Brown Island was dotted with colorful rainbow flags and clothing as Richmond celebrated VA PrideFest 2017 this past Saturday. Thousands of LGBT members and allies attended the Commonwealth’s largest Pride festival.
“When I was a teenager I felt stuck in self-guilt and hate about my sexuality and now I’m here I am 20 years later watching teenagers fully embrace themselves,” said Jennifer Bloomington, a pride participant.
Bloomington and her partner were raised in Richmond and moved to Maryland after college.
“We (Bloomington and her partner) often think about how lucky we are to witness the growth of LGBTQ identities in our lifetime, how many kids are embracing themselves — how many other people like this went their entire lives without seeing this?”
Among the attendees was Mayor Levar Stoney, who echoed Bloomington’s statement.
“I don’t think if we look back 10, 20 years that this sort of display of diversify would’ve occurred,” Stoney said. “But now, I hold it up as an example of why Richmond is great for anyone. No matter who you love, who you pray to, what color your skin may be.”
PrideFest, a nonprofit, featured dozens of vendors and included sponsors like Capital One, Altria Theater Group and Wells Fargo. The latter funded the organization’s $8,000 scholarship to reimburse the financial costs of the 2017-2018 school year to one LGBTQ+ student who has made significant contributions to their community.
“You know, Pride started as protests, it started with gay and trans women of color at Stone Wall throwing rocks so seeing the interest of large companies in investing in Pride is problematic but also shows something is changing,” said Manon Loustaunau community engagement coordinator at HI Richmond Hostel.
In her role Loustaunau hopes to encourage queer travelers to feel more safe traveling into southern America, despite the current legal, political and social hostilities surrounding rights of LGBT people.
“Richmond is the gateway to the South so it’s important that the hostel fosters an inclusive environment,” Loustaunau said. “As a queer person I know it’s scary but if people see this (pride) and are in a safe environment like the hostel we can open up entire parts of the world for LGBTQ travelers.”
Organizations such as the Human Rights Watch were present at the festival to provide handy information to people on how to be an ally, how to come out and where to find resources as an LGBT person. It reminded attendees that pride is about just about embracing and creating community for people of various sexual orientations and gender identities as it is about raising awareness of issues faced by the community.
Joy Heaton manned the Quaker’s Friend Society booth, acknowledging that despite fraught relationships between religious organizations and the queer community, the Quakers, or Friends as they call themselves, is historically radically progression.
“They’ve been feminists from the 1800s,” Heaton said. “From the very beginning every single person should be treated with dignity.”
Heaton joined the Quaker church six years ago after being rejected from the church herself.
“I was trying to gently lead the church into being more open to LGBTQ so they fired me.”
In addition to being a minister for the Quaker church, Heaton also works at VCU’s Department of Alumni Relations.
“I remember when Pride in Richmond was just a small thing held behind Diversity Thrift Shop,” said D Tremaine Nelson, a longtime LGBT activist based in Richmond. “But just because we are growing in support doesn’t mean it’s all great and we’re done fighting, I’m interested in fixing my community because it does need fixing.”
Nelson said that his identity as a black gay man and experience as an activist makes him aware of racial and class divisions among the LGBT community. He rejects the idea that there is automatic unity in oppression and points out that hierarchies continue to exist in the LGBT community. In order to dismantle homophobia in people’s day-to-day lives outside of large festivities Nelson said it’s necessary to address these issues since “making progress doesn’t mean we have to don’t have to do more.”
The festival included a slew of performances and the festivities reached far beyond Brown Island, as the city celebrated pride in other locations including like, Godfreys and Babes of Carytown. PrideFest itself featured a drag show with Aja from Ru Paul’s Drag Show and ended Saturday evening with a DJ dance part from Dollz Entertainment LLC.
Deanna Danger, the Richmond-based and internationally recognized burlesque dancer, helped in organizing some pride events.
“In my time in Richmond since 2003 it’s (LGBTQ culture) become more accepted but I do hope to see more queer-oriented events in the future events.”
Among the many people who attended PrideFest were straight-cis allies, like Dylan Cunningham. He founded a nonprofit organization called the Celtic Knot Project which works to support equality for and positivity in people who aren’t traditionally accepted into society.
Cunningham attended his first pride this year in ordering support his friends who do identify as queer.
“That’s what our society needs right now, unconditional support.” Cunningham said.
As Bloomington noted early in the day, young people were out in droves during PrideFest both as LGBT people and allies: among them were Wesley and Alex, who asked for their last names to be withheld for privacy concerns.
Wesley came out as transgender when he was 16. Alex knew she was gay when she was 13, but only recently realized it was okay to identify as queer. They discussed their opinions on the state of the country amidst political turmoil on LGBTQ+ rights.
“I feel our election doesn’t represent our mindset of the general community,” Alex said. “(Trump is) going backwards and our community is going forwards.”
Wesley also shared his thoughts on the president’s ban on transgenders in the military.
“I’ve never felt like I didn’t have rights.” Wesley said. “I thought about it and it’s like I’m not an equal citizen in that sense.”
Despite the apprehension shared by some attendees during PrideFest, many also agreed it provided a safe space to fully celebrate queer culture and the spectrum LGBTQ+ sexualities and fluid gender.
“Now, the way people come dressed to Pride we can see them dressing like that in their everyday lives and that shows a huge, unexpected progress in the ten years since I’ve attended Pride in Richmond and across the country,” Nelson said.
Emiley Bagalawis Contributing Writer
Siona Peterous Spectrum Editor