Are you ready for a change?

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First Posted: 7/29/2014

What would you do if you were walking down the street and you saw two men kissing? Would you stare? Look away in disgust? Call them names? Would you not think anything of it? Maybe even offer inspiritment and say, “Good for you!”?

Pennsylvania gave the go-ahead for same-sex couples to legally marry in May, giving the annual NEPA Pride Week a reason to celebrate a little more. Its likely festival-goers, and even those staying far away, will see men kissing men and women kissing women. Are you ready to embrace equality? Is NEPA ready?

“I believe NEPA has no choice but to accept everyone as equal,” said Randy Fenner of Scranton. The 30-year-old registered nurse has been married since February to husband Robert Fenner, 21, a nursing student at Penn State Worthington Scranton.

“We get positive words of support and encouragement more often than negativity,” Randy said.

“Even the negative comments don’t really bother us,” Robert said. “It affects their lives more than it affects ours. We just live our lives.”

The newlyweds certainly are just living their lives. Their priorities consist of focusing on their careers and raising their 4-year-old daughter.

“Our daughter is the most beautiful, compassionate person I know,” Randy said of the daughter he biologically conceived while in a heterosexual relationship with his high school sweetheart. “Robert is the disciplinarian and I attempt to be firm — while knowing that I am wrapped around her finger.”

The couple said when they are seen with their daughter some people make a point to approach and congratulate them, sometimes even requesting a picture. But the Fenners admit it can be an imposition to their family dynamic as residents of NEPA.

“Being gay parents in NEPA has been difficult in that too many people in this area describe themselves as old-fashioned when they really mean bigots or racists,” Randy said .

For them, the most challenging aspect of parenting is simply hoping they’re “doing it right” even with the added burden of strangers judging them, they said. As for their daughter, she doesn’t think anything of it. It’s all she knows, the couple said.

“Some people think we are an embarrassment and should be hidden,” Robert said.

“I feel the biggest misconception about people who are gay is that we are perverted, promiscuous, and have no regard for family values,” Randy said.

That misconception can be real.

In July, North Carolina couple Desiree Mark (formerly from Green Township) and her fiance Andrea Allen were on their way to NEPA to tour potential wedding venues. During their nine-hour car ride, excitement was building for a weekend filled with wedding planning. Inne of the Abingtons, one of the prospective venues, crushed their elation with an email stating: “Unfortunately, we do not hold same sex marriages at our facility.”

“We were disappointed and sad,” said Allen, acknowledging that “it is still a new concept for same-sex couples to get married and that not everybody is on board yet.”

The rejection, made public by social media and news outlets, opened up the floodgates for support and generosity in forms of wedding services.

“The Ramada in Clarks Summit reached out to us first,” Mark said.

“They offered us a 15 percent discount,” added Allen.

As it turned out, the Ramada was the first of many businesses that reached out. The Hilton Scranton & Conference Center offered to host the wedding for a total of $2,015.00 — as a statement that it shouldn’t matter who you love in the year 2015, which is when the wedding will take place.

“We were appalled that in this day and age someone would be turned away for their choice of a life partner,” said John P. Argonish, general manager of the Hilton Scranton & Conference Center. “Hilton is a forward-thinking company and we would be honored to host anyone’s special day.”

Nichols Village Hotel & Spa in Clarks Summit even offered to host the wedding at their destination free of charge! The couple ultimately went with The Colonnade, Scranton, a venue they already planned on visiting as a prospective location to hold their wedding on June 27. Flowers will be provided by Central Park Flowers in Olyphant, which reached out to the couple and offered to provide the floral arrangements for free.

“They didn’t just offer us a basic flower arrangement,” Allen said. “They actually said to us, ‘What is your dream?’ That made us feel so special.”

Despite being turned away from a potential wedding venue because of their sexual preference, the couple said NEPA still might be ready to embrace marriage equality.

“We think that with all of the support we received from the community, especially all of the businesses that reached out to offer their support, we think that is the community’s way of showing the area is ready,” Allen said.

Northeastern Pennsylvania drag queen Estella Sweet of Wilkes-Barre couldn’t agree more.

“I think NEPA already has embraced equality,” said the host of Streamside Sundays with Stella. “I think the success of my career is proof that our area is more than ready.”

Beginning Sunday, Aug. 17, Sweet’s biweekly show will run weekly at The Woodlands in Wilkes-Barre.

The former Miss Gay Pennsylvania said she also credits local events such as PrideFest to the normalization of a gay presence.

Only a handful of people attended the first event. In 2008, it started as a picnic in Kirby Park. PrideFest has evolved to include more than 2,000 annual attendees, about 40 food vendors and live entertainment. New this year will be a wedding tent housing vendors who specialize in wedding services.

“LGBT people are valuable and active parts of the fabric of NEPA, who all deserve the respect and dignity of being treated equally,” said Carl Halyker, Board Co-Chair of the the NEPA Rainbow Alliance. “There will always be that small, and sometimes loud, group of people who believe that those of us who are different from them should be denied certain rights, but for the most part, in my opinion, the wonderful citizens of NEPA do embrace equality.”

Already in full throttle, pride week is celebrating the LGBT community with special events held across the region — all leading up to the annual festival from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 10, at Kirby Park. Admission is $6 and proceeds will help fund area LGBT programs.

Among the programs PrideFest funds support is the NEPA Rainbow Line, a help line designed to assist those searching for LGBT resources find answers (via telephone call to 570-972-2533), the LGBT Center Book Club, a monthly group that reads and discusses books with LGBT themes or by LGBT authors, and the LGBT Center’s “TransNEPA” Discussion Group, which meets biweekly. Topics cover transgender issues from mental and emotional health to physical health and peer support.

“We’re very excited” to attend this year’s PrideFest with his husband, said Randy Fenner.

“We always look forward to going to PrideFest and meeting and making new friends,” Robert said.

The NEPA Rainbow Alliance and PrideFest have always strived to be “all inclusive” — not only to members of the LGBT community, but to the straight allies and supporters.

Whether you agree or disagree with the social movement of equality, it’s here.

Are you ready for it?

Is NEPA ready?