Kalamazoo Pride, a two-day festival celebrating southwest Michigan’s LGBTQ community, was at Arcadia Creek Festival Place June 7 to 8. Between The Lines spent the second day at the park, and spoke with individuals while they staffed vendor tables, enjoyed the entertainment, perused the merchandise or simply chilled out in the shade on that very sunny day. Here are just four of those stories.
“We’re so happy, and we’re so proud,” said Grayson Valenti, office manager of OutFront Kalamazoo and one of the organizers of Kalamazoo Pride. OutFront is the LGBTQ community center that benefits from the proceeds of the event. “My co-worker went up on stage yesterday to look at the crowd and it was incredible. We’re just so happy that everything’s running smoothly and everybody seems to be having a great time.”
Valenti isn’t the only one who remarked on the huge crowd Friday night. The event overall was the largest in Kalamazoo Pride’s history.
“This is such a big community event and we have people coming from out of state — even Indiana and Ohio — just to come to Kalamazoo Pride,” Valenti said. “It’s so incredible.”
Maime Butler, an OutFront board member who also helped organize the festival agreed.
“I think sometimes we think that Kalamazoo Pride is small, it’s just going to be serving Kalamazoo people, and we know everybody here. But I think this year proved that Kalamazoo Pride is so much more impactful than for just Kalamazoo people,” she said. “And I think that’s a pretty big deal. I give a lot of props to OutFront staff and the Executive Director Denise Miller. They worked really, really hard to get this to be successful and I think they have gone above and beyond that.”
Valenti was on the volunteer steering committee, ordered supplies for the event and was responsible for coordinating the vendors along with another OutFront staff member. He was impressed by the number of vendors and sponsors as well. He also remarked on the community support, as did Butler.
“I think in the year of the Trump Administration, the year of the United Methodist Church deciding not to have gay marriages, I think it is so important that the people who showed up today are sending a message not only locally, but to the United States, that we’re here,” Butler said. “We love ourselves, and we love our family. Even the allies that are here … I think that is the most important thing that people can do right now with what is going on in the United States is to back each other, and to support LGBTQ+ people.”
It’s not unusual to see allies attending Pride festivals in support of their LGBTQ friends and family, or just there to have a good time in an inclusive, welcoming space. But to witness an ally mom in tears at Kalamazoo Pride who was there to celebrate her transgender daughter who currently lives out of state and did not attend the festival was something that stood out. Ellen Swarts and Sorina Swarts-Kinsey came from Sturgis, Michigan, at the Indiana border to attend Kalamazoo Pride this year. BTL spoke with the two ally family members once they finished loading up with pride merchandise from one of the vendor tables.
“My sister is transgender,” said Swarts-Kinsey. “She lives in LA, doing her dream job,” where she is “very socially accepted.”
“Los Angeles was so much easier for her to move to because of the openness and the inclusivity,” her mother added.
When asked what it was like experiencing Kalamazoo Pride on behalf of her daughter, Swarts, who sported a rainbow temporary tattoo, teared up. Her daughter began, “This is really hopeful,” Swarts-Kinsey said. “I’m gonna say that I hope that this is the world that she gets to live in all the time. It’s sad that we have to wait for it to come around once a year.”
“Yes,” Swarts said. “She only came out about a year and a half ago. And it was very, very hard. And that breaks my heart.” She paused, and added through tears, “’cause I love her no matter what. Everybody else should, too.”
The Candidate for Congress
As an LGBTQ elected official running for higher office who was working the crowd at a Pride festival in his hometown, state Rep. Jon Hoadley (D-Kalamazoo) could not have been more in his element. He stepped away from his very busy booth to talk pride and politics with BTL.
“I love Kalamazoo Pride,” Hoadley said. “It really draws in supporters, both LGBT people and allies from across southwest Michigan. It’s really an opportunity for everyone to come together and not only show up and show their support for equality but then the way they structure Kalamazoo Pride is the proceeds of the event benefit OutFront Kalamazoo,” he said, adding that having such a place to go for people who are faced with discrimination, harassment or are coming out “is still as important in 2019 as it was 50 years ago” — a reference to the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.
Hoadley announced his candidacy for U.S. Congress just a few months ago, and he spoke about that, too.
“It has been such an exciting time so far to run for Congress,” he said. “And I think we’re at a generational moment. Where there’s a number of big-picture issues that people are hungry for wholesale change and equality is one of them. It was not lost on me that when we had Democratic control of Congress … we are for the first time able to put the Equality Act up for a vote and pass it out of the U.S. House of Representatives. It was unfortunate that the current Representative for the 6th Congressional District in Southwest Michigan voted no and didn’t support fairness and equality,” he said, referring to Republican Congressman Fred Upton (MI-06). “And I think it is yet another example of where there is a clear difference in how we solve problems and the values that we share.”
Before Hoadley had to head back to the booth, he added a few thoughts about what makes Kalamazoo Pride is so special for him personally.
“One thing, for anyone that’s worked on a campaign, sometimes getting volunteer to help with a festival or a parade can be a bit of a challenge, but with Pride, it is the easiest piece,” Hoadley said. “So many young people are raising their hand, and so many people of all ages want to get involved, want to work the booth, want to connect with folks that are here. So, I think that’s incredible. I love seeing that energy on our campaign. And the other thing I’d say is Kalamazoo Pride marks the start of Sparkleberry season, so I always look forward to having a Sparkleberry beer here at Kalamazoo Pride,” he said, of the seasonal beverage offered by Bell’s Brewery, a major sponsor of the festival and whose Pride-style corporate flag flew over Arcadia Park along with the universal rainbow one.
Attending a Pride festival for the first time was Lily, a high school student there with two friends. With curly dark hair and glasses, Lily was the tallest of the trio, all of whom wore hand-painted T-shirts and flags around their shoulders.
“It’s very interesting,” Lily said when asked to comment on the Pride experience. “I wasn’t ever sure what it was because I had just — I had always heard, ‘Hey, there’s Pride downtown.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘Oh, yeah, it’s a festival where all of us get together.’ ‘What happens there?’ And here I am! I’ve got my trans flag and my button.
“It’s honestly very fun to just be here, and I actually saw somebody I didn’t expect to see,” Lily continued. “And it’s just interesting seeing everybody in one place. And I love it. I’m following the two experienced ones here like a lost duckling. It’s very fun.”