West Michigan Pride Celebrates 25 Years

By |2013-05-23T09:00:00-04:00May 23rd, 2013|Michigan, News|

By Carol Tanis

Grand Rapids was represented at the 1993 March on Washington.

In celebration of its 25th Anniversary, West Michigan Pride is returning to its roots and also adding a parade this year. Pride will be held on the Calder Plaza, June 15 from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m., and a “Parade of Pride” will take place the following day, June 16 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
“It all started downtown at Rosa Parks Circle and the Calder so we thought it would be fitting if we brought the event back there for the 25th Anniversary,” said West Michigan Pride President Amy Tabor. “It’s so exciting.”
New this year is a charge of a $1 to enter the festival. “It’s always been free or visitors could drop a donation in a jar, said Tabor. “But we decided to charge one dollar because it costs a lot of money to put Pride on every year and I don’t think a dollar is too much. I think most people can afford that.”
Tabor said as in recent years, they’re expecting to have approximately 100 booths sponsored by local nonprofit, gay-supportive groups, as well booths featuring small businesses and vendors with items and souvenirs available for purchase. Sandwiches, snacks and beer will be for sale on site.
The festival will kick off with an opening ceremony followed by on-stage entertainment featuring a wide range of music genres including rock, hip-hop, jazz, blues, folk, Broadway and show tunes. The community choir In Harmony will also perform. Following tradition, the program will close with drag-show acts and the ever-popular local group Rev. Charles and The PotatoBabies.
Tabor admits some people have been unhappy about returning West Michigan Pride downtown to the Calder for this year because of its tendency to be hot in summer. Through the years the event has been held in various locations. Aside from downtown, Pride has been held at Ah-Nab-Awen Park, near the John Ball Zoo on Grand Rapids’ west side, and in 2010 it moved to Riverside Park by the Grand River. With its ample parking and shade trees, Riverside Park was a favorite of some. “I know some people have said that it will be too hot at Calder Plaza, but many other festivals are held there throughout the summer and lots of people still come,” said Tabor. Organizers also like the idea of the festival being more visible to the community as opposed to being somewhat hidden.
Visibility, as well as the Anniversary celebration are the inspiration for a parade this year. Tabor said corporate sponsors, in particular, are being encouraged to have a float or some kind presence in the parade, which will make its way around a large city block starting from Calder Plaza. “There are so many corporations that sponsor us, but then they don’t show themselves,” said Tabor. “We’d like them to have something in the parade to show that they’re in support of us. Herman Miller will have a truck in the parade.”
Blaine Ubelhor who’s in charge of the parade said the event will be a historic moment for the community. “With equal rights, victories in marriage equality, benefits for same sex couples, the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell, and the election of progressive politicians who support our struggle, we thought this was the right time to celebrate with a parade. We’ve come a long way in this conservative part of the country and we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished,” he said.
The Grand Marshalls of the Pride Parade are Ed Ladner and Milt Lennox, former owners The Apartment Lounge in Grand Rapids, which is the state’s oldest continually operating gay and lesbian friendly bar. The couple has been together 49 years and has supported West Michigan Pride from its beginning.
Individuals may walk in the parade and a prize will be given for the most creative outfit. Men may be shirtless and women must at least wear a bikini top. Proper bottoms or pants must be worn at all times. Any outfit deemed inappropriate by West Michigan Pride will not be permitted to join the parade.
Also new this year will be a pub crawl starting at 6 p.m. on Friday, June, 14 featuring the gay-friendly bars: Diversions, Rumors, Pub 443 and The Apartment Lounge.

Rooted In History

Tabor said with greater acceptance, passage of antidiscrimination laws and marriage equality, attendance at West Michigan Pride has grown over time. In 2009 there were about 2,500 at the festival and in the last two years approximately 11,000 went through the gate – a huge number compared to the first Pride held in Grand Rapids in 1988.
Rev. Bruce Roller says the inspiration to launch a Pride Festival in West Michigan came during a visit he, his partner at the time and Dennis Komack and Jeff Swanson made to Washington D.C. for gay pride event in 1987. Inspired by the speakers and thousands of gays and lesbians gathered on the mall, they agreed they had “to do something like this in Grand Rapids.”
The following summer they and others organized a rally in the amphitheater downtown featuring speakers including ministers from local churches. He estimates about 100 people were in the audience. “We had about eight or nine members of the clergy on stage who spoke wearing their collars and showing their support. It was amazing,” said Roller.
He recalls that local gays and lesbians were fired up about the event but many were fearful about being seen. “I remember there were some who showed up wearing big hats or carried books and newspapers to shield their faces when the media showed up,” said Roller.
Through the years the festival grew and while protestors were always present in the early decades holding signs and sometimes heckling speakers, the number of protestors gradually declined while the number of people attending the Pride steadily increased.
As one who helped organize the first Pride festival, Roller smiles when he thinks about how far the event has come. “It’s probably the proudest thing in my life. To think that I was in the right place at the right time, among the right people, and that we were able to sow a seed that has germinated so beautifully. This is completely unbelievable. I’m proud of what gay people have done for themselves, and how we’ve reached out and gained our families and our friends as allies. It’s pride, that in spite of all the obstacles and barriers, lesbians and gays have made these kinds of strides. The times are a changing!”
In addition to the celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the Pride festival in Grand Rapids, West Michigan Pride Board President Amy Tabor said there’s more news. West Michigan Pride is proud to announce that it is going to merge with the LGBT Network in Grand Rapids. At one point in the past West Michigan Pride separated from The Network, forming its own board and establishing its own office. “We’re very pleased to let everyone know that at the conclusion of the festival, Pride will be handled by the Network in the future. The two operated as one in the past and we thought now would be a good time for Festival operations to be merged into The Network again,” said Tabor. The Network’s office is located at 343 Atlas Ave. SE in Grand Rapids’ East Town neighborhood.

For more information about West Michigan Pride 2013 visit Pride’s Facebook page or http://www.grlgbt.org.

About the Author:

Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.