Melissa Buckminster: Making Montco Memories

Suzi Nash

According to Wikipedia, Montgomery County is the third-most populous county in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the 73rd-most populous in the United States. In 2008 the county was named the 9th Best Place to Raise a Family by Forbes; in 2010 it was ranked the 51st-wealthiest county in the country. It’s also a place with a thriving LGBTQ community bolstered by The Montgomery County LGBT Business Council. I met the president of the organization, Melissa Buckminster, at an IBA zoom meeting sponsored by the council. Buckminster’s enthusiasm and excitement for all things LGBTQ was engaging (I was going to say contagious, but that’s not such a great adjective anymore…) so I followed up to find out more about her and our neighbors to the Northeast. 

So I understand that you’re originally from the city that doesn’t know how to pronounce its name, Newark, Delaware. I say that being from North Jersey where we pronounce it New-Irk. 

[Laughing] I think you mean I’m from the place that pronounces it correctly thank you! New-ark! 

Okay, so tell me a little about life in New-ark.

I grew up right in the heart of Newark. My parents are still there. I went to Newark High School and from there it was easy to continue right to the University of Delaware. I also spent a lot of time in Maryland. I grew up riding and that’s where my horses were. I love Newark, but as I got older I wanted to expand my horizons and ended up in Philly. I had a friend here that needed a roommate and I was looking for a little adventure so I left home. 

My brother went to U of D so I’ve been to Newark but I was young, I seem to remember it as being slightly urban. 

Sort of, if you’ve ever been to Delaware it’s basically separated into above the canal and below the canal. Below the canal there are about 3 chickens for every person, it’s very rural. Above the canal is where you’ll find Newark and Delaware. 

How many in the family?

Just me, I am an only child and I’ve always enjoyed it! My parents had me a little later in life. So no siblings and the rest of the family is spread out from Portland to New Mexico. I don’t have any extended family in the area. My mom’s family are all from Indiana and my dad’s family is North Carolina.

That’s the opposite of me, most of my extended family are concentrated in North Jersey, so we’re the ones that moved away. I have about 22 cousins and it’s a party anytime I go up there.

Oh my gosh! Yeah, it’s a much smaller situation on my end.  

How did you get into horses? Were you that horse crazy kid?

I was! I was an insane horse girl, with the wall paper and everything. I still wear that badge proudly. I started riding when I was about 7. I went to a horseback riding day camp in Maryland called Fair Wind Stables. My mom grew up with horses so she knew what she was getting into. I did hunter jumpers and was in 4H and all that stuff. I got my own horse when I was about 15. I was the dummy that they put on new horses to check them out. One time we got this mare that was off the track and she was wacky, nobody wanted to ride her. So I got her! I started doing jumping shows with her and graduated to eventing which are the big courses outside the ring. She was nuts and needed to be in the open. I had her until she passed away last year. She was the closest thing I had to a sibling!

What did you study at U of D?

I was a communications major with a minor in sociology and advertising. I went into my freshman year thinking that I might want to be a nurse, but after one class I said, “Absolutely not.” I loved my communications classes though and concentrated on mass communication, I was lucky that the comp professors were all outstanding. I wanted to get into some sort of marketing or advertising and thankfully I did! 

How did you end up in Montgomery county?

When I moved to Philly, I didn’t have a full time job, I had a few clients that I did social media marketing for, and I thought I’d figure it out once I got here. I had a few months of rent saved up but that was it. I desperately wanted to get into nonprofit work and I happily got hired by the Senior Adult Activities Center of Montco running their Meals on Wheels program in Norristown. They’re a fantastic organization and I’ve been there ever since, I’ve been there for a little over 5 years now. 

Do you have much contact with the seniors?

Yes, but unfortunately due to Covid it’s not as much now. This March, our doors will have been closed for a full year. It’s nuts, but we’re doing a lot of online classes for seniors. It’s been a bit of a learning curve for some folks. We have exercise classes and nutrition classes and a lot of good stuff. I jumped onto zoom class to say hi to some of the people, but it’s tough not being as connected as we normally are.

Who is a favorite wacky senior?

There are a lot to choose from, but I’d say my favorite would be a woman named Sally. She had the coolest life ever, a really fantastic creative background. She taught art classes in Italy and always was decked out in these fabulous matching outfits. She was just an amazing character. I used to call her my Pennsylvania Grandma. Sadly, we lost her 3 weeks ago, she went into the hospital for something else and contracted Covid 19. I attended her zoom funeral and her grandson stated that she was completely fabulous up until the very end. Her last request was for a phone charger and some lipstick. 

That’s beautiful. I understand that you spent some time across the pond as well.

Yes, I did a couple of study abroad programs when I was at U of D, and then after I graduated I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. A friend of mine suggested that I work as an Au Pair. She worked as a nanny in Spain and loved it, so I decided to give it a try. Funny thing is I’m not a big kid person, but I filled out the forms for Au Pair World online on a lark and right off the bat I had over 100 offers. It happened so fast I didn’t have time to get a work visa so I was only there for 3 months but it was great, especially since I ended up with a family that had horses who let me ride! 

So you took off for a foreign country… I guess you’ve never watched Law and Order SVU?

I know! It didn’t really hit me until I was on the plane to Spain, “Hmmn, I’m going over to live with people that I’ve Facetimed once.” Fortunately it worked out. 

Where did you go for your study abroad?

We went to England and Scotland, France, Italy and Greece. I went to a public high school but I lucked out that we had two teachers who were interested in taking us. I even got to go to Bermuda for spring break with the teacher of our marine biology class. 

I went for a short trip to London and Paris with my theater group in 10th grade and we were all ecstatic about the fact that we could legally order a glass of wine at McDonalds.

Yes! We were all excited to order wine at a Pizza Hut!

My boyfriend at the time (my last one) was Tom Wilson who went on to play Biff in the “Back to the Future” films and we won a dance contest in Paris. 

No way, that’s so cool. 

We were teens and the prize was a bottle of champagne! It was fun, but back to you! Let’s talk about the Montgomery County LGBT Business Council. You are the President. 

Yes, I got connected with them when one of the founders, Ricky Buttacavoli, came to an LGBTQ Cultural Competency training that my job was holding. It was exciting because it happened just as I was coming out so it was great to know that I was working at a place that had LGBT positive events like that. Later, the business council was having their annual holiday party which was a “Networking/Drag show.” When I realized that I could get my company to pay for me to go to a drag show I was like, “Count me in! I’ve found my people in Montgomery County!” It was a big thing for me because there wasn’t a ton of visibility in Montco, especially coming from Philly so to find community there was exciting for my baby gay heart. I started doing marketing for them and when Ricky stepped down in 2019, I took over as president.

So, Philly centric folks often think that there’s nothing outside of city limits, but to sustain the organization there must be a fairly decent LGBTQ presence. 

Yes! That’s the thing, we’re all around, it was just a matter of letting people know that and creating visibility. One thing we’re proud of was raising the Pride flag at the courthouse in Norristown in 2019. It was a first and was a really big deal; it let everybody know that there are queers in Montco! And people that support them, including the elected officials who helped make it happen.

I read that last fall 3 townships in Montco have enacted LGBTQ-inclusive anti-bias ordinances.

Yes, it’s shame that we have to do it township by township when it comes to passing non-discrimination ordinances. We’re the only state in the Northeast that does not have one that covers us on a state level. But we’re here to advocate for any municipalities who are trying to enact local laws to protect us. We shouldn’t have to be doing it but that’s where we are. 

What are some of the other things that you do?

We describe ourselves as a networking and advocacy organization, we create opportunities for LGBTQ+ professionals and allies to come together to get to know each other and we promote their businesses. If you go on the website we have a business gateway that lists all of our members. We frequently have people message us, “Hey, I need a plumber!” and it’s great to be able to drive LGBTQ+ dollars to our community. In addition to networking events, we offer cultural competency trainings. We usually have our big “Share the Love” fundraiser in February but we’ll probably try to do it in the spring instead. We just managed to pull it off last year right before the pandemic. Now when I think of having 150 people in a small room, it’s like, “Holy Moley!” but fortunately there weren’t any problems. 

I’m guessing you’ve had to pivot a lot of the programs because of Covid.

Yes, we’re doing a lot of online things now. We have a virtual Happy Hour on the 2nd Friday of the month, and there are a number of member led events. Jason Ocoma did a multi-week webinar on financial planning. One of our council members, Jesse Frechette, does a mindfulness class every Wednesday, something we could all use these days. 

I interviewed Jesse last year, great guy!  So when did you come out?

Well, I had dated men my entire life and had little to no inkling that I would identify as queer in any capacity. Then at 24, I met somebody who made me realize that that was the case. I wasn’t super surprised, it kind of made sense. I came out to my mother the day Trump got elected. 

How did it go down?

My family is divided politically, my dad is a republican and had voted for Trump in 2016. When I woke up and found out that Trump had won, I sent my mom a text saying, “Mom, If he would vote for someone like that, do you think Dad hates me?” She said, “No, of course he doesn’t hate you” and I said, “Well, maybe I should tell him that I’m sleeping with women” and without missing a beat she said, “Your father will always love you no matter what.” And that’s how I came out to them! [Laughing] I’m grateful that they’re both good sports and took it well. They’re both very supportive. My dad hung my first Pride flag for me and my mother makes Christmas wreaths which seem to have more rainbows each year, including trans inclusive colors and the brown and black from the “More colors, more pride” rainbows. 

So did Dad vote for Trump this time?

The weekend before RBG died, I broke down and said, “Listen, this is not up for discussion, how can you say you support me as a woman, as an LGBTQ person, as someone who works in non-profits, and still vote for someone who is literally against everything that I am.” So he didn’t vote for Biden, but he also didn’t vote for Trump. I consider it a win, baby steps.

Any interesting piercings or tattoos?

My paternal grandparents have both passed and I have tattoos commemorating them, one for each of them. Gwen and Bucky, they were together for 70 years. I think of them every day. 

Hidden talent?

I can play a song on a conch horn. When I was 10 we lived on a boat for a year, in the Bahamas and there wasn’t much else for me to do. 

What did the folks do?

My mom was a chemist and she took early retirement the year we lived on the boat. My dad was an engineering consultant with Dupont. 

What was your best birthday?

Oh, I’ve had a lot of good ones, but I’d say the best one was in 2nd grade. I had a Spice Girls themed birthday party. My parents hung a sheet in the basement to use as a backdrop so we could take pictures in front of it. My friends and I dressed up like it was a photo shoot complete with makeup and hair. [Laughing] My favorite was Ginger Spice, so there are pictures of me somewhere in a black leather get-up! I’d say that was the best birthday ever. Very memorable. 

Well, maybe that can be the theme of the next fundraiser once this pandemic subsides. A Montco Spice Girls soiree.

I love it!