Andi Stephenson and Tiff Hays have made a fundamental decision about Winchester, the town they both grew up in. While it’s a great community and a wonderful place in which to grow up and live, it could be more supportive and affirming of its marginalized communities.
I first heard about these two young women from Facebook when looking into the upcoming Winchester Pride and Inclusion Fest. I arranged to meet with them on a Saturday morning at The Hall Coffee & Social Club on Main Street.
(If you’ll pardon the aside, The Hall is a great place to enjoy some good coffee and a bite for breakfast or lunch. And a wonderful place to socialize with friends. You really should check it out if you aren’t already a patron.)
“Andi and I have been friends for a long time,” says Tiff. “One day, I saw Andi post on Facebook that she wanted to start a scholarship for an LGBTQ+ graduating GRC student. Many people move away from small towns when they’re not in a safe space. If they don’t perceive Winchester as a safe town, they will go to bigger cities like Lexington, with more resources. The scholarship was to incentivize a young person to go to college and then come back here and continue to help make Winchester a safe place for everybody.”
So Tiff and Andi founded ProudTown, Inc., a Winchester nonprofit that supports the scholarship and does other work to help queer folks in the area. They helped promote the “Y’all Ball” hosted in June by Brack Duncan. They have held online events, created and sold T‑shirts, and hosted a series of Pride Project videos on their website where local LGBTQ+ people have shared their stories. They have also held small events called Coffeetalks, where they have gathered with allies and members of the LGBTQ+ community to converse and form informal support networks.
And now, they are gearing up for their most ambitious project yet: Winchester’s very first Pride and Inclusion Fest, to be held on Oct. 21.
Andi was the first to see the need for a Pride festival.
“There’s already limited resources for intersectional identities,” she says. “And when we got started with ProudTown, we asked about what those people saw as a need and how we could fill those gaps. One of the things that kept coming up was Winchester doesn’t have a Pride Fest. So we started looking into how we could do that.”
Andi and Tiff are also working with another Winchester native, Cody Cox Kessler, on the event.
“Cody is also from Winchester,” says Andi. “We all were in the graduating class of 2013 from GRC. Cody eventually moved to Colorado, so he helps in the background. But he is a board member of Proud Town as well.”
Andi and Tiff became very animated when I asked them to talk about the festival. It’s clear they are excited about the event.
“We have 19 vendors lined up,” Tiff begins. “We have food, we have community organizations — something that was really important to us. We wanted to make sure that there were many community organizations and a lot of LGBTQ+ plus orgs so people in our community who didn’t know about them could learn about them and connect.”
In addition to the food vendors and support organizations, there will be entertainment. A singer-songwriter will be performing, as well as a fire dancer. There will be an inflatable for young children as well as face painting.
“It’s important to us to have family-friendly things to do and see,” Tiff continues. “There are queer families in Winchester, and I think many people don’t realize they have children too.”
Andi emphasized that everyone is welcome and hopes to see families of all types enjoying the activities together.
“The inclusion part of the title was important to us. Because it is for everyone, and the whole purpose of Proud Town is to show that this community is for everyone, that we can all coexist peacefully and respect each other. Show everyone love and that they’re welcome.”
As if all this weren’t enough, another feature of the event is free health screenings.
Says Tiff, “We are working hard to make sure that there are representatives from the mental and physical health treatment communities. And Ryan Shelton from Philanthro.PT is going to be doing free health screenings.”
Andi went on to describe another feature of the festival.
“We will present the Pride and Inclusion Star Award. It’s an award to recognize someone in the community as a strong advocate and ally of the LGBTQ community. Someone who is really pushing for progress in the community. And we’ve gotten a lot of nominations!”
This is Winchester’s first such festival, and it’s the first attempt by the organizers to pull off such an event. So, what would success look like?
“I hope it’s well attended and that there’s high engagement and positive engagement,” says Andi. “That the buzz is that Winchester is a community for everyone. That Winchester is safe for anyone and everyone and that Winchester isn’t just welcoming but affirming. There’s a difference! And that you don’t have to go to Lexington or farther to be represented, to be visible, or to find resources that you need.”
Tiff adds, “I think success would look like pure kindness, acceptance, and affirmation of all people who attend. That people will connect with others and see that there are other queer people in the community, so they can build friendships and bonds that will hopefully be perpetual. That queer people will be able to see queer people.”
The Winchester Pride and Inclusion Fest hosted by ProudTown, Inc. will take place on Saturday, Oct. 21, from noon to 6 p.m. on Depot Street in downtown Winchester.