Boosting Gay Pride and Tourism in Newport
By Helena Touhey
Sean O’Connor and Dani Cano Restrepo lead efforts to raise the profile of LGBTQ+ locals and visitors
There are many layers to Newport and the communities that exist here in the City-by-the-Sea, and for Sean O’Connor and Dani Cano Restrepo of NewportOUT and Newport Pride, connecting those within the queer community is central to their work and at the heart of their mission.
The two are partners in work and life and have called Newport home for several years. Sean grew up in Tiverton, and Dani is from Medellín, Columbia. They were married five years ago this December.
In 2018, they purchased the NewportOUT LLC, and set about reviving the NewportOUT website (newportout.com), which serves as a means of marketing Newport to LGBTQ+ folks, whether they are visiting from near or far.
As described on the site, NewportOUT aims “to make Newport, RI and the surrounding area an open and inviting place for travelers who identify under the LGBTQ+ umbrella. From same-sex couples looking to tie the knot in an incredible seaside town, to LGBTQ+families looking to vacation, to international tourists looking to hit the New England hotspots, we want all of these people to feel welcome in Newport and have access to resources on the best experiences to include in their visit. We want to be on their radars because, as locals, we believe that Newport is an incredible destination for gay, lesbian, trans, queer people, their families, and allies.”
Sean and Dani work as curators highlighting and recommending businesses, destinations and events that are especially inclusive or not-to-be-missed.
Dani describes NewportOUT as “more like a gay mag in town” and said it’s meant to provide a sense of welcome. Often, people find the site and reach out to Sean and Dani directly, who respond and communicate with folks ahead of their visit.
“We love that we can be that welcoming hub for people,” Sean said, to which Dani added: “We know the community; we’ve connected with the community here.”
The couple is also behind Newport Pride, a nonprofit that hosts the local celebration of Pride, an LGBTQ+ celebration that takes place each June in communities around the world, and advocates on behalf of the local LGBTQ+community.
While NewportOUT and Newport Pride often work in tandem and have a common thread in that each supports the local queer community, they are separate entities, as NewportOUT is a business and Newport Pride is a nonprofit.
A recent project of Newport Pride was the installation of three rainbow crosswalks around Equality Park off Broadway in Newport, which were painted during the summer to much fanfare. The rainbow crosswalks are the first in the state.“
They are part of the work of creating a more welcoming space,” Dani said. In researching other gay-friendly tourist locations, he and Sean found that nearly all had visible rainbow crosswalks. “We realized if we want to be a destination, we need a crosswalk,” he said.
When it came time to get approval, the city was supportive, as was the community: Two dozen people showed up to help paint the crosswalks, which took two days of work.
In the months since, the crosswalks have become a photo site for locals and visitors. Sean recalled seeing a busload of people stop for a photo-op and learning the occasion was a same-sex wedding taking place on Goat Island, which had apparently detoured to the aptly named Equality Park.
“Office hours” and events
Through their work with NewportOUT the duo has an ongoing collaboration with The Huddle, a new co-working and events space on Spring Street founded by Sara Emhof. Every Monday, Sean and Dani hold “office hours” and invite members of the community to come by, whether for conversation, desk space — or a bit of both.
On the third Wednesday of each month, also at The Huddle, they host a gathering called Queer Connections. This began as a monthly book club in December of 2021, and evolved into an intimate gathering where members of the LGTBQ+ community can convene for conversation or simply to hold space, although literature is still central to the gatherings and the monthly discussions.
NewportOUT also hosts other events around Newport County each month. Recent offerings have included a drag dinner extravaganza at Reject’s Beer Co.in September and a Halloween-themed event at farm in Portsmouth in October. On December 2, they will host a Holiday Arts Market at The Huddle, which will double as a fundraiser for Newport Pride.
These events offer an opportunity for folks to gather outside of a bar.
As Sean and Dani both noted, Newport has been without a gay bar for several years, so there is no specific place for the community to convene at night, which is both good and bad: A benefit of a gay bar is the existence of a safe space to fully express oneself without fear of harassment — although not having a gay bar in town has made other establishments more gay-friendly and open to hosting events, such as drag nights.
“I always go back to the example of dancing and where you can feel truly at ease and yourself,” says Sean on why queer spaces are so important. For now, “people see where we’re at and are willing to collaborate,” he said. While neither he nor Dani envisions opening a gay bar anytime soon, it is on the wish list if some other Newporter felt so inclined. Also on the wish list? A queer film festival.
A big presence in Newport
While both say there is no way to gage how large the queer community is, Sean and Dani agree it’s larger than it seems. Since they began hosting events, both have met people they may not have crossed paths with otherwise.
“Anecdotally, when people ask us, there are so many queer people here of all ages,” Sean said.
“This community is so diverse, and we should be showcasing that,” Dani added, noting that Newport is founded on the idea of religious tolerance. For him, celebrating self-expression is a contemporary extension of practicing religious tolerance.
Through NewportOUT and Newport Pride, the duo is involved in various community projects and initiatives. Among those is supporting GSAs, or Gay-Straight Alliances, at Thompson Middle School, Rogers High School, and The Met School. They also are part of an afterschool program at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center.
Additionally, they are part of the LGBTQ+ Health working group, hosted by the Newport Health Equity Zone, which meets monthly. HEZ is a city-wide coalition mobilizing residents and resources of the Broadway and North End neighborhoods to make Newport a place where everyone can thrive. They are also among those who meet as part of the Newport Partnership for Young Families, another working group organized through Newport schools.
“We are not the only people in town thinking about this work, far from it,” Sean said.
In addition to his work with NewportOUT and Newport Pride, Sean recently started as the part-time Executive Director of the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation. He also serves on the board of Discover Newport.
Dani, who is a graphic designer, now works full-time for NewportOUT, and serves as the Executive Director of Newport Pride. For more information about either organization, and to keep up with event sand happenings, visitnewportout.com and newportprideri.org.
Photography by Maddie Van – maddievan.com