by Laila Winters
Content Warning: homophobia, queer slurs, religion, abortion
Despite the rain and the ominous clouds overhead, an explosion of color poured into the streets of downtown Columbus on June 15th, 2019. In a celebration echoed across the world during the month of June, more than 500,000 people marched between Columbus’ towering skyscrapers in attendance of Ohio’s annual Pride Festival.
This was my second Pride, and it was far more festive than my first.
Coming just days after the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Columbus’ 2016 Pride Festival was a somber event, one where moments of silence in remembrance for those lost were frequent. Between the lulls in the music, you could hear the quiver in people’s voices; between the tears in attendee’s eyes, you could see the anxious thread strung between them.
On June 12th, 2016, we didn’t just lose 49 members of the LGBTQ+ community, though their loss will always be prevalent. We will always feel it at the heart and core of who we are.
But as a group, we also lost our sense of security, the feeling akin to a rug being ripped out from under us. I felt it at Pride three years ago, and I feel it more now as an open member of the LGBTQ+ community. Identifying as a queer woman ultimately paints a target on my back, and events such as a Pride parade place me in a possible shooting range.
Dressed in the colors of the bisexual pride flag, I was only just emerging from a queer’s metaphorical closet. It wasn’t until 2017 that I finally had the courage and understanding to openly come out as a lesbian. I first attended the festival in 2016 with a half-sister I no longer have contact with, and a brooding at-the-time boyfriend who was reluctant to be frolicking among the rainbows. He blamed his annoyance on the heat.
Bad blood between us set aside, I will never forget what they told me: “If you hear gunshots, run. Don’t look back. Leave us behind if you have to.” At twenty-two years old, it was terrifying, and my immediate thought was there are children attending this festival, and parents who might be telling them the same thing.
Security was heightened at the festival, both in 2016 and last weekend. Officers on bikes pedaled through downtown along the parade route, and cops on horseback trotted through the crowded streets. Plain-clothes officers ducked and dodged through the masses, their guns tucked precariously beneath their shirts; you could see their impressions through the fabric, but maybe I’m strange in that I look for those things.
This year, with my glow-up fiancée, we arrived just a tad bit late. The streets along the parade route, the parade itself led by Nina West–a drag queen who appeared on season 11 of Rupaul’s Drag Race–were packed. We tried to push ourselves to the front, but those who arrived on time wouldn’t budge; I watched the parade through the screen of my phone as I snapped photos for social media.
Pride was joyous. It was loud, and colorful, and members of the community were beaming with unabashed bliss. Flags waved in the wind, and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way will be forever ingrained into my eardrums.
But deep in the belly of Pride, buried by members of the LGBTQ+ community beating on drums and tambourines, were the cries of outrage from protestors. “You’re going to Hell!” they shouted, waving home-made signs that asked for people to honk if they had AIDS. “Being gay is a sin!”
Jen and I were stopped by a man standing in the middle of a crosswalk, a gruesome sign gripped between white-knuckled fingers. “How do you feel about abortion?” he demanded, his sign clearly showing he was against it. But my opinions wouldn’t matter to a man who was prepared for an argument, and so I shrugged my shoulders and off the two of us went. He yelled at us until we were halfway down the block and he found someone else to harass.
But far more tragic than the middle-aged white men screaming about abortion and AIDS was perhaps the young boy we saw angrily waving a sign. He stomped back and forth along the sidewalk, his fist raised, and his sign reading, “Remember Sodom and Gomorrah.” On Facebook, friends who attended the festival recalled arguing with him, the boy in his mid-to-late teens screaming at whoever would listen to him. He referred to a friend of mine as a “faggot” and told her she’d burn in Hell for her sins.
My first instinct was to ask, “Where are your parents? Why are they letting you act like this?” But then I realized that his parents were probably there, too, shouting amongst the dozens of other protestors, and they’re likely the ones responsible for instilling such hate in him. Most teenagers don’t use religion as the foundation for an argument unless such values have been taught to them.
With the parade nearly at an end and the skies just beginning to open up, Jen and I briefly did a pass through the heart of the festival. Nearly a hundred vendors claimed their spot amongst two of downtown’s most popular parks along the river, their stands exploding with Pride gear in every color. But fighting through the crowds proved difficult, and after acquiring two push-pin buttons and a snow cone that melted in the heat, we headed to a nearby restaurant to wait for a Lyft to pick us up.
The joke was on us for thinking they could make it through the chaos — three drivers abandoned us before I had to call in reinforcements, and we were stuck in the rain for over an hour.
But amidst the wind and the girls taking selfies with Jen and I sitting in the background, I found myself considering how lucky we were. Beyond the protestors whose voices were drowned out in the streets, who waved their signs and shouted our sins to the heavens, our Pride was only dampened by the rain. There were no incidents, no tragedies, nothing that made the 10pm news.
And that’s what they fail to realize about the history that holds our community together: we’re resilient. We exist. We’re not going anywhere. Pride is meant to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community, and it’s our voices that will always be heard between the shootings and the fear and the hate. We have enough love to overcome.