ST. LOUIS – Greg Lynch stood along Market Street surrounded by an energetic group of parade-goers, most of them 20 years his junior and beyond. But as he stood with a rainbow Pride flag in hand and an introspective look on his face, the parade seemed to mean a little more to him than to some of his younger counterparts.
“It’s like being on the other side of the mirror for me,” he said. “It’s like another world. It’s a world I never thought I would be part of. I’m just thankful that I am.”
This world of proud, openly LGBT people gathering by the tens of thousands in a fully party atmosphere is a long way from the first Pride event in 1980. Lynch said he had attended that one, too.
“I wanted to be in public, but I was still in the closet,” he recalled, “and it was a real struggle to try to be proud and yet being ashamed at the same time. It takes a toll.”
In the decades that have followed, acceptance for gay people has come more easily, marriage has been legalized, and, in many places, discrimination based on sexual orientation has been made a crime. It all allows for a parade down the city’s main thoroughfare without judgment from the crowd or worry for the participants. LGBT rights have come a long way.
“My whole world has changed,” Lynch said. “When I was a child, the people that I loved the most had nothing good to say about gay people. And I knew that I was one of them. So, this is like a dream happening, to be able to walk in the street. I was recently married. I never thought any of that would happen in my life.”
For the younger set in the massive downtown crowd, the parade is not something to take for granted, yet it is something they have always had.
Every year in June, Pride St. Louis hosts its annual PrideFest in downtown St. Louis, featuring musical artists, hundreds of vendors along with the colorful procession down Market. It was moved here from Tower Grove Park in 2013 because the crowds had gotten so big. It’s something many would not have imagined at the first PrideFest in 1980.
The big crowd shrugged off temperatures in the 90s. Before the parade at noon, St. Louisans and others young and old – many decked out in Pride flags and rainbow outfits – milled about the festival.
With a multitude of activities to choose from, they were free to play games, visit their favorite vendor booths and snack on kettle corn or other festival fare. Many had arrived early to stake out the best spots along the parade route.
Once there, the exuberance could be felt in the joyful shouts to every passing group on the parade route.
Gavin Kelly was attending the event for the first time.
“It’s amazing. I feel so free to be with my people and just experience it and be with my friends and just have fun, and everyone can feel free to be themselves, whoever you want to be,” he said.
And the party is hardly limited to LGBTD people. Participants were just out for their friends and the fun, with many holding no thought about sexual orientation one way or the other.
“I just love supporting my friends,” Jay Miles said. “I’m not gay myself, but I love being supportive, and this is just such a great cause and I love it.”
This year’s PrideFest was extra-special, as it marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in New York. In 1969, altercations between police and gays came to a head in Greenwich Village when patrons at the Stonewall Inn fought back against harassment by the police. The incident is now widely considered the birth of the modern gay rights movement.
To honor the Stonewall uprising, this year’s PrideFest featured an exhibit about Stonewall’s history. There were also two memorials at the festival: one honoring fallen transgender people and one honoring those who have died from AIDS.
Other features this year were a children’s zone with all sorts of fun for the kids, and an interfaith prayer service on Sunday.
Just because the main festival has moved downtown doesn’t mean that the traditional Tower Grove Park event has disbanded. On the contrary, a day earlier in Tower Grove, a sea of people converged to celebrate what many still believe is St. Louis’ more traditional Pride gathering.
Man who come here say the afternoon in the park is the better way to spend the Pride weekend, even if the parade and larger festival downtown, with their ever-growing mainstream appeal, get more attention.
“Downtown is still very busy, so I think it’s good to have a little bit of the overflow here in the park,” Pride regular Michael Holly said. “I like this setting better than being on the asphalt downtown.”
Southsider and MetroSTL.com publisher Antonio French was manning a booth, handing out copies of the newspaper. French is no stranger to Pride events from his days in city politics, and he said the Tower Grove event always had a special feel.
“I’ve been participating in Pride since the downtown Pride was over here in south St. Louis,” French recalled. “The organization and community people kept it going here in Tower Grove Park even after it went downtown, and I think that’s great. We’re always here to support that.”
For some, however, it was an entirely new experience. Meredith Bousman said a number of life changes had drawn her to the festival.
“I’ve recently come out as (polysexual) and (pansexual), and I have a lot of friends who are LGBTQ, and I figured this was a good way to support them. And I’ve got friends whose children are transgender, so I’m out giving mom hugs today,” she said pointing to her “Free Mom Hugs” T-shirt.
“Everybody’s happy to be here. Everybody’s really in a good mood, and that’s wonderful to see. I haven’t seen anyone that doesn’t feel safe, and that’s important,” she said. “I love being part of a community that’s nonjudgmental.”
Samantha Auch contributed to this report.