When listening to the passion in Peter Allen Prete’s voice as he describes the injustices LGBT couples face, you would think he’d just been told that he and his beloved would never be able to hitch the knot.
But should he find his perfect mate, Prete is more than able to marry his significant other—and he thinks that’s not fair. That’s because gay-rights advocate Prete is straight. PGN spoke to him about his fight for gay rights, his corporate background and his design for a gay-marriage flag.
PGN: Where are you originally from? PAP: Born in Philadelphia and raised in Hi-Nella, N.J., in a town so small it only had seven streets!
PGN: What was it like growing up in such a small town? PAP: I wouldn’t change it for anything. We were friendly with the kids in our town and the towns on either side of us. Because we were so close, you basically had auxiliary parents everywhere you went. You couldn’t get into trouble without your parents getting a phone call before you made it back home.
PGN: Were you an only child? PAP: No, I have two older sisters, one six years and one two years older than me. My youngest sister was a tomboy so we used to play together a lot. [Laughs.] My older sister told me I was adopted, so it took us longer to get close.
PGN: Favorite game? PAP: The firehouse was the center of town, so we used to play kick the can or spring it with a square in front of the firehouse as home base.
PGN: What did you want to be when you grew up? PAP: That’s easy: My father was a volunteer firefighter. We used hear the siren go off and we’d run to the station to follow the trucks. At night when they went off, I’d listen as my father ran down the steps and lean out the window to watch him go. At age 13, I became a volunteer firefighter and I’m still one today. Now we carry pagers with us.
PGN: What was the most dangerous situation you faced? And the funniest? PAP: The assistant chief and I went into an apartment complex that was on fire. We were inside and I could feel an intense heat on my neck. There was no fire but heavy smoke, and I realized that we were about to get caught in a backdraft. I was yelling for my friend to get out and the chief, who also realized the situation, was yelling as well. Fortunately, one of the companies was able to break the window and stop it. If they hadn’t, I probably would have made it out but my friend wouldn’t have. On the other side, we once had to evacuate an old folks’ home. There was a woman who couldn’t get out of her chair [and] being lowest on the totem poll, my chief made me pick her up. As I lifted her, her skirt moved and my hand slipped between the cheeks of her derriere. I was mortified, but she seemed tickled by it.
PGN: What got you involved in the gay-marriage movement? PAP: A few years ago I was living in Sweden with my girlfriend at the time. It’s much more relaxed there and we had a lot of gay friends. They happened to be having Europride in Stockholm so we went and it was an awesome sight to see all the pride flags everywhere. I tried to keep up with news when I was overseas and the stories from the U.S. at the time were all about Prop. 8 and states trying to legalize gay marriage and the forces fighting against it. As I watched the news from home, I was dismayed to see the millions of dollars people were spending just to stop people from having the same right as everyone else. It was outrageous. I’d worked for years making good money in corporate America and wanted to spend time doing something for others and this sort of clicked. I had a cousin, Kevin, who passed away from AIDS in 2002. At the time, he didn’t have health insurance and couldn’t afford his meds. He had a rough time of it, which I didn’t really find out until after he died. I wanted to do something to honor him. When I saw how virulently these people, who had nothing to do with the gay community, were fighting against gay rights, I decided that this would be something I could embrace. I could be a straight person fighting for gay rights.
PGN: Between rescuing people and now gay rights, it sounds like you just enjoy doing good. PAP: Well, I get mad when I see injustice of any kind. I’m from a somewhat conservative family, but it makes me mad to see groups like NOM and others using religion to justify discrimination. I believe in equality, whether it’s gender, race, sexual orientation, whatever, I believe in people, period. In fact if someone asks my preference, I say “people.”
PGN: And backtracking a little, what did you study at school? PAP: I went to Glassboro State College, now Rowan University, originally to study criminal law in order to become a police officer. After one semester I decided that it wasn’t for me. I switched to business science and marketing. When I got out of school, my father had lost his job and my uncle offered him some printing equipment that he had in his basement. My father turned it down, so the next night I asked my uncle if I could have the equipment and for a while I ran a small printing company.
PGN: And how did you get from there to AT&T and the corporate world? PAP: I’d come up with an idea for a graphic logo for firefighters. It was a firefighter walking through flames and the slogan was, “I fight what you fear.” We took out an ad in a firefighters magazine and it took off like wildfire. I formed a company called Off Duty Gear and started doing trade shows. People would come up to me and say, “Hey, you’re the OD Gear guy!” and they’d pull up their sleeves or roll up their pants and they’d have tattoos of our logo! I once saw a truck on the highway with the logo on the back and then I started getting calls from Spain and Japan asking if I could make the trademark international so that they could use it too. We then started doing police, fire and EMT designs. Long story short, when I took out that first ad, there was a typo and the phone number was wrong. Being in printing, I should have known not to proofread my own ad, but the mistake was made and I spent a lot of time with AT&T trying to straighten it out. I became friendly with one of the reps and when a position opened up in our area, I interviewed for it, got the job and spent 30 years with them.
PGN: Where did you come up with the marriage symbol? PAP: I love doing design and I wanted to do something that would have meaning and symbolize the gay community but be different from the traditional rainbow flag. It needed to be something that was easily recognizable yet powerful. Obviously the two rings connected represent a union, whether it be civil union or marriage — though I believe it should be marriage — with rainbow colors representing pride on a white background, which lets you experience all the colors and also represents a new beginning. The rings are purposely positioned forward on the flag to mean forward thinking and progress toward equality. It works nicely with the pride flags, but it’s distinctive and shows what we’re trying to accomplish. We had them flying at the Equality and Justice Day in New York and they looked beautiful in the news clips that I saw. Powerful.
PGN: Of all the gay issues that you could have embraced to honor your cousin, why gay marriage? PAP: Gay marriage is allowed in Sweden where homosexuality is not a big deal. Which is how it should be. When you look into the subject, you realize that it’s not just about the moral issue. It’s also a legal/practical issue. There are 1,300 rights and financial benefits that people are denied if they can’t be married. It’s just not right and all because a small group of ignorant people are trying to force their beliefs onto taxpaying Americans. I think the majority of people in this country are fair-minded and are mostly in favor of people being treated equally. We just need to get the word out and explain what’s at stake. If two people want to be committed to each other, that’s not something that should be decided by a government. People objecting on religious basis and influencing government policy because of it, to me, are violating the separation of church and state. And in my opinion, civil unions are not good enough. Would I ask some woman, “Would you civil union me?” No, it’s ridiculous.
PGN: And who’s footing the bill for your crusade? PAP: It’s me. As I said, I’ve done OK in the private sector and felt it was time to give back. I was at the Equality and Justice Day in New York and I printed out cards to hand out with the logo and information on what rights you are denied by not being able to marry. In New York, it’s coming up for a vote quickly, so hopefully it’ll inspire people to talk to their family and friends about it, call their legislators and get involved.
PGN: All right, some random questions ... What’s a historical event you wish you could have witnessed? PAP: I’m a World War II buff, and this may seem odd, but probably Pearl Harbor. Right after Sept. 11, the country pulled together for a moment, and to feel the nation rallying together at a time like that would be amazing.
PGN: Ever play any sports? PAP: Yes, I played baseball, football and hockey when I was younger and basketball and tennis both in high school and college. I love the Flyers, though they disappointed me this year.
PGN: A great moment in sports? PAP: I was playing football for the Stratford Falcons and we won the championship. I remember my father running down onto the field and picking me up, hugging me and swinging me around.
PGN: Who would you like to contact at a séance? PAP: My grandfather. He passed away when I was young and I’d like to ask him about his life. Outside of family, I’d contact Abraham Lincoln. The way he managed throughout one of the most difficult times in our country’s history was inspiring. I try to practice his teachings today — like writing things down before you respond so that you can put things in perspective.
PGN: What makes someone a success? PAP: I used to ask my reps that all the time and the answer, for me, is that it’s not money. I tried recently to go back to the corporate world and walked out after 30 days. The money was outstanding, but I wasn’t doing anything but existing. We’re only here for a short time and I’d rather do something that makes me feel involved and makes others feel good. I’m not looking to starve, but I’d rather find a way to succeed that also benefits others.
PGN: What’s a habit you’re trying to break? PAP: I crack my knuckles.
PGN: People say I look like ... PAP: In college they used to say I looked like Clark Kent, and when I took my glasses off they’d call me Superman. [Laughs.] Now I get told I look like Bob Saget, which is not nearly as flattering as Christopher Reeves.
PGN: Tell me about your trip to P-town. PAP: Before Kevin died, a bunch of us went to visit him — me, my sisters, an aunt and a cousin. I was the only guy and Kevin and his boyfriend weren’t sure what to do with me ’cause they didn’t want me to be uncomfortable. I just said, “It’s Friday night, let’s do what you do in P-town.” So they took me to a club and the guys were dancing and taking their shirts off and having a great time. It was fun, and I really got to bond with my cousin and his friends and learn more about the gay community. And I was glad that I had a chance to have that memory of him before he died.
PGN: And as a straight ally, what have you learned at Pride events? PAP: I love the energy. I’ve taken a lot of straight friends to show them what I’ve been working on and they always come away impressed. To see so many people, not just having a good time but out there standing up for what they believe in and such an amazing mix of people, gay people, transgender people, P-FLAG parents, straight allies, you name it. Most of my friends live in conservative areas and now they are taking the issue back to their friends and neighbors.
PGN: You use the term “we” a lot. Do you have a business partner? PAP: No, but I try to get other people involved. For instance, I met two women who run a printing business at an Our Night Out event in Philadelphia. I’m hoping to use them for a lot of the printing that we do. We are using a local flag company as well. I’m trying to develop relationships with a lot of people in the community. [Laughs.] So it’s a collective “we.”
PGN: Were you ever afraid people would think you were gay? PAP: It was a decision I had to make. When I decided to put links to the gay-marriage site on my personal Facebook page or putting up tables at Pride events or having my name in the paper, how did I feel about it? Was I willing to put myself out there? And the answer was yes. I think it’s important that we stand up for everyone’s rights. I’m not worried about what people think.
PGN: So what’s next? PAP: Just continuing to get the word out. I had a cocktail party in May with Denise Spaulding and we unveiled the flag in Camden. We also co-sponsored the VIP party at Elixir along with Monnette Sudler. We also launched the flag at a gay-marriage rally in New York and it was amazing to see the flag being carried at the state capitol. Hopefully we can start making this available to groups here and around the country so that people can use it for raising funds. Everything that we sell, 99 percent of the profits go back to some organization or initiative. We’re hoping to work with organizations like the Mazzoni Center here in Philadelphia very soon. I want to see the flags flying until we see the day where everyone is free to marry the person they love. I’ll be at the Pride Festival on Sunday, so I hope people will stop by and say hello!
Learn more about the fight for gay marriage at www.gaymarriageflag.com.