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Commentary: PrideFest: Who is celebrating and why

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 26, 2009 - Every summer the St. Louis lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community gets together for a big party called PrideFest. For many of us in the community, it’s the event of the year. Even for lots of straight folks, it’s a reason to celebrate. For others, it might be vaguely annoying -- or even frightening. They wonder: Who are these people?

It’s a hard group to pin down. We’re young, old, single, partnered, black, brown, white, male, female and transgender. Atheist, agnostic, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and of other faiths too numerous to name. Employed in every field imaginable, we prep your mother for heart bypass surgery, bag your groceries and fix your transmission. We teach your children, we parent our own children, we are your children.

We are not a “lifestyle”; we have lives. Of course, in Missouri, many of us have to live a lie; you can legally be fired or evicted for being honest about who you love -- or would love to love.

In the closet and out, we’re scattered among every municipality and neighborhood in the St. Louis area. But every year, during the last weekend in June, we come together at Tower Grove Park, making the trek from St. Louis City, St. Charles, Kirkwood, Belleville and a myriad of local and even national towns. We bring our friends, partners, parents, children and dogs. Sure, we go for the funnel cakes, the rainbow stickers and the eclectic music. But mostly, we show up to feel -- if only for a few hours -- what most people experience all day, every day: a sense of belonging.

Entering the park each year, I feel my guard fall away and my shoulders relax. When I reach for my partner’s hand, I forget for a second I don’t have to worry about quizzical looks, downcast eyes or even the exaggerated, broad-smiling acceptance of the well-intentioned. It feels almost weird not to do that automatic, lightening-speed scan of the crowd for “Marriage = One Man + One Woman” buttons or other obvious signs of homophobia before relaxing my fingers into hers.

In the real world, most of us are assumed to be straight until we “flaunt it” (i.e.: speak the name of our partner, use the correct pronoun or reply that we’re really not interested in being fixed up with your cousin Tom because we only date women). But during those few hours spent at PrideFest, there’s a paradigm shift: gay is the assumption and straight is the exception. Like children playing dress-up, we try on “privilege” -- the luxurious power of being in the majority. It’s fun, almost to the point of giddiness.

When PrideFest is over, we all go back to our regular lives. Sure, there’s the occasional lesbian potluck or gay men’s dinner party. A few gay bars -- mostly for men -- still flourish. Several hundred LGBT people worship together on Sundays at Metropolitan Community Church. A thousand (OK, some of them straight supporters, but still) braved an unseasonable chill for the November 2008 protest against California’s Proposition 8 same-sex marriage ban.

Where beats the heart of the St. Louis LGBT community? We have no St. Louis LGBT “leader” (although Ed Reggi is emerging as a frontrunner) or regular meetings. Our newspaper, the Vital VOICE, has toyed with the idea of going straight and has dropped back to once a month. We’re doing Friday night karaoke among a rainbow of straight and gay singers at the once-exclusively lesbian Novak’s bar and grill. For the most part, the people at our workplaces, restaurants, libraries and favorite sporting events are not LGBT.

The question is: Does it matter?

Not as much as it used to. Thirty years ago at St. Louis’ first pride celebration many of the several dozen participants actually wore paper bags over their heads so they wouldn’t be recognized. This year, up to 100,000 unmasked revelers are expected at PrideFest 2009.

Many of us -- out or not -- choose to spend time as much time with our straight friends and family members as our LBGT buds and relations. We may have more in common with someone who likes independent film, Thai food or Cardinals baseball than someone with whom our only connection is being LGBT.

Still, once a year, there’s nothing like the camaraderie and the exquisite freedom of what’s now become a good old-fashioned, gay gathering. I can’t wait -- I can already taste the pork kabobs.

Nancy Larson is a freelance writer.

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.