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Pridefest shows off its colors this weekend in Tower Grove Park

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 23, 2011 - This Sunday, the streets around Tower Grove Park will be packed with onlookers as the Pride Parade, one of the highpoints of the 31-year-old Pridefest, passes by.

Scott Emanuel has marched in nearly every parade in the past 20 years, and his record of activism in the gay community goes back just as long. Emanuel, who leads a support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth in St. Louis, will join his husband as the Grand Marshals of the Pride Parade.

Liz Nelson, a mother of two, plans to march with her family and church to support the gay community and to redefine the word "Christian." And Scott O'Brien will adorn himself with balloons and march in the the Balloon Brigade to raise money for a local HIV/AIDS charity.

Clearly, the Pride Parade and Pridefest, a festival for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community and its friends, means much more than celebrating one's sexual orientation. Emanuel, Nelson and O'Brien are but three of thousands who will converge on Tower Grove Park in a weekend of pride, activism and, most importantly, support.

"Each year we try to build on the former year to make it more exciting, more special than the year before," said Tyler Hill, president of St. Louis Pride, which puts on the event.

The scheduled entertainment includes a local band showcase, Chely Wright, an award-winning country singer, and Joshua Klipp, a well-known transgendered vocalist.

St. Louis Pride also has a little something for everyone, according to Hill.

"We have a children's tent and a youth tent for any teenager who needs a place to meet and talk," Hill said. "We also have a tent specifically for the elderly of the community near the children's tent; they usually enjoy that since many of them have children and grandchildren themselves."

There will also be a larger representation of the transgendered community, says Hill, as well as an education tent, with information on mental health and HIV/AIDS.

On Saturday, gay and lesbian couples can affirm their relationships in a commitment ceremony at 3 p.m.

On Sunday, the Pride parade begins at noon at the corner of Grand Avenue and Utah and heads north to the entrance of Tower Grove Park. Immediately following, elected officials will gather at the education tent to meet the public.

More Than A Festival

Scott Emanuel and his husband, Ed Reggi of St. Louis, are the grand marshals of the 2011 Pride Parade. "I think about my work and activism and never imagined that Pride Grand Marshal would be in the mix," Emanuel said.

Emanuel started marching in the parade with student groups. Today, he is the leader of Growing American Youth, a support organization for youth. "I appreciate that it's really grown in mass," Emanuel said. "There were crowds, but not to the levels now."

When Emanuel first started marching with Growing American Youth, about 20 people participated. In 2006, the number reached 100. Last year, there were 300. His goal this year is for 400 youth marching with the organization, and youth can still sign up the weekend of the festival.

"There are people who are physically and emotionally moved to tears in the most positive way," Emanuel said. "Each year I hope that people pay attention at the numbers who come to the event like this."

Liz Nelson agrees.

"I don't see St. Louis as the most progressive city, but when I see the thousands of people going and expressing themselves, it gives me hope for our city," Nelson said.

Nelson marched in the Pride Parade in 2009 with her husband and two children, then aged 5 and 7, and members of Trinity Presbyterian Church in University City.

"You can't just be supportive at home," Nelson said. "You have to walk the walk. Literally, that's what we're doing."

The group from Trinity Presbyterian is made up of individuals and families, young and old, gay and straight.

"I want to take back the word 'Christian' so the gay community can be welcome," Nelson said. "We are supportive, you're welcome in the church."

While the festival is geared towards celebrating the LGBT community, Hill and Nelson all agree that Pridefest is a family event.

A Family Event

Nelson, whose children are spray painting their hair purple for the parade, said her kids "had a blast being themselves and seeing people being themselves."

"I want my kids to see all the diversity in the world and be accepting and affirming of people who are different," she added. "And with all the teen suicides and with my kids growing up, I want to be supportive."

"It is family appropriate. I'm sure some things went over their heads, but that's OK," she added.

"I think Pridefest has always been family friendly. A lot of organizations are geared towards LGBT families and supporting LGBT families," Hill said.

All emphasized that Pridefest is especially important for LGBT youth.

"For young people, Pridefest is often times the first time they are being introduced into the community," Emanuel said. "The comfort level, it's life changing, life saving for some."

Scott O'Brien, who has attended Pridefest since he came out in high school, also agrees: "A lot of younger people don't have a gathering place. They can't go to gay bars, so they can come to Pride to be a part of the community."

A History Of Support

The first Pridefest was held in 1980 by an organization known as the Magnolia Committee, which finished the first festival with a charity march, and many organizations attending Pridefest continue to do the same.

This will be O'Brien's second year marching with the Balloon Brigade, a group of men who march in the parade wearing colorful balloons and collect money for an HIV/AIDS charity.

St. Louis Pride awards several $1,000 scholarships to students active in promoting gay rights in their communities. This year, the organization raised enough money for five scholarships. Their goal for next year is 10.

In the end, Pridefest is a time when people can come together to support each other, raise awareness and celebrate the diversity within the gay and lesbian community.

"A lot of people don't realize how much of the St. Louis community is made up by gays and lesbians. They can come and see that we're just like everybody else," O'Brien said.

"I hope that the weekend can inspire a life," Emanuel said. "That's what I hope. It's not just a weekend; it's an inspiration."

Ryan Schuessler, a student at the University of Missouri - Columbia, is a summer intern at the Beacon. 

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