On the Edge of Adulthood, Abigail Rowe Looks Ahead to Life Beyond Her Grassroots Pride Fest

Abigail’s Pride put Ortonville on the map as a safe destination for small-town queer kids

Sarah Bricker Hunt

Before 18-year-old Abigail Rowe heads off to Saginaw Valley State University for college, where she’ll major in public administration and theater, she wants to ensure the grassroots festival she founded at age 14 is in good hands.

Those hands belong to a dedicated group of supporters and admirers in small-town Ortonville who have vowed to maintain the myriad details required to keep the annual festival afloat. Rowe has reason to trust her community members, many of whom stood up and vocally supported her at meetings in March, when the local town council voted to deny an event permit to Abigail’s Pride, the non-profit she created to support her annual festival of the same name. That support was critical at a time when Rowe tells Pride Source she felt “beyond disappointed.” 

“There are still some things I’m kind of bummed about,” she says in early May, about a month from the 2024 festival, set for June 1, which she will host in a park outside of town instead of along Ortonville’s quaint Main Street. The event has been held there for the past two years, free from safety incidents or significant impacts to town commerce, issues the council claims it was trying to mitigate when members voted down the permit 4-2.

Prior to the denial, which both “surprised and did not surprise” her, Rowe had been writing the annual speech she presents at the opening of each festival. “It was really sentimental,” she shares. “It was about how I’m so happy about this town and support that I’ve received from this community, but now it feels more divided. It’s not actually support from the whole town, and that’s sad.”

Ortonville resident Carol Ulman, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, told Pride Source, “It was very moving to see the amount of residents from this community willing to turn out at the village meeting and want to support Abby and her cause.” Ulman is “grateful and thankful” nearby Brandon Township was able to work with Abigail’s Pride on a new location.

Rowe has since pivoted from the sting of rejection and the feeling that the whole world was watching how she would react to the council’s decision. “Moving on!” she says. “I’m really, really excited for the festival. I feel like the new venue, Brandon Township Community Park, opens doors for us to do things that I’ve been wanting to do for the past two years that we couldn’t do safely. We’re gonna have things like bounce houses for kids to just jump in — they’re gonna love it.” 

Providing local kids a moment of joy has always been at the heart of why Rowe has poured so much into the annual festival. Almost immediately after coming out to her parents as bisexual at age 14, Rowe started planning an event where kids who, like her, often felt ostracized and unwelcome in conservative-leaning Ortonville in northwest Oakland County, could have a day to just exist in a peaceful, affirming and loving environment.

“I really just wanted to go to a Pride festival,” she recalls. “I wanted to meet all the people and know that all of the people there are safe to talk to, but I was 14 and I couldn’t just go to Ferndale or Detroit or Grand Rapids where they have these big Pride festivals. I couldn’t drive or ask my parents to drive me to a festival I didn’t know anything about. I realized there are probably a lot of kids who can’t make it out there, so we needed something here, somewhere where we can see people from our own school, and then we’d know who was safe at school, too.”

Rowe’s mom, Beth, has been her number-one fan and supporter from the start. “It's always been easy to support Abby in this venture,” Beth says. “She has always been so driven and focused on what she wants to do. I'm just here to tell her she can do anything and everything she wants. That's the easy part.”

Not so easy is watching her daughter face down detractors who can be downright cruel. “The hardest part of my job is watching and trying to protect her from the awful things people say,” Beth says. “She has been attacked by her peers, community leaders, and strangers who know nothing about her. I just want to sweep her away and stop all of it sometimes. But I know she would have none of that.”

1 Abigail Rowe AP 13
Abigail Rowe. Photo: Andrew Potter

Rowe is gratified that her festival has impacted the real lives of other students. She recounts an experience a fellow student shared with her about moving to Ortonville as a high school student: “This person wanted to move in with their dad and stepmom, but they were in Ortonville, and they had heard Ortonville is homophobic,” she says. “They didn’t want to go school here and deal with the negative vibe they thought our town had toward LGBTQ+ people, but after the first Pride festival, they decided they were going to come spend the summer with their dad and test out the waters, to make sure they felt safe to come here. Because of the festival. And that makes me cry, hearing that our festival helps kids see that there are other people like them or people who can support them here.”

“I don’t think anybody who tells me these stories understands how much it means to me,” she adds. 

Rowe says she frequently hears from people who ask why “people need to hear about it.” “People wonder why it is important to have education about LGBTQ+ people,” she says. “On that front, my favorite story is about my dad.”

Rowe says that before she came out, her dad sometimes expressed homophobic views, a painful emotional experience. “So I came out, and we didn’t talk about it at all, the two of us. He didn’t say anything nasty to me, but just didn’t talk about it,” she recalls. “I think he didn’t know what to do. I told him what I was doing with the festival and he was just like, ‘That’s cool.’”

Soon after she came out, the family traveled together to a nearby country fair, “and he took off his hoodie, and underneath he had a t-shirt that said ‘Proud Ally’ in rainbow colors,” Rowe recalls, tearing up. “Well. I’ve never cried so much at a fair. It just meant so much to me, and I wondered why all the sudden did that change, and it’s because he wasn’t homophobic because he had any good reason to be — it was because he had no idea what he was talking about. And then somebody started telling him how it is — somebody started educating him, and it was me. I was educating him, and then he clicked and he was like, ‘She’s the same kid that she was before I knew.’” 

Abigail Rowe. Photo: Andrew Potter
Abigail Rowe. Photo: Andrew Potter

“She is such an inspiration to myself and to others,” Ulman told Pride Source during the Ortonville saga. “She has been an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community and has done it with grace and compassion while hate has been aimed towards her and her supporters.” 

While Rowe is wistful about leaving behind her “baby,” she’s also ready to step forward as a young adult, away from Ortonville and the inherent pressures of organizing a huge community event as a high school student, an experience she says has been stressful and, at times, “freaky.”

“It can be hard for me to be the person facing the entire town,” she notes. “And lately, it’s been much bigger than the entire town. It’s people from everywhere. I’m on the news and doing interviews for magazines, and that’s kind of a freaky feeling. Sometimes, I realize I need to take a step back and just be a normal teenager.”

Rowe pauses and looks away. “...I don’t actually get a lot of opportunities to do that,” she says, finally, but quickly follows up: “And that’s fine! This is the path I’ve chosen for myself because I love it and I love doing this. It’s just sometimes I have to say, ‘I’m not doing this right now.’ Like that week when everything kind of crumbled with the village was the week I was doing my last performance, and it was too much.” Rowe is a musical theater actor with her school’s drama club, an activity that has kept her connected to other LGBTQ+ students over the years.

In the big picture, Rowe says it all balances out. “It’s a lot of pressure, for sure, but then there’s also massive rewards that come with it, and I think that means it’s worth it, for me,” she says.

Still, with college just around the corner, Rowe is excited to begin a new chapter. “I am ready to get out. I gotta get out of here,” she says, though she also seems to wrestle with a twinge of guilt. “I live in Ortonville,” she says, carefully. “Because I live in Ortonville, a very small town, most if not all of the people at my school are ready to get out, too, and it makes me sad that they can’t all get out, too. They are why we even do this festival.”

“Really, who doesn’t want to just have fun?” she adds. “I refuse to believe there are people out there who don’t enjoy having fun. We all eat the same food. We all drink the same kinds of drinks. We walk on two feet and speak the same language. There’s no difference except for who I want to spend my life with and who I love, and that’s not a negative thing.”

Rowe plans to be involved with Abigail’s Pride throughout college, but mostly, she’s handing over the reins to support staff like her mom and her social media manager Tara, who helped shield Rowe from some of the most vicious Facebook and Instagram comments that poured in during the controversy with the town council. “I’ve had many conversations with my mom about how I don’t want to let down the kids here,” she says. “I don’t want it to be like, ‘She moved away and we never had it again.’”

In fact, Rowe plans to tie her college endeavors to a long future with Abigail’s Pride, noting that her chosen major, public administration, could help her gain skills she can apply to expand her non-profit. She plans to enroll in a program that will lead to both a bachelor’s and her MPA degree in five years. “And then, 10 years from now, my dream is to have Abigail’s Pride running to the point where it’s my career. I’m certainly not going to make a bunch of money, but that isn’t the goal,” she says. “I just don’t want to have to do anything else. This is the thing that I learned that I love, and I would love to do this for the rest of my life.”

Rowe dreams of having a brick-and-mortar location for Abigail’s Pride, a place where local LGBTQ+ youth and allies can be together in a small town — maybe Ortonville, but she’s open to other locations. “It would just have maybe a little library, a place to watch movies in a room with a bunch of couches where if you need to go take a nap, go lay down,” she says, describing the vision in her head. “We’ll run programs and have therapists that we pay so you don’t have to pay to go to therapy, and peer counselors to be able to help kids who can’t get parental consent for licensed therapists. People you can just go talk to.” 

Rowe’s mom has no doubt Abigail will achieve her goal. “She is a strong woman who is about to change the world,” she says. “I am so proud of Abby for always keeping her goals in mind and not letting the negativity get to her.” 

In the meantime, Rowe is grateful she can rely on her supporters to support her first big dream, the one she had at the age of 14 — to create a safe, affirming event for local LGBTQ+ kids where they would feel loved and accepted. “It means I can move on with my life, like a normal person would, while still trusting that there’s someone to… I don’t know — this is my baby, so it’s helps me to know that there are people who are gonna take care of it when I’m gone.”