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July 1, 2011

Cleveland Pride grows toward 2014 Games

Cleveland--An overcast sky held an empty threat of rain, but the sunny dispositions below it lit up Voinovich Park brighter than a sunny day would at the 23rd annual Cleveland Pride festival.

The parade edged out last year’s as the second-largest in its 22-year history, since there was no parade the first year of Cleveland Pride. The 2,533-person count brought it in behind the 3,022 in 2006, but above last year’s 2,482 and far above the 1,710 in 2008.

Many more people joined for the festival at the end of the parade. About 16,000 people passed through the gates during the day, according to a count of the orange wristbands given to each.

A short program honored grand marshal Danny Sparks, who three years ago started fighting to remove abstinence-only sex education from the Parma school district in favor of more comprehensive, and realistic, information. He began that battle when he was 15 years old. He is going to Ohio State University in the fall.

“I don’t enjoy the spotlight,” he told the crowd. But, “is changing sex ed in Parma schools worth it? If not me, then who? If not now, then when?”

“We are united for a purpose. That is our unending desire for equality,” he said. “When I came out five years ago,” he concluded, “you gave me a community that accepted me for who I was, and I will never forget that. Thank you.”

State Rep. Nickie Antonio of Lakewood, Ohio’s first out legislator, was the keynote speaker of the rally. She quoted the late Audre Lorde, telling the crowd, “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

She then asked the crowd, “Are you powerful? Are you afraid? We are in this together, and we can do this together.”

Antonio has introduced anti-bullying legislation in Columbus that specifically enumerates LGBT students, something that is currently lacking in Ohio’s bullying laws. She also pointed to the passage of same-sex marriage in New York as proof that pro-equality legislation can pass, even with Republican majorities. In New York, four Republican state senators stepped over party lines to support marriage equality.

“In Ohio, we have a Republican-run House . . .  and Senate. What I am saying is, anything and everything is possible.”

The Cleveland Special Events Corporation, the group producing the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland, won for largest contingent, and Bottoms Up bar took best float.

After the parade, attendees noticed something different this year at the festival: shorter lines at the gates because a second entrance was added, leading directly to the food booths. Also, instead of stopping and having a Pride volunteer put a disposable wristband on them, fairgoers were handed an orange Gay Games commemorative rubber wristband which they were asked to put on themselves, streamlining the entry process.

“There was a big queuing issue” in previous years, said Pride president Todd Saporito. “Instead of banding people, we handed them the bands to put on themselves and asked them to keep moving.”

“In 2010, something happened during the parade where the tempo must have gotten clogged,” he continued. “The whole clump of people came in all at once.”

“We literally cut the entry time in half to get people in without any queuing per se,” he noted.

Pride staff noticed three major waves of people coming into the festival: one immediately following the parade, one at around 4 pm, and another at 6:30 pm, in time for a house ball competition, now in its third year.

“The competition only allowed the first ten people to compete, with three $100 prizes,” Saporito noted. “Eight hundred to 1,000 youth were captured by the competition, which is just incredible.”

Front and back, it was the youth who took center stage. Many of the entertainers were quite young, and with youth both at the house ball and as the grand marshal, it was obvious that Pride had something in mind.

“It was really important for me,” Saporito said. “I really do believe that if we’re going to make any further progress in our rights, it really is about the youth, getting them involved.”

Saporito also pointed to drag diva Brionna Brooks and director of entertainment Lois Elswick as a great part of the success of the festival. Elswick did the schedules and arranged the stages, while Brooks brought Cleveland’s sizable drag community to bear as performers and emcees to keep everything flowing smoothly all day long.

This year’s Pride was, to a great extent, the beginning of a road to a very specific destination.

“The goal is to use Cleveland Pride over the next three years to gather our allies and the LGBT community and grow it proportionately, leading up to 2014,” Saporito noted, adding that the idea is to have Cleveland Pride 2014 roll seamlessly into the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland.

Part of that is to sell Cleveland to Akron, Youngstown, Columbus, Toledo and other cities in the area.

“I think we had a lot more people this year coming up from Columbus and down from Detroit,” he said. “How can those enticements of your programming for the entire day increase that?”

And that promotion goes both ways, as representatives of Toledo Pride were present, promoting their event at the end of the August.

“I really see the impact Pride can have when you use it as a tool to bring the community and allies together,” Saporito said. “It really is quite amazing.”

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