Heartland Youth Pride to honor change-maker Eli Rigatuso

OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT)-- June 28 marks 50 years since the Stonewall riots which jump-started the gay rights movement. This year, Heartland Youth Pride celebrates a change-maker in their own community.

Eli Rigatuso has always seen himself as an advocate, ever since he was young.

"Especially being honored with the Martha P. Johnson award. She is an icon," Rigatuso said.

It's hard for Rigatuso to keep his composure when talking about this award from Heartland Youth Pride.

"To be given an award with her name on it is truly an honor," he said.

Marsha P. Johnson is revered in the LGBTQIAPlus community as a change-maker.

"She is a black transgender woman who was there at Stonewall at the beginning of the riots," Rigatuso said. "And she was one of the first people to shout no and push back."

Pushing back and fighting to be himself is something Rigatuso knows a lot about. It wasn't until he was 50 he came out as transgender.

"I don't regret coming out as transgender — it changed my life," Rigatuso said.

Tena Hahn Rodriguez, entertainment director for Heartland Pride, said Rigatuso is a change-maker in his own right.

He started a Facebook page called "Speaking of Happy." It's aimed at spreading happiness and positivity, not only to the LGBTQIAPlus community but everyone.

"Eli absolutely sets an example for the youth of tomorrow. He does so much fundraising for other folks," Rodriguez said. "Just recently a young trans person needed a wig and Eli just took charge of that whole thing."

Rigatuso's take-charge attitude is what won him the Martha P. Johnson award and what drives him to keep looking to the future.

"To see where we've come from when I was standing on the sideline in 1988 to where we are now in 2019 is amazing," Rigatuso said. "It's absolutely amazing, but we still have so much further to go."

Heartland Pride Parade starts at 10 a.m. June 29 in the Old Market.

This year, 84 groups will be taking part.