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PrideFest turns 30

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 23, 2009 - The upcoming June 27-28 PrideFest in Tower Grove Park celebrates three decades of visibility -- a time span in which a sea change has taken place in the way others perceive the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, and in the way the community sees itself.

"In the first pride event, some people literally hid their faces in paper bags and behind masks," notes Kris Kleindienst, 56, LGBT-friendly bookstore owner and editor of the book "This Is What Lesbian Looks Like."

In 1979, after hearing about yearly events celebrating gay pride in cities like San Francisco and New York, St. Louisan Mark Asinger and others began planning St. Louis' first such occasion -- a week of dances, a roller skating party and a march that would lead them up the steps to Washington University's Brookings Hall.

Word of mouth and advertising flyers drew 500 people to the march, the largest assembly of gays and lesbians ever in St. Louis, their very presence announcing to each other and the world: "We are gay." Thousands more participated in the celebration's other events, including nightly celebrations at area gay and lesbian bars such as Clementine's, Faces and Herbie's.

"I felt like a real part of something, something I knew was bigger than any individual, and I knew that was only the beginning," Asinger, 51, remembers. "It was exhilarating."

"When we were going up the stairs in front of Washington University, people turned en masse and released their balloons," recalls Jim Thomas, 52, part of the organizing committee and founder of St. Louis' gay and lesbian newspaper. "This was totally spontaneous; it really was this beautiful moment."

Media coverage was "respectful," Asinger says, recalling several television and newspaper stories. An article headlined, "500 March in St. Louis," appeared on the inside pages of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, along with a photo of the crowd on the Wash U steps.

"Most articles about gay people in the paper back then were of arrests in the parks for solicitation," Asinger says. "This was a positive spin."


For the first few years, the pride festival was arranged by the two groups who started it: the Lesbian and Gay Organization for Acceptance and Liberation, and the Magnolia committee. As the event grew, it became clear a more organized body was needed to better handle the planning, fundraising and permit requests. In the early 1980s, the newly formed, non-profit St. Louis Pride Committee retained the Central West End march and Forest Park celebration locations for its PrideFests.

At that time, many St. Louisans planned their summers around the annual festival and march. More of a political statement about gay liberation than a party, PrideFest was by then drawing thousands of people not only from St. Louis but from across the state, the Midwest and the country. A small stage, informational booths and a bail-someone-out-of-jail-for-charity fundraiser dotted the park's festival area, but the main attraction was -- and perhaps still is -- the camaraderie.

But just as gays and lesbians began enjoying their relative openness, a new ailment hit the community: AIDS. Initially named Gay-Related Immune Disease or GRID, it was touted by the emerging religious right as a punishment for homosexual behavior.

Most people in the St. Louis gay community, including photographer Scott Lokitz, lost many loved ones to AIDS.

"More than I can count -- some as close as partners and others who were dear friends," Lokitz, 45, recalls.

With the death toll rising, pride organizers decided the event should take on a more festive atmosphere, with parade floats and entertainment.

"People were dying; times were hard. We needed something that was happy and celebratory," Thomas says.

The 1990s brought about the anti-retroviral drugs that meant the HIV virus and AIDS no longer equaled a death sentence and also ushered in other changes for PrideFest and the community.


The 1990s also saw the festival become a command performance event for St. Louis politicians. Shortly after Freeman Bosley Jr. became St. Louis' first black mayor in 1993, he joined the parade. His office later issued a proclamation making PrideFest an official festival.

Four years later, former police chief and new mayor Clarence Harmon continued the PrideFest tradition, which has also been kept by Mayor Francis Slay since his election in 2001. Today, dozens of politicians take part in the parade and meander through Tower Grove Park, shaking hands with a community whose support is now a valued commodity.

For many years, PrideFest organizers paid off-duty police officers who could protect the crowds with their presence but not their guns. But in 1995, after a festival-goer was attacked and injured, the city began providing police protection, according to 1994 Pride St. Louis President John Napoli, 47.

In 1998, as South Grand Avenue was becoming the new gay business district and, in many minds, the new Central West End, PrideFest moved to Tower Grove Park. Attendance, which had being growing steadily over the years, took a bigger leap, attracting more LGBT and even straight festival-goers. Today, it's not unusual to see male-female couples and their face-painted children strolling through the park, eating kabobs, buying jewelry from vendors and enjoying the music of PrideFest.

"The longer it goes on and the larger it gets, it has the effect of normalizing 'gay,' Kleindienst says. "It's really hard for anyone to say they don't know a gay person these days."


After bisexuals sought recognition, the initials LGB or GLB came into use. Soon, transgender people -- those who were born one gender but who feel inside that they are another -- lobbied for inclusion. In 1994, the St. Louis Pride Committee adopted the term LGBT. But controversy continues today about the community's makeup.

"There is a huge amount of resistance in the gay community to transgender people," says Kleindienst, whose partner is transgender. "The main issue that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people share is that we're universally despised and disenfranchised, and that should be enough, but people like to socialize with people just like them."

Transgender people have served on the Pride St. Louis board, including Michelle Smith, who was its secretary in 2008. Longtime community member Lisa Wagaman, who helped plan the first pride event, was the board secretary when she died in April.

But even the umbrella terms LGBT and GLBT aren't inclusive enough, according to some in the community. They sometimes add a "Q" for those who question their sexuality and an "I" for intersex people. Many keep it simple by using the word "gay" to describe the entire community. Others have reclaimed and embraced the word "queer."

Two other terms, MSM (men who have sex with men) and SGL (same-gender loving), are used by many who are gay and black. Ten years ago, inspired by others around the country, organizers including Erise Williams, 42, formed a new group called St. Louis Black Pride, which hosts its own celebration every August. Black, white, Latino, Asian and LGBT people of every stripe attend Black Pride, though its crowd is predominantly African American. Black Pride members also flock to the June PrideFest and have served on boards of both organizations.

Black Pride was not conceived as a rival event, but one that is uniquely focused on African American issues. Several situations make the black gay experience different from that of whites, according to Williams: the deep religious roots of a community that perceives being gay as a sin, and the human need to oppress.

"We have been a marginalized people," Williams, explains, "And marginalized people marginalize other people."


In the 1990s, pride festivals around the country began attracting corporate sponsorships after companies started giving employees domestic partner benefits. "'Put your money where your mouth is,' is how the gay and lesbian associations across the world responded," says Napoli. Slowly, companies began to comply.

In 2001, some St. Louis firms began underwriting the cost of the free-admission PrideFest, according to Pride St. Louis President C.J. Saenz. In the beginning, Anheuser Busch's contribution amounted to lending a beer truck for the festival and reaping the profits, Napoli says. This year, Miller Lite, MasterCard and Best Buy are among the top sponsors of the $275,000 anniversary blowout, with the Miller Lite sponsorship footing $65,000 of that tab.

Saenz, 31, says the group won't accept contributions from just any company. "I've seen other organizations take on sponsors who are gay for a day, but we want them to be queer for a year," Saenz explains.

This year, the entertainment includes 21 emcees, the Saturday night performance of disco queen Thelma Houston ("Don't Leave Me This Way") and a stage full of local queens in a Sunday night closing number celebrating 30 years of St. Louis drag shows. Comedian Sandra Bernhard is also scheduled to appear. The second PrideFest pet parade will trot down Morganford on June 27, cementing its relatively new spot on a growing list of annual events which also includes a mass commitment ceremony.

Besides the monetary and other contributions of corporate sponsors, PrideFest is also financed by a year-long calendar of fundraisers such as Pride Day at Six Flags, Malibu Beach Party and the Royalty Pageant.


This year, the pride committee expects to see 100,000 people at the park.

"Just like Cinco de Mayo is celebrated every year, PrideFest will always be a point of celebration because it marks the kickoff of the modern gay rights movement," Lokitz says.

Because of today's relative openness, the community's young people who weren't born until a decade after St. Louis' first pride event, find it difficult to imagine the shame surrounding being gay 30 years ago.

"My mom told me she knew one or two gay people, and it was really hush-hush," says Janel Leonard, 19.

But even though Leonard enjoys the today's relative openness fostered by three decades of visibility, she has still experienced her share of prejudice. She was kicked out of a Christian club in high school after coming out at 15.

To keep moving attitudes and visibility forward, Leonard sees a future in which PrideFest and Black Pride will continue to thrive even as being LGBTQI, queer or gay by any other name becomes just another factor in a person's life.

"It will be like one of the first questions someone's asked," Leonard explains. "Like, 'What's your major in college? What's your job? Are you gay or straight?'" 

Nancy Larson, a freelance writer in St. Louis, was the editor of the Vital Voice, a newspaper for the LGBT community, for seven years.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.