By Sarah Mieras
GRAND RAPIDS – More than 3,000 people turned out Saturday for a hot celebration of the West Michigan LGBT community. The 19th annual event showed steady growth in attendance, drawing folks from throughout Grand Rapids and the lakeshore.
According to organizers a wrist band count indicated attendance at this year’s event was up more than 500, marking a steady growth pattern for the West Michigan Pride over the last few years.
Aside from record attendance, the festival, which was open in the heart of the city at John Ball Park Zoo from 2 to 10 p.m. experienced a number of other “firsts.” As the festival gates opened attendants were welcomed on the main stage by the Mayor of Grand Rapids, George Heartwell. Later, the entrance gate was flanked by protesters waving bibles and shouting anti-gay slogans.
“It’s funny but the protestors showing up makes us a real pride event,” said event chair Mike Mello. “At any big pride event there are always protestors. At the time, the fact that we don’t get more of them is really a testimony to how far this community has come in its understanding and acceptance of LGBT people.”
Tony Wolfram, President of the Gay and Lesbian Network of West Michigan, which sponsors the event, said a major focus in the planning of the event has been making it visible to the wider community in West Michigan.
“We moved it to the Zoo to make it more visible to the community. People come to the Zoo all the time, so here we get more integration with the wider community,” said Wolfram. “We were thrilled to see protestors too! It means that our message is getting out there beyond the LGBT community.”
Like many Pride events throughout the state this month, attendants and organizers of West Michigan Pride see the day as a celebration of the talents and diversity of the LGBT community. In an area of the state hailed as conservative, the message of acceptance and diversity is especially important.
“For people who are just coming out especially, I think they can come here and see that another generation of people have been accepted for who they are,” said volunteer Beth Meabon. “They can see it’s a big community out here. You might not see how many of us there are at your place of work, but it is here, and you can really see it at an event like this.”
Relaxing in the shade 15-year-old Jill VanDeussen and friends looked at the crowds walking by with wide eyes. Only one of them had attended a pride event before.
“Nothing like this could ever happen in Holland,” said VanDeussen, who lives on the lakeshore. “We just feel comfortable here. It’s great.”
The variety of people filing through the booths, hanging out in the sun on the lawn and listening to music said Mello served as a great example of the size and diversity of the West Michigan queer community.
“Pride is not about separation, it is really about unity. We really are a visible and viable contributors to this community, and it shows.”
As loose ends were tied up on Monday at the wrap up meeting, Mello noted the organizing committee got a head start on planning it’s 20th anniversary event next year.
“We already have a date. It will be Saturday, June 21, 2008, and it will be bigger and better than ever,” said Mello.