When Stephan Hengst and Patrick Decker lived in the small town of PoughKeepsie, N.Y., they looked around and noticed that, though there were a number of LGBT folks around, they didn’t really have a place to congregate. That led them to found Big Gay Hudson Valley, which provided community, entertainment, engagement and fun for the region. Luckily for us, they’ve recently relocated and are now bringing those community-building skills to Philadelphia.
PGN: Tell me a little about yourself.
SH: I was born overseas in the Netherlands and my parents moved to the United States when I was about 2 months old. So I grew up in the U.S., primarily in the D.C. area. I went to college in the Hudson Valley area of New York and that’s where I met Patrick. He was a student at the college where I was working. It was actually my boss who suggested I meet Patrick, who was the editor of the school newspaper. I was like, “Uh, should you be encouraging me to date a student?” and she said, “No, it’s fine. You’re not his teacher.” I was the director of communications for the school, which I did for years.
PGN: So you weren’t born in the U.S.; do you have all your paperwork in order? You know 45 is cracking down!
SH: [Laughs] I know! Yes, I‘m good. My family has a restaurant chain in the D.C. area called The Silver Diner. There’s actually one in Cherry Hill, N.J., as well. My dad’s had the business for 30-plus years now. When I tell people how many places I’ve lived as a result, they assume I grew up in a military family.
PGN: Do you empathize with the Dreamers, who aren’t so lucky right now?
SH: Absolutely. My father’s run a family-owned company for 30-odd years and he’s built a really amazing program, helping elevate his dishwashers and other staff members who started off at lower-ranked jobs. He’s aways had a great awareness of who actually makes the business run and promoting them. Many of his current general managers started off in menial jobs. It’s like what my mom said when I first came out, “If you’re gonna be gay, great. Just be the best gay person you can be.” That mindset is what led me and my husband to establish Big Gay Hudson Valley and to do the things that we do. And it’s my guiding compass when it comes to thinking about what’s going to benefit our community and how I can help bring it forward.
PGN: Something we don’t know about you?
SH: My father being a chef, I used to determine the overall quality of a restaurant by its chocolate mousse. When I turned 12, I found out I had juvenile diabetes, and my frequent consumption of said mousses had to come to an end. However, by going to school at the Culinary Institute of America, I soon learned that there was more to life than chocolate mousse. At some point, I want to start a blog about all of the exciting things I find in the world that don’t contain gelatin.
PGN: Hi, Patrick, give me your 411.
PD: I was born in Watertown, N.Y., up north. Grew up there and moved to the Hudson Valley to go to the CIA and spent the last 15 years of my life up there, though I spent a lot of time in Manhattan for work. After school, Stephan and I bought a house, got married, the whole thing. Right after graduating, I did a lot of work in television production, creating food-related media in the Hudson Valley and New York City, including working with Rachael Ray; I was one of the food stylists for her talk show and I also put together the green-room trays for all the celebrity guests. One of the best was Will McCormick from “Will & Grace.” It gave me a chance to thank him for the show, which made it possible for me to come out to my family.
PGN: Those trays are legendary!
PD: Yes, it was a great job for a 23-year-old. I work now for the Scripps Networks, who are the parent company for the Food Network, HDTV, the Travel Channel. I do digital-content production for them. So I split my time between home, New York and the company headquarters in Knoxville, Tenn.
PGN: Tell me about the fam.
PD: My mom lives in Florida and my dad and stepmom still live in Watertown. They’re a relatively quiet bunch; Mom is a nurse and my dad recently retired after working for the Department of Transportation for 30 years. My younger sister and I spent summers hanging out at the lake.
PGN: Something I should know about you?
PD: Well, I just can’t get enough of indie crafting, catchy lounge music, clean laundry smell, gender impersonators or lime-and-mint-flavored drinks. I wouldn’t be caught dead with mismatched socks, things made of kiwi, bed sheets with creases, a dirty car interior or burnt toast. And when I’m not blogging, I’m way into knitting scarves, making things taste delicious and soaking up some HBO-produced drama.
PGN: Nice! You’re both culinary people; who cooked the first dish for whom?
SH: It was me. I was living in a basement apartment. I’d only been there for four weeks and I had no food except for a can of black beans, eggs and some onions. And Patrick was a vegetarian at the time! It was a pretty horrible meal.
PGN: Where were you living right before moving here?
PD: We were just down the street from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. It was a great community, lots of diversity. We realized that we had a lot of overlapping friends networks and as we spoke to people about things that were happening in the area or people doing interesting things, even though it was a small community, the different social circles were not very well-connected. So we started a Facebook page and a blog to share information, things we thought people should check out. The Hudson Valley itself is a very broad geographic area that stretches from Albany to New York City, along the Hudson River. Eventually we started producing our own events, everything from nights out at a particular bar with live music to bowling nights to producing Poughkeepsie’s Pride event, which we called Queen City Pride; Poughkeepsie was historically known as the Queen City of the Hudson River. One of our favorite events was our family-friendly festival called Out on the Farm. We’d take over a dairy farm, bring in a Bluegrass band and do hay rides and farm tours. It was a BYOB picnic and people could come and hang out for the day.
SH: What I think really was the catalyst for us starting BGHV was that we lived in an area with so many LGBT folks who’d leave the city and come up to the valley to retire or get weekend homes, who were in a different mindset than other people. In the LGBT community, there’s always a lot of nightlife activity, but our friends were looking for different activities. We had parents who wanted events you could bring kids to ...
PD: For me, I’m someone who doesn’t stay up late. Most nights I’m in bed by 9 p.m., so we wanted to create an ecosystem where someone could go out on a Wednesday night to an event after work that started at, say, 7 p.m., have fun for a few hours and still be able to go to work the next day.
SH: We produced a lot of events featuring talent that people knew or talent that we found and wanted to introduce people to.
PD: And we took advantage of the great spaces around us. We lived right down the street from Vassar and they have an amazing art museum, so we’d hold a night there with a private tour, things like that.
PGN: Were you surprised to find so many LGBT people in your area? When I hear Poughkeepsie, I don’t think of a great gay mecca.
SH: [Laughs] It’s funny, when we first moved to the area, there was not a single out gay member of the City Council. Zero. Now half the council is gay. There was a very conservative mayor, now we still have a Republican mayor, but he’s very socially liberal. Over the time that we were here, we were involved in some significant events. In 2009, we were married as part of a movement towards marriage equality. It was the quadricentennial of the discovery of the Hudson River. We were invited by the mayor of Amsterdam to get married in Amsterdam to encourage New York State to pass marriage-equality laws. To say, “Hey, if you won’t marry your own residents, we will do it for you.” They were looking for one person from New York and one from the Netherlands to participate. Since I was born in Holland and Patrick is from New York, we were perfect. It was a big publicity event. Patrick and I were in the Gay Pride Parade in New York with the deputy mayor of Amsterdam and the chief of police, both lesbians, on a big float with a 16-foot wedding cake, and then we flew to Amsterdam and got married on a barge in a big ceremony there for their Pride. When we came back, we spent a lot of time working with our senator, Steven Saland. He was the hold-out vote who had originally stopped gay marriage in the state. He voted no for several terms including 2009, right after we were married. We spent the next two years gathering community members and working with a lot of straight allies to show him that this was something the majority of people supported and we finally got him to vote yes in 2011. Once New York was on board with marriage equality, a lot of other states followed.
PD: So yes, there was a significant community out there; they were just spread around more and had different needs than people in the city. They just needed a little organizing.
SH: I think the community itself didn’t even realize how diverse we were because people stayed in their own circles. We started doing a pool party a few years ago. We called it Sundae Funday and held the event at a hunting lodge that had a big pool. We made it clear from the start that all our events were open to everyone and we would respect everyone, which included restrooms that could be rebranded gender-neutral, etc. One of the biggest groups that came were people from the trans community. There were so few events where they felt welcome and zero pool parties where they felt comfortable. Many of them said it was the first time they’d ever worn a swimsuit in public. That was something we were always very proud of, that whether it was families, women, trans people, different ethnicities or races, we always made sure we were welcoming and that it was a safe space for everyone.
PGN: Any story stand out of someone who was changed by finding community at one of your events?
PD: Because things were so spread out and there weren’t really any gathering places to go, our events became the place to connect and over the years we’ve been responsible for a lot of couples who met at one of our events and are now married with children, living happily ever after.
SH: And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in Home Depot or somewhere and had parents say, “I saw you in the papers, I just want to let you know that my son went to your all-ages event and it was the first time he ever felt safe and welcome. He met lots of friends there and it really meant a lot to me.” There’s also the 85-year-old woman who came to our picnic one year. She was just sitting by herself wearing a long flowy dress, with long white flowy hair with a little dandelion crown that she made from flowers she found on the estate. I went over and introduced myself and asked her what brought her. She proceeded to lay out all these press clipping in front of her about her daughter. She told me that her daughter was gay but had died of cancer. She’d read about the picnic in the newspaper and thought it was something the daughter would have loved so she wanted to come in her honor. There were events where we’d have 20-somethings in a room talking to 70-year-olds and learning about life before this bubble that we’re all living in now, teenagers who came to an event and then came out to their parents; I could go on and on.
PGN: So what brought you to Philly?
PD: We decided it was time for a change and Philly being so close to his family in D.C. and my work in New York, it was an easy decision. We had friends here so we know it was a great city with a thriving LGBT community.
SH: Yes, the art and culture and just the heartbeat of the city really attracted us. As trained chefs, we already knew the food scene was great. So we moved to a one-bedroom, which was quite a change from our home on a quarter-acre upstate. Patrick still commutes to New York two days a week and we both also work from home. We’re most excited about our new endeavor Pink Stallion, which is our new entertainment company. We have been doing events for so long through BGHV that, even though Philly has a great established community, we still think we have a lot we can add, producing original events and experiences. Our first event will bring drag legend Varla Jean Merman to the Ruba Club in Northern Liberties. She’s a P-Town regular and I’ve been friends with her for over 20 years. Then we’re bringing Hedda Lettuce on Dec. 15 for her holiday show. We also plan to do some events to get people out of the city and bars. And in January we’re working with a queer rocker, Cunio, who is amazing. He’s going to be doing a tribute to Etta James.
PGN: At last! So now, on to some random questions. In another life I probably was ...
SH: Probably a circus-sideshow performer or a ringmaster. Either that or Julie the cruise director.
PD: Most likely a school teacher.
PGN: Something of your partner’s you want to throw away?
PD: Stephan is a perpetual collector of paper — business cards, fliers and pamphlets and stuff that capture his experiences — but I hope that one day we can find a way to store them in an organized fashion so they’re not all over the place.
SH: Patrick loves shoes and he keeps them all for a very long time. Even those that shouldn’t still be here.
PD: I do.
PGN: What’s a television show you’d want to see with full nudity?
PD: My secret guilty pleasure is Monday Night RAW, WWE wrestling, but they’re all practically nude already!
SH: “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” That might shatter some illusions, though.
PGN: What’s a favorite line?
SH: It’s from RuPaul: “And if you can’t love yourself, how the heck are you ever gonna love anyone else?”
PD: I’ll second that.
For more information about Pink Stallion, visit www.pinkstallionevents.com.