Woodbury is blessed with a distinctive character that blends the pretty, the gritty, and a long and lively history.
And since 2017, this diverse city of just under 10,000 has had another distinction: Woodbury Community Pride, an LGBTQ organization that has shrewdly partnered with City Hall, as well as the business and arts communities, to promote and market their shared hometown.
They’re doing good work: Last year the city earned a perfect rating on a “municipal equality index” assessment by the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ advocacy organization.
“We want Woodbury to be the most LGBTQ-friendly city in South Jersey,” said WCP founder and president Tony Doran. “And not just during Pride Month.”
The 50 years since the storied June 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York City energized the modern LGBTQ rights movement have been nothing short of transformative. My own life is far better than it would have been had Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and the rest of that rainbow-hued, ragtag-yet-fabulous band of drag queens, transfolks, misfits, and budding activists not resisted and persisted.
While challenges continue, particularly for transgender and nonbinary people of color, the emergence of robust gay communities in places like Woodbury, Collingswood, and other small towns and suburbs in South Jersey, as well as elsewhere, is evidence of how far we have come. From back streets to Main Streets, from the periphery to the mainstream.
“The next step on the road to full equality is economic equality,” said Doran. “We’re not all [as wealthy as] Ellen DeGeneres. That’s why we’re doing grassroots LGBTQ economic development by providing seed money for small businesses."
“We moved to Woodbury three years go and we really love it here. We feel supported, and included," said Danielle Roberts, who runs the company with her wife, Shea Kucenski. The couple live within walking distance of their business.
“We were working out of our home office,” said Roberts. “This $2,000 grant enabled us to move into a brick and mortar space, which was important.”
WCP “is not just about parties and events,” Kucenski said, and she’s right: The organization has built a strong working relationship with Woodbury Mayor Jessica Floyd and other elected officials.
Floyd described a trio of city ordinances unanimously adopted since 2017 — dealing with nondiscrimination, inclusivity, and establishing a human relations commission — as “the morally right thing to do.” This welcoming message also has helped put Woodbury on the map among younger homebuyers and entrepreneurs, Floyd said.
I got to know Woodbury working there as a reporter beginning in 1980. I was struck by the city’s unusual downtown blend of Victorian and Colonial-era architecture, its leafy streets and parks, and the spirited efforts to save a shopping district shell-shocked by the 1975 opening of the nearby Deptford Mall.
Then, as now, a fierce love for this tough little city was palpable. So was a spirit of tolerance, as when a group of South Jersey activists helped organize Rainbow Place, an LGBTQ community center, on Woodbury’s North Broad Street in the early 1990s. “We had events and meetings there for several years,” my friend Ted Marvel, one of the organizers, recalled. “People in the [straight] community were cool with it.”
Likewise, “we have not experienced any backlash,” said Floyd. “To the contrary, I have personally received emails, letters, and texts commending Woodbury’s efforts.”
Nevertheless, I was surprised when I drove through the city in 2017 and first saw the handsome rainbow-themed banners along Broad Street. I mean, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen municipal Pride banners on any other major South Jersey thoroughfare.
Janet Weyers, now a WCP board member, had a similar reaction.
“I thought, ‘this is interesting,’ ” Weyers, who owns a dog training business called Flying High Agility, recalled. “This city wants everyone here, and it wants to treat everyone equally.”
She likened what WCP does as a celebration of, and an effort to keep fighting for, the victories that have followed Stonewall.