Picture this: A ragtag group of 75 gay individuals, some with paper bags over their heads, marching through Kennedy Plaza. Why paper bags? Because it was 1976, and while the nation was celebrating its bicentennial, living an openly gay life could easily mean being disowned by family and friends, police harassment, and getting fired; despite this, and state and city road blocks, these brave trail blazers took to the streets for Providence’s first-ever Pride parade.
We’ve come a long way since that first procession, including marriage equality, repeal of sodomy laws, and ban of conversion therapy. Dozens of youth and adult advocacy groups now exist, sexual orientation is beginning to be represented in leadership, and that original march blossomed into PrideFest, which pre-COVID was drawing thousands to the Creative Capital (estimated at 60,000 in 2019). Of course, last year threw a wrench in things. Celebrations were cancelled primarily due to the pandemic, but there were also challenges within Rhode Island Pride, the nonprofit that puts together the annual event. But Anthony Santurri, business owner and former RI Pride member, passionately assures us: “There is going to be a Pride celebration this year.”
And this year, it will be organized by another ragtag group of men and women, just like it started.
“As I reflect upon this year’s Pride celebration, I cannot help but remember the profound loss suffered by so many this year,” begins Joe Wilson, Jr., who is an actor, director, producer, professor, and artist with Trinity Repertory Company. “We must use this ‘coming together’ in June – this ‘coming out’ – to celebrate, but along with our celebration of achievement, we must recognize that we all enjoy some measure of privilege because of that valiant band of renegade warriors, those original freedom fighters, who spilled their blood on that city street, just outside that Village bar, on that hot summer night in June,” says Wilson, harkening back to the Stonewall uprising, a series of protests in NYC triggered by the raid on The Stonewall Inn nightclub, in June of 1969. “We are emerging from a really dark time. This year, let’s celebrate community and each other, but the fight continues.”
LaDiva Jonz, Providence’s oldest living drag queen, explains that “For me, Pride has always been about standing up in the world with like-minded individuals and saying: I am gay and I deserve to be treated like everyone else. Very often now, I think back on how Pride was truly a community event where LGBTQIA+ came together to celebrate their uniqueness,” Jonz reflects. “While it’s great that we now have the support of so many allies at our celebration, I do miss when it was more of a middle finger to the general population – a showing of queerness.”
The popularity of Pride has certainly contributed to Providence’s reputation as a gay-friendly city. “Providence has been recognized nationally as a top LGBTQIA+ travel destination because of its warm, welcoming, and diverse LGBTQIA+ community,” says Kristen Adamo, president and CEO of the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Pride is a citywide celebration of that community that is enjoyed by a wide range of people. It is one of the key summer events, a strong revenue generator for hotels and restaurants, and an integral part of our summer marketing,” she adds. In 2019, Reader’s Digest ranked Providence one of 12 perfect places to stay to celebrate Pride, citing the live music, block parties, and unique boutique hotels as reasons to check out the annual event.
But the impact stretches far beyond just economic; Pride is an integral thread in the city’s social fabric, which is why leaders like Governor Dan McKee and Mayor Jorge Elorza have pledged their commitment to making the celebration happen this year. “Pride is a great celebration of love and life and community,” says Senator Tiara Mack, who recently made waves as Rhode Island’s first openly queer Black person elected to the senate. “You can see all of the different groups celebrating, from elder queers to today’s youth. It’s a great show of solidarity and community.”
Planning for this year’s Pride began in coordination with Governor McKee’s announcement that mandates will be lifted to allow venues more capacity, particularly those with outdoor spaces. Pride has always consisted of mainly open-air events, so the timing is perfect.
“We want everyone to be a part of it,” says Santurri, “and we are involving people of color and members of the trans and other communities to help us plan a more inclusive Pride for all of Rhode Island.” While a firm calendar has not yet been released at press time, he reveals that numerous events will be held in and around the traditional date of the parade, June 19. “It’s so important that everyone experience the joy and resilience of this community,” he says, “especially after all we’ve been through in the past year.”
Elana Rosenberg, executive director of Youth Pride, Inc. (YPI), saw an increased demand for services from young people, many of whom lived with families not accepting of their sexual or gender identities. That’s why YPI has stepped up their clinical services and even added new programs, including a meet-up for Spanish-speaking youth and safe space for LGBTQIA+ kids aged five through nine.
The impact of Pride on the Providence community, especially youth, cannot be understated – and goes to show how important it is to resurrect the tradition after a tumultuous year. Locally beloved news anchor Mario Hilario remembers the last Pride event in 2019: “My close friend asked me to go with her and her teenage son who had just come out. I was honored to be there and help him experience his first Pride, and was really heartened by the knowledge that, despite the challenges we still face, he is able to come of age in such an inclusive community that allows us to live who we were born to be.”