I met with Brian Mills at the Pride Office. A fitting place considering so much of his life is tied to Rhode Island Pride. What strikes me most is the passion with which he talks about his work. I got the sense that although he works very hard, he doesn’t consider the things he does to be “work.”
Rhode Island Pride would be a very different place without Brian Mills, even if his name is not the first one you associate with the organization. Brian came to Pride 14 years ago when he began dating its now President and Co-Chair, Rodney Davis. At the time, he was still closeted, which made things challenging since Rodney was really out in the community. “He never challenged me on it. He just let me see what things were like and eventually I came out.”
Rodney taught him what it was like to run events and be in front of the community. That community also taught him some things about himself. “Physical contact used to be a strange thing for me before Pride. I didn’t understand the kissing and the hugging and it held me back,” Mills said. “It was probably from being closeted.” Being involved with Pride helped him to re-examine and redefine his comfort level with this. “Now,” he says enthusiastically, “I am the biggest hugger!”
Brian says his experience at Pride has changed everything he does, and this includes his day job as the director of communications, media and performing arts at The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (The MET). The MET is a state-run high school with 690 students from across Rhode Island. The focus is on an independent learning plan allowing each student to choose a subject he or she feels passionate about. The resources and energy he found at Pride help him find those same things at the school, and his open-door policy allows the kids to have a safe place to learn and talk.
He says he is asked something every day about Pride or what it means to be a gay man. He sees it as his responsibility to help people learn. At the Met, more than one staff member has told him that they couldn’t do what he does, being so active in an LGBT organization. He wonders why that is and says, “You need to look at yourself, because this place, these people will accept you.”
Brian now runs the Triple Crown Pageant and the Pride Parade. No small feats! Both these events are very large productions, but he is characteristically laid-back about it all. “Jackie is the face of the pageant, but I’m backstage making sure the paperwork is in order, doing the tech stuff, pushing the contestants out there, complimenting them and giving them a hug.”
In light of all the strides the LGBT community has made over the years, I asked Brian why he thought Pride was still needed. “Although the issues have changed, the people haven’t,” says Brian. “You still have that teenager who needs a safe place, a place to see people like him, or the married guy who realizes there is something different. There are parents who need to understand who their child is and who the people are in their lives. And there are the leaders who need to know who we are; that we’re business owners, parents and educators. Pride is where they can all come together, and I think it will always be there.”
Brian also explained to me how he has seen Pride change over the years. “When I first got involved it was a lot smaller and things just got pulled together. Today we really have to be a well-oiled machine.” The individual commitment has also changed because the organization needs the volunteers to take on more significant projects and know that they are making a difference.
We discussed the misinterpretation that Pride celebrates the frivolous side of being gay. He says there is a misconception that “you’re out there in your underwear.” While that may be part of it, there are also families, service organizations and a wide variety of others enjoying the events. “Whether you are on a bar float, pushing your child in a carriage or representing your church group, there’s a place for you,” he says.
“What you enjoy and what I enjoy may be very different, and that’s true in any community. I celebrate the fact that we provide an environment where everyone can be out on a June day in Providence celebrating who they are. I am an educator; I hope to be a husband someday. My parents know who I am. I am a whole person who happens to enjoy who I am.”
He looks at those who misunderstand the meaning of Pride as opportunities to educate. “I don’t criticize them, it just means I still have more to teach.” He invites them to come out and see what it’s all about and if you don’t understand, ask him and maybe he can help you.
There are so many aspects to his work at Pride, but when I asked him what his favorite experience has been, I was quite surprised. “My favorite is always the moment right after the parade and before clean-up starts. You realize you’ve completed the task, again, and survived. And you get to appreciate all of the people who have sacrificed to get Pride off the ground.” “Yes, I am behind the scenes,” he adds, “and sometimes it’s known as Rodney’s show — and he is where he is because he puts in the effort — but there is also a group of people who are here every month and at every event putting in the time, effort and work. I want to salute them.”
When I came up with the idea for the “Unsung Heroes” articles, Brian Mills was exactly the type of person I imagined. He does what he does, not for the glory, but because he believes in the cause. And he seems to bring that to everything he does. So, the next time you are out and about and you see him, say thank you! Because he is a true unsung hero.