By B.J. Reichert Special to Between The Lines
GRAND RAPIDS – Sarah Hunt gazed into McKenzie Hill’s eyes as if they were the only people on earth. Little did it matter that more than a dozen other lesbian and gay couples surrounded them, each bathed in their own sweat as they took part in a mass commitment ceremony June 17 at West Michigan Pride 2006.
“We’re together forever,” said Hunt, 19, a student at Aquinas College, a Catholic school in Grand Rapids. Then she reached over to take her new partner’s hand. “As long as we both live.”
“She’s beautiful,” said Hill, also 19.
Just 15 feet away, another Grand Rapids couple held each other in a far more familiar embrace. After celebrating their 25th anniversary Dec. 22, Mickey Sikanas, 50, and Hall Chrysler, 66, stepped forward at Pride to again share their commitment vows.
“It’s important to make a political statement,” Sikanas said.
As different as the two couples are, they stood united as West Michigan Pride celebrated its 18th year.
This year, organizers moved the event from its downtown Calder Plaza venue to a much more spacious and scenic space at John Ball Park. The larger venue allowed for more than 50 booth participants, ranging from service organizations to retailers to food vendors. A beer tent and live stage helped keep the ample crowd in a celebratory mood.
“This venue has been a blessing,” Pride chairperson Mike Mello said. “We have every bit as good a turnout as we have in the past few years.” Mello said official attendance results would not be available until midweek.
Counted among those supporters was Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, who officially declared June 17 as “Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Persons Pride Day in Grand Rapids.” While the mayor’s schedule did not allow him to attend the event, his official certificate of proclamation called for “the need for dialogue in our city with regard to these (LGBT) and related issues.”
With Grand Rapids being well known as a conservative hotbed in the Midwest, Mello said there were no discouraging incidents as event-goers made their way peacefully across John Ball Park and through the rainbow-adorned Pride gates.
“We’ve had a few protests in the past,” Mello said, “but right now we just have tremendous community support.”
Through months of planning and fundraising, Mello and his volunteer staff pulled together a 10-hour event that began with a worship ceremony and ended with a night of dancing. In between were indie folk musicians, square dancers, a cabaret, country line dancing, a drag show and the Rumors Night Club circuit show.
Many event-goers braved the 95-degree heat as they hugged old friends, shopped the various booths or rested with their children under a shade tent. Bare-chested men took advantage of the sun, as did participants in a fundraiser’s dunk tank.
One noticeably hot participant was Clif Nash, better known as the reigning Mr. Michigan Leather. Nash, a 39-year-old from Grand Rapids, was easy to spot as he sported his studded leather sash and trademark black leather hat. To escape the heat, Nash left the heavy leather jacket at home and instead chose a cotton tank top.
As he walked the grounds mingling with event-goers, it was obvious Nash was proud of his hometown.
“It’s one of the best things we have going on here,” Nash said. “It’s a place where people can just be themselves.”
Mello summed up his feelings in an open letter printed in the event brochure: “Pride is about more than one person or organization; it is about all of us working together to show the beauty of our diversity and the strength of our unity. Pride brings us all together to celebrate our vital and powerful contribution to West Michigan.”
Major sponsors of West Michigan Pride include: Rumors Night Club, Diversions Night Club, West Side Beer Distributing, Apartment Lounge, Diplomat Specialty Pharmacy, Marie Catrib’s, Buddz’, Countrywide Home Loans, Flags Unlimited, Grand Rapids Community College.