Each June, Rhode Island Pride hosts its annual PrideFest (June 17) to recognize and celebrate our local LGBTQ communities. Now in its 41st year, the event has changed significantly from its sparse early roots, reflecting major shifts in national cultural perception and acceptance of non-heterosexual/non-cis individuals. Last year’s celebration drew more than 75,000 attendees, including many non-LGBTQ people. Although it has experienced growing pains and its share of criticism, RI Pride is finding its way as it adapts to challenges and changes, all while promoting a message of solidarity and unity for a continually diversifying community.
The Scope of PrideFest 2017
PrideFest’s core programming includes a Saturday daytime event of music, drag shows, stand-up comedy and more than 200 vendor booths alongside a kid’s zone, youth center, and beer, wine and spirits garden for the adults starting around noon. The daytime portion will be followed by New England’s only Illuminated Night Parade, beginning at 8pm on Dorrance Street and continuing to Washington, Empire and Weybosset. Colorful floats, spirited performers and upbeat music will entertain the crowds during the parade, which then filters into block parties around the city. Myriad satellite events join the “countdown to Pride,” including a flag raising at City Hall, live performances, parties, and health and wellness activities.
The theme for 2017 is R.I.S.E.: Rhode Islanders Standing for Equality. “The energy in the city is electric, and we send an open invitation to everyone to participate in weekend events that transform the city into a Gay Disney World,” says former RI Pride president and current volunteer/event producer Alex Gorriaran.
Her Serene Highness (H.S.H.) The Princess Pearl of Providence – or simply “Pearl” – has been locally known and performing since graduating high school in 1983.
“Just before my 18th birthday, a friend in the community approached me about being in the gay pride parade downtown,” Pearl recalls. “We met up in Cathedral Square; there were about 150 to 200 people, and they were pinning daisies to everyone’s lapels.” It was on a weekend afternoon, back when downtown Providence felt like a ghost town. “I was asked to help carry a banner saying, ‘We Are Everywhere,’ and I wore sunglasses because I was so afraid my picture would be in the paper. It was scary, but it was good.” Pearl remembers a few old men on the sidewalk making rotten comments, but the parade was designed to show that gay people were a part of society, and there was a strong feeling of family and camaraderie. Picnics and gatherings followed, and “everyone did go out later on; we have always been able to party like the best of them, but in those days, the events were always during the day. It was also a way to see people who were gay that you might not run into in a bar.”
But Pearl recounts that since then, Pride “has changed so much. I don’t like the fact that the parade is at night now. The whole point of it originally was to make ourselves visible to the greater community.” She describes recent parades as “definitely provocative” and “more of a Mardi Gras experience” that may give a limited impression of the community to outsiders. Although she did not participate in Pride’s earliest years, “Those were thin parades. I’ve seen some pictures. It was dangerous to be openly gay at times.”
Pearl admits that she has butted heads with Pride leadership over the years, debating what she thinks has become a commercialized and vendor-centric event rather than one focused on the local community. Big-name performers have been brought in to attract large crowds, she says, rather than making the most of the local talent pool.
RI Pride Entertainment Coordinator Jeana DeLaire shares the opinion that bringing the spotlight back to local talent is necessary, and it’s reflected in 2017’s performance lineup.
Pride shouldn’t be centered around or perceived as “young men partying in speedos,” in the words of Jeana’s partner Tammy Laforest, a winner of the 2017 Mx Bisexual title. Jeana and Tammy are both musicians who play original songs and pop acoustic covers. Under Jeana’s leadership, PrideFest 2017’s main stage will showcase mostly locals, such as Providence celebrity hosts Lulu Locks and drag performer Annie B. Frank, comedian John Kelley, DJ Ephraim Adamz and headliners Downtown Boys, as well as Jodi Jolt and the Volt. A brand new secondary acoustic stage will feature emerging local artists.
“It’s a really interesting year for us,” says Jeana. An entertainment budget chopped in half from last year also helped to propel the changes. “It was daunting at first, but we realized it was also an awesome opportunity to be creative and showcase more local acts.”
Tammy, who will march in the parade alongside her two children, envisions PrideFest as a family-friendly event; LGBTQ families with children are not represented enough publicly, she feels. 2015’s introduction of a youth tent, a sober space for younger Pride attendees to hang out and make buttons, was well received. Tammy’s personal goal is to host earlier and more age- and racially diverse Pride events, and to create more space for women and trans folks. Jeana notes, “Pride has been white male dominated, but the organization has done a great job responding to criticism, and serious efforts have been made to become more inclusive.”
After gay marriage was legalized in 2015, national and local conversations around gender and sexual identity have focused more on trans rights and gender nonconformity. Even as definitions of gender and sexuality have expanded, “Rhode Island Pride and our events in June have always been inclusive to our entire community,” says Alex, former RI Pride president. “Events always include a political advocacy for LGBTQ equality, and we will be having rallies at our flag raising and during PrideFest – a gathering of our community and our allies to stand together.”
Moving Forward: New Challenges
After decades of major, hard-fought strides, the LGBTQ community continues to face new challenges. The election of Donald Trump poses a potential threat for the LGBTQ community nationwide, and the administration has already moved to repeal protections for trans students. On the other hand, here in Rhode Island lawmakers are considering a bill that would ban conversion therapy treatment for minors, while on the national level congressional Democrats recently put forward a bill that would ban it outright.
In light of these developments, the RI LGBTQ community strives for solidarity, encompassing a diverse array of voices and identities under its umbrella of advocacy. As Pride’s interim board president Davide Gnoato puts it, “We are excited to welcome thousands of visitors to the city to celebrate the diversity of our LGBTQ community. As part of our theme this year, we not only rise to celebrate, but also to reignite the fight against discrimination and equality for all.”