By Brandon Smith
Thousands gathered on June 17 for the annual Grand Rapids Pride Festival, returning for its 35th year since the first Pride Celebration in 1988.
Beginning at noon at Calder Plaza in downtown Grand Rapids, vendor booths stretched down Ottawa Ave and part of Lyon Street. Food trucks were parked in the Ellis Parking Lot, and tables and chairs were set up for a makeshift food court. The main stage was set up by the La Grande Vitesse statue, otherwise known as “The Calder.”
Queer-owned vendors sold items ranging from flags to handmade apparel, and many attendees were donning capes of different LGBTQ+ community flags.
“This is my first (Pride Festival). I like it!” said Aris H., who traveled from Indiana to attend the Grand Rapids Pride Festival. “It’s about spreading love and kindness and being able to love who you love and being able to do it judgment-free.”
At 1 p.m. the Beauty Beyond Drag show rocked the main stage. Drag entertainers including Cherry Poppins, The Petty Divine, and Fernando Fierce-Sanchez performed to the excitement of a packed audience.
After the show concluded with a performance from B.R.I.T. (Bethany Rachel Ingrid Teresa), Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel made a surprise appearance to share a few words. Nessel, a Democrat, is the first openly gay Attorney General in Michigan. In 2014, Nessel argued for the plaintiffs in Deboer v. Snyder, which was combined with other cases to become Obergefell v. Hodges, which led to legal recognition of same-sex marriage nationwide. Since then, Nessel has had a successful history arguing for LGBTQ+ rights.
Nessel told the audience to check out a video that she made featuring Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson making one thing clear: Michigan is an LGBTQ+ friendly state.
“We belong here!” Nessel shouted into the microphone to cheers from the audience and vowed that she would fight to protect LGBTQ+ rights.
(Pictured: Dana Nessel addresses the audience at the Grand Rapids Pride Festival)
Nessel continued, “I have a message for the brave staffers at WOODTV, who pushed back when somebody there said that they wanted less coverage of pride celebrations and that they should show “both sides” to Pride. Pride is a celebration! It’s jubilation! It’s about love! There are not two sides to Pride- you will not erase us!”
During her speech to the audience, Nessel brought up the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act (which was amended in March 2023 by Gov. Whitmer to protect members of the LGBTQ+ community), a hate crimes bill in the Michigan House of Representatives that would offer further protections for sexual orientation and gender identity, and finally a ban on conversion therapy that was passed in the House this week. and Senate and would soon be signed by Whitmer. Nessel urged the audience to vote for politicians protecting their rights.
Nessel finished by saying, “I got a message for all of you here in the state of Michigan. If you are an LGBTQ person, or you are one of our allies, you belong here! We love you. We value you. We respect you, and we will protect your rights, period!”
Following the Attorney General’s speech, two weddings were held onstage between two gay couples. The officiant for both weddings encouraged the audience to take plenty of pictures.
(Pictured: Joe and Rick become legally married.)
(Pictured: Skyler and Madison share their vows)
“There’s so many things that Pride means to me,” says Kai H., a 20-year-old who came to Grand Rapids from Indiana, “but I guess that the big thing is showing others that I’m not going to back down from being myself.”
The Pride festival offers “a chance for people to become more visible than normal,” said Miriam Smith, a 29-year-old from Austin, Texas. “Find other people that have experiences similar to them. Just… be themselves in a way they don’t get to every day.”
“(Pride means to) unapologetically be yourself,” says Dan Ziegenfelder, “but also a space to collectively come together and celebrate who we are.”
Throughout the evening, different entertainers and DJs took the stage, culminating in headliner Robin S. performing at 9 p.m. While the Grand Rapids Pride Festival was a one-day event, there are a number of other Grand Rapids events planned throughout the rest of Pride Month. Many can be found on the Grand Rapids Pride Center’s official website.
(Pictured: Lyon St. was packed with attendees wandering between a line of vendors)