Somersworth Mayor Dana Hilliard talks about the atheist flag to be raised on Citizen's Place in Somersworth at the request a member of of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Hilliard says he believes Somersworth to be a model for tolerance and acceptance. [Deb Cram/]

Acceptance predominates, but not always

Some rough encounters with small-town prejudice happen in Somersworth, too

Somersworth is recognized by the local LGBTQ community as a relatively safe place to live where you can be yourself and not have to hide your sexuality.

That said, it's not perfect and some in the community recall incidents during which they have experienced prejudice or have felt uncomfortable because the prejudices in society as a whole have created fears about encountering it.

Sean Peschel, an educator who is gay and the husband of Somersworth Mayor Dana Hilliard, said he has generally experienced much acceptance. "The community has accepted me as a teacher, a gay teacher. People knew I was dating Dana and we were together and in my mindset, people/parents were OK with it because it was a 1 to 25 ratio (in the classroom)," Peschel said.

But when he made the switch to become a school counselor, his personal fears about acceptance surfaced anew — and it wasn't a fear of acceptance by his students. They knew who he was. Peschel feared the reaction of parents who didn't know him. It was in his own head, but he worried some parents would not want him to be their children's counselor thinking that Peschel was "going to try to convert them or what have you."

Peschel said that in society as a whole and in some locations in the U.S. in particular, there is a mentality that you can't have a gay teacher because they're pedophiles. Straight men who want to teach at the elementary school level are suspected sometimes, too, and can get the pedophile label, "just because of the narrow-mindedness of it," Peschel said.

He now works in the Oyster River School District and said he's had no confrontations with parents about being gay and has become more comfortable with himself in his job. "It went away over time, but in the beginning, it was in the back of my head."

Peschel said the notion that gay teachers turn students gay is simply false. "I think we’ve seen a lot of kids come out (as gay) over time because we are creating a safe space for them. It’s not that we’re making them gay."

Peschel and Hilliard, both raised as Catholics, said they have occasionally encountered prejudice about their sexuality from religious zealots. They both recalled an incident they had at school with a colleague they both knew well and got along with. According to Peschel, the colleague said to them, "You know, you and Sean are doing great things here on earth, but it’s just sad when it comes to Judgment Day that I won’t see you." The message was that Peschel and Hilliard couldn't get into heaven because they are gay.

Peschel remembers Hilliard kicking that colleague out of his classroom for a bit, but Peschel and Hilliard said they both grew from the experience. Hilliard eventually told the colleague that "your stuff is your stuff," and instead, they needed to focus on their common goals of working with children.

In the end, they came to an understanding with him. "I think he got it and understood it, but I think he still had the Judgment Day — he won’t see us on the other side type thing — which I think it was pretty ballsy of him to say that to us, too," Peschel said.

Hilliard had kind words for that colleague who thinks Hilliard and Peschel will be banned from heaven. "He’s a great person. He’s still a great person," Hilliard said.

Some of the prejudice is nastier and more direct, according to Hilliard. He recalled an incident in which a child had to receive some discipline for inappropriate behavior in school and it was serious enough to warrant a suspension of several days. The child's parents called Hilliard a faggot "right to my face," he said, "because suddenly, they weren't getting their way and then they would throw the gay card you know — faggot principal, blah, blah, blah."

Hilliard has also been called "the faggot mayor" by some people in the community. Hilliard said the best course of action is to try to educate people who hold those views or behave that way. If they refuse to be educated, "then there's nothing I can do for that," Hilliard said.

Hilliard said the real battle for acceptance is not happening in big cities like New York or Boston, where gay people can live in their own little meccas. Instead, the battle is being waged in small places.

"The front line of equality is fought in Somersworth, New Hampshire, and is fought in every little small town in the United States where people move back to their community as who they always were and live beside their neighbors and help educate their neighbors that the earth is not going to open up and swallow them whole," Hilliard said.

Hilliard, who is a native of the community, paid homage to those who came before him. The late City Councilman Marcel Hebert, for example, was also born and raised in Somersworth and was gay. He moved away to New York City, where he could live in Greenwich Village surrounded by other gay people, but found he wanted to come home and have an impact to move things forward. He moved back to Somersworth in the '70s and late '80s, when acceptance was not nearly as widespread it is today.

Hebert was proud of Hilliard's election and continued success. Peschel said Hebert could barely contain that excitement every time they saw him. "He was like 'Oh my God! We have a gay mayor!' I don't think he ever thought he would ever see in his lifetime a gay mayor in his own city where he was born and raised. He was ridiculed or beat up or what have you.

"He (Hebert) was just so proud of that," Peschel said.

Next story: Acceptance is taught in school in Somersworth.