Whoopi, The Prom Musical, & A Day With a Trans Trailblazer: How One Lifelong Activist Rediscovered the Meaning of Pride.

by Cathy Renna

My name is Cathy Renna and I am from Queens, New York.

I had the incredible privilege and exhausting responsibility of working with New York City Pride when we were the host city for Stonewall 50 and World Pride. And a lot of it’s a blur, but there are certain moments that really stick out.

One moment was when – really in may, actually, early on – when we were starting to prepare the Pride Guide, which was a Vanity Fair-sized magazine at the time. And we were shooting the cover and we were being very thoughtful as New York City Pride always is about really trying to represent our entire queer community. As we were looking at folks to put on there, you know, some of them were really obvious. You know, one of them was Whoopi Goldberg who was hosting our opening ceremony at Barclays, who was super involved in being a supportive ally. Todrick Hall who was performing. But we wanted to really have some representation of young people.

And at the time, I was a little bit working with, but mostly just obsessed with the musical, The Prom. I suggested that we approach the cast of the prom and ask the two girls who played the leads, the two girls that are dating and coming out – I won’t give away the whole story – coming out in the play. And they immediately agreed. They were thrilled. So a date was set and we were told that that was the same day that Whoopi Goldberg would be taping. So we were all super, super excited. And then we were told, you know, very strict timing. You know, “Whoopi needs to be in and out. She’s got a very tight schedule. So, you know, don’t come until two o’clock.”

So we get there at two o’clock and Whoopi Goldberg’s still there. So not only is she still there she is having a blast. She is chatting with everybody. She brought her own wardrobe. She brought… I have really funny pictures of her in a rainbow fake fur, not real fur, fake fur coat that she was glamming around with and horsing around with, and then opened up to reveal a t-shirt she made that said “It’s World Pride, bitches!” You know? And she made hundreds of them for us to sell.

I mean, it was, it was really funny. And when I walked in, the first person I saw was Tom, who is the director and manager of her company. Whoop Inc. And I knew him from glaad, from my old glaad days. And so I, you know, we said hi, we embraced, I introduced him to the actors from the prom. We were all really excited. And then he took me in to say hello to Whoopi Goldberg.

She was just amazing. She was happy to see us. And then she was thrilled – because she’d heard about The Prom – that the girls were there. So she wanted to meet them. They were of course, completely starstruck as well. And, you know, we figured, okay, this is great. We’ve met, she’ll leave. We’ll get on with the shoot. Not how it played out.

Whoopi just didn’t leave. I mean, she kept hanging around. And then at one point, and it really was a very magical moment for everybody in the room, Whoopi Goldberg basically was like, “What the hell? Like, we need a picture of all of us.”

And there were like 20 people in the room. We all squished onto the stage that was set up for the cover shoot. She had her agent Tom take the picture and I have this amazing photo of me in my little Prom jacket that I bought and The Prom cast and Whoopi and all of the staff from New York City Pride who were of course completely giddy over the whole situation. And it was awesome. I mean, we… we walked out floating on air.

And so once we got that under our belt, you know, June was looming, you know, and we knew that things started on June 1st. You know, one of the things that is so important to the March, which was going to be the largest March in history of Prides, was that our grand marshals… there were more than usual. They were international. They were incredibly diverse. They were all kinds of folks from all different parts of the community.

And one of the people we chose was Monica Helms. And a lot of folks don’t know who Monica is. Monica is the person who created the trans flag. And she had never been to New York and she was super excited to come up for Pride. And because I knew her, I was given the responsibility of just sort of communicating around what their needs might be when they came up.

And she started emailing me things like, “Well, I really want to go out for pizza.” Cause you know, it’s New York. “I have to have pizza and you know, I really want to do some touristy stuff.” And you know, we know each other, but I don’t think that she realized just how much I had on my plate. And I wasn’t gonna tell her because you know what, she’s Monica Helms. She deserves to be, you know, at the… at the head of the… head of the March and a Grand Marshall and get what she wants.

She came up with her wife. I mean, literally, like I went and met them the morning after they got to New York for breakfast and hung out with them for an hour for breakfast. And then we went and spent some time out. And so yes, we had pizza.

And about the powerful thing we did was we went to a store called the Phluid Project. The Phluid Project is a brick and mortar store and online that is the first non-gendered clothing store that celebrates gender diversity that celebrates the trans and nonbinary communities that is just super queer and super awesome and owned by a wonderful man named Rob O’Brien.

We took a taxi over to the store, which is like a video game going into New York City taxi for a ride, very quickly, over to Broadway. We walked into this store, which I’d been to many times and absolutely doored and the trans flag was everywhere. And I just… I looked at Monica’s face and her eyes welled up. She was just… I…  she couldn’t believe it.

I mean, she knows that everybody uses the trans flag, but it’s… it’s a different thing when you actually walk into a store that is affirming, welcoming, you know, filled with young queer trans non-binary staff who were like, “Oh my God, she invented the… she designed the first trans flag.”

And I will never forget the one thing she really, really wanted was a pair of sneakers with the trans flag on the sole of the sneaker. The morning of the actual March, we had a press conference. She spoke at the press conference. We put her in her convertible. She started to get ready for the March. And then as she sat up on the back – top of the backseat of the convertible, she put her feet up in the air and she was wearing those sneakers with the trans flag on the sole of her feet. And it was – we just all started cheering. It was the sweetest, funniest, most moving thing ever.

That moment, seeing her beaming, being cheered on by, you know, by literally millions of people who now would know her name, would know our history, would understand where the trans flag came from. That’s one of those moments where you realize, okay, that’s what… that’s what this is really all about.

So it’s super fun to meet Whoopi Goldberg and hang out with the cast of the prom and be able to, you know, have fun that way. But I think that the other experience, the experience of seeing Monica’s face of seeing the faces of these… not just the trans kids with their parents and their families and their friends, and trans adults, you know, is… that’s… that’s the power of change.

I know that in that moment, it was one of those moments where I changed. My life changed. I changed my… by putting myself into that experience and… and allowing myself to fully feel it. I think when you allow yourself to take these things in, it’s what makes me want to continue doing it. And it makes me a better person.

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