The Chevy convertibles creep down Euclid Avenue, with Cleveland's most glamorous female impersonators poised atop the rear seats, waving their beauty-queen waves to thousands of spectators lined up on both sides.
It's the 15th annual Cleveland Pride Celebration parade, a rainbow caravan of cars, floats, and marching bands that weaves downtown toward North Coast Harbor. At Voinovich Park, paraders and spectators gather for a quick "We're-here-we're-queer-we-haven't-a-thing-to-fear" rally, and then the six-hour festival begins.
That's the scene for this year's Pride Celebration, which takes place this Saturday. The theme is "24.7.365" -- encouragement to gays and lesbians to be proud of their sexual orientation every day of the year. "To be out and proud is such an empowering experience that it transforms people's lives," says Brian Thornton, president of Cleveland Pride.
The festival's healthy attendance grew out of a meager start. Only 200 people showed up for the first rally in 1988 on West 29th Street, in front of the old digs of the Cleveland Lesbian-Gay Community Service Center. "We had a difficult time with anyone in the city acknowledging we existed, because much of the community was afraid to be out," Thornton says.
By 2002, the Pride Celebration had found a new home at Voinovich Park; Cleveland City Council issued a proclamation for the event, and Jane Campbell became the first mayor to speak at the rally and fly a rainbow flag at City Hall. And an estimated 10,000 people came to party.
This year, the Pride Celebration is more than a one-day gig: Local clubs have featured gay-themed events in recent weeks, and the Indians and Rockers both hosted Pride Days. A pre-festival party takes place at 10 p.m. Friday at the Grid/Orbit, the North Coast Men's Chorus performs Bustin' Out All Over at Cleveland State's Waetjen Auditorium on Saturday and Sunday, and a post-festival bash, called "Federation," takes place at 9 p.m. Sunday at Modä. "We recognize that not everyone wants to be a part of the parade or festival, but would like to celebrate in some way," Thornton says.
Music takes center stage at Voinovich Park: Dance diva Blu Cantrell and singer Sophie B. Hawkins headline the festival, with supporting acts including feminist folkie Rachael Sage, folk rocker Amrit Kohli, and local rockers Seven, Rude Staff Checkers, and Ellis. "They appeal to different parts of our community: men and women, younger and older, people of different racial backgrounds, people who like hip-hop, and people who like acoustic," Thornton says.
With its lakeshore view, Cleveland's festival is one of the country's most picturesque gay celebrations -- and it makes a great conversation piece for gays who don't live in Northeast Ohio, Thornton says. "Many people who come from out of town are struck by the grass-roots feel of our parade and the sense of camaraderie at the festival."
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