Thousands attended Grand Rapids Pride this weekend in celebration of its 30th anniversary, a significant mark of progress within the conservative-leaning community as evidenced by a lone protestor standing guard at the event’s entrance.
Shielded by a group of volunteers wielding rainbow umbrellas, Pride’s single Bible-thumping opponent was nothing more than an afterthought upon entering the festival. Previously held at John Ball Park – and later Riverside Park – Grand Rapids Pride celebrated 30 years in style by moving to the center of downtown at Calder Plaza and along Ottawa Avenue.
This year’s festival, titled “30 & Fabulous,” enlisted the talents of David Hernandez, Betty Who and En Vogue at the Calder Plaza main stage. Attendees were also treated to performances from local talent like drag queen Tequila Sanchez and the Circle Theatre cast of “Fun Home,” among others.
But it was the thousands of fabulous, queer, straight, fluid, intersex, allied and affirming attendees themselves who, like always, proved to be the main attraction of such Pride celebrations.
“My daughter came out this year, and I wanted to come here in support,” Pride attendee Jen Small told BTL. “I’m polyamorous and gender fluid. So, I’m like, I want to go! Let’s go!”
Small attended GR Pride with their best friend Jarrod Schaffer, who sported a Pride flag with a bear paw print symbolizing what he considers to be an alternative identity within the LGBTQ community.
“I’m here with my partner celebrating three-and-a-half years,” Schaffer said. “At the same time, I’m here as a voice for the community for those of us who aren’t in the closet but not necessarily exploiting it.”
“I want to show people that you can be masculine, that you can still be yourself, and that you don’t necessarily have to be a stereotypical gay guy,” he continued. “You can be proud of who you are and be proud of your community and support it – I’m here to break some of those walls.”
The reasons behind attending Pride were much simpler for others.
“Expression, love and a place to be accepted,” a woman named Al said.
Grand Rapids Pride also served as a platform for local LGBTQ businesses and vendors looking to gain exposure. At one tent, author Peter Kulas showcased artwork from his new sci-fi fantasy novel “Aberration,” which follows a cast LGBT-identifying characters.
“Aberration’ is defined as an abnormality,” Kulas said. “The premise is that in this societal structure, men can be born with telekinetic powers, and women are born with telepathy … and then if you’re gay, you can be born with both of them. So, it plays a twist on gender roles, gender concepts, gender identity and everything.”
At another tent, 3:11 Community Housing in Grand Rapids advertised their “safe and affordable” housing for youth aged 18 to 24 who are experiencing homelessness and/or have aged out of foster care.
Kayla Morgan, community liaison with 3:11 Community Housing, said that homelessness is an especially relevant issue with LGBTQ youth.
“We know the statistics and numbers,” Morgan said. “Youth who identify in the LGBTQ+ community are at higher rates of homelessness and abuse. We thought this would be the best place to get the word out that we’re in the city and that we can provide a safe place.”
Back at the Calder Main Stage, event organizers preceded the night’s entertainment with a presentation of this year’s Pride award for exemplary service to the LGBTQ+ community to Jason Skalandis, a volunteer with the Grand Rapids Pride Center.
“I didn’t even know if I was queer – I was so afraid I convinced myself I was because I wanted friends that badly,” Skalandis told the crowd in his acceptance speech. “The Grand Rapids Price Center was such a safe place for me to explore my identity. I got to interact with so many different people who had different ideas about gender and sexuality.”
“By the time I realized I was trans, I knew there wasn’t one way to be a man, not just one way to be trans,” Skalandis continued. “The Pride Center saved my life. I mean that very literally.”
Event organizers also recognized Tommy Allen with the 2018 Grand Rapids Pride Milt Lennox Community Award for his work in the LGBTQ community. Among his many credits, Allen is known as the first LGBTQ person to chair the Grand Rapids Community Relations Commission as well as the founder of the annual event “Love Wins” celebrating marriage equality.
“There were years where people would actively stand outside to try to stop you from coming to Pride,” Allen said as he reflected on 30 years of celebration. “To tell you you weren’t right, that there’s something wrong with you. There’s nothing wrong with you. You are unique and beautiful, and the planet needs every one of you, because what you bring forward is important.”
Proceeds from Grand Rapids Pride will go toward funding the Grand Rapids Pride Center. For more information on the center, please visit grpride.org.