way that so many other kids do. It wasn’t something that I had language around at the time, but that’s what I was doing. I was out living. I was trying to explore who I was without the trauma of being in school.”
“I had a lot of roadblocks to seeing a future,” he added. “It wasn’t culturally expected for a gay man, frankly, to live in significant ways. I was trying to figure out who I was. Your twenties is a complicated time for exploration.”
When he headed to Southern Connecticut State University in 2010, the organization was never far from his burgeoning organizing career. In 2011, both he and McHaelen advocated for the inclusion of gender identity in the state’s expanded protections against discrimination. Six years later, he worked with her on H.B.6695, a bill that banned the practice of conversion therapy in Connecticut. It was passed into law by Gov. Dannel Malloy the same session.
During his time in college, Comerford’s own work in politics and community building was growing. In 2011, he became an organizing and training specialist at Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, where he remained until 2018. He has also worked as a facilitator and educator with Niyonu Spann Associates (Co-Creating Effective and Inclusive Organizations, Beyond Diversity 101) the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and Anti-Defamation League. He’s no longer that lonely gay kid from small-town Connecticut: he now lives in New Haven with a statewide network built around advocacy.
As he takes the helm at True Colors, he said his first priority is making sure LGBTQ+ youth are getting through COVID-19, from potentially unsafe home environments to remote schooling. He praised Texas teacher Taylor Lifka, who was temporarily put on leave for including a pride flag and Black Lives Matter Sign in her Google classroom. Not all educators and families are so welcoming: as COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the country, many of those young people remain closeted at home.
“Young LGBTQ folks in too many instances are just trying to survive the day at school,” he said. “Or the day at home. And so that’s really crucial. You can talk about bullying and harassment at school—40 percent of LGBTQ youth and their peers are less likely to have an adult to turn to when that happens. That’s really, really significant.”
Many are also grappling with the parallel pandemics of COVID-19 and white supremacy. Just as Black Americans are more likely to be infected by or die from COVID-19, Black LGBTQ+ youth have been harder hit by the pandemic. Comerford—who acknowledged that he is a cisgender white male running a historically white organization—is looking at 2020 as a moment of both statewide and national reckoning around the intersections of queer identity, housing security, personal safety, and race.
“We have to face what life is like for Black and Brown and LGBTQ youth in our community,” he said. “And what support systems are needed not only to create a safer system for LGBTQ youth, but to reduce racial stress for Black and Brown youth. They trying to manage their queer identity and trying to stay alive in a system that doesn’t value their bodies, their beings.”
“I think it’s crucial for organizations like ours to be thinking about what young folks need,” he added. “They need access to an immigration system that doesn’t threaten deportation and devalue their lives. They need access to some sort of community support that doesn’t necessarily look like the police. And those are the things that we need to be looking at.”
In the coming months, he envisions rolling out inclusive, intersectional programming for both youth and adults across the state. Already, the organization offers multiple trainings, “safe haven” open houses, its multi-week “Queer Academy” led by Mel Cordner. He praised a resource bank that receives constant updates and has become a lifeline during the pandemic.
After the organization held multiple virtual “mini-cons” in lieu of a conference this year, Comerford is already thinking about how to keep the conference online if COVID-19 continues to be a threat through 2021. Calling it “a sacred piece of work,” he stressed the importance of making sure that accessible panels, workshops, conversations and affinity groups exist even if they must remain online.
The digital hurdle expands to work beyond the conference, he said. Within the organization, he’s been trying to navigate work while the organization’s members can’t specifically be in the same space together. Beyond it, he would also like to expand the program’s footprint to “the quiet corners” of the state, with partnerships that lead to grassroots, regional youth-led organizing and expanded training programs.
“We have some learning to do as an organization” he said. “We are a historically white-led organization—still are. And so we have some learning, some trust building to do in communities. And that is the primary focus, so that we can be in right relationship as we do this work and honor the work that is already being done.”
That also takes money, he noted. True Colors employs five full-time staff members and a fleet of contract workers who have continued to work during the pandemic. While their payroll continues, however, the organization has seen a drop in traditional sources of revenue, including conference registration and trainings.
Since March, True Colors has seen a 26 percent loss to its annual budget, which is just under $700,000. While the organization received Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding early in the pandemic, that money is now gone. Comerford said that means the organization will be focusing on fundraising, including a year-end giving campaign that keeps the lights on—and the programming coming.
“We have some deep work to do as organizations,” he said. “As organizations, as queer folks out there, as white folks, as white queer leaders, there’s work for us to do. To make sure they have what they need.”
“We have to keep going, and we will keep going,” he added. “But we can’t implement a new vision without support.”