Smiles on the faces of same-gender couples representing a variety of generations walked hand in hand, beaming as brightly as the summer sun above, during a boldly colorful display of diversity June 23 at the 24th annual LGBT Pride Parade and Festival in Cleveland, Ohio.
More than 60 groups marched in the noontime parade, winding their way through downtown streets, past several thousand cheering, fist-pumping supporters and a small cluster of detractors. The march culminated in celebration at Voinovich Park, between the coastline of Lake Erie and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
More than 80 vendors – including the national office of the United Church of Christ and a half-dozen ecumenical faith groups – helped form the backdrop for an event that, along with 80-degree temperatures, melted all lines of age, gender, race and orientation.
Among Cleveland-area churches with contingents in the parade were UCC Community Church of Chesterland, Euclid Avenue Congregational UCC (Cleveland), Faith UCC (Richmond Heights), Old South UCC (Kirtland), Pilgrim Congregational UCC (Cleveland) and Plymouth UCC (Shaker Heights).
For Sarah Rhodes, a 19-year-old student from Akron, the Pride event was the second of her life. Actually, it was her second of the week.
"I was in Columbus (June 16) for my first Pride," she said. "It was amazing. Being here today shows that I don't have to hide who I am. I feel like I can tell everybody who I am without being ashamed of it."
Rhodes said she began her coming-out process as a sixth-grader. "It was a struggle at first, but now everybody's OK with it."
One of the early arrivals to line up for the parade was the Rev. Richard Elwell. No stranger to Pride, Elwell has served in ministry for 45 years.
"I've always preached an inclusive message, so it's only natural that I'm here," said Elwell, part-time interim pastor of Andover (Ohio) Congregational UCC and a longtime member of Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Cleveland. "I'm one of those partnership folks that have a foot in both UCC and the Disciples," Elwell said with a smile.
"Obviously, it's affirming to be here, and I'm very supportive of the church," said Elwell. "I'm a member of a church that is the first fully Disciples Church in Ohio to become Open and Affirming (ONA)."
Richard "Rico" England, a member of Old South UCC, reflected on how much has changed since he marched in his first Pride parade in the early 1990s.
"When I first joined, it was a mixture of AIDS awareness and a freedom that for one day a year we could come out and be ourselves in this one sliver of Cleveland," said England. "Over the years, it has morphed into a more family-friendly event."
Increased participation among youth and young adults also has caught England's attention.
"When I first began attending, I was 22," he said. "I remember thinking how much older everyone was. Now it seems the GLBT youth have not only organized but are also taking a role in the leadership of the community.
"I think it is wonderful that the youth are being able to be who they are at a much younger age than my generation," said England. "It can only lead to a healthier existence and self-esteem."
The North Coast Men's Chorus – with a big assist from Tony Award-winning guest star Brian Stokes Mitchell – helped cap off Pride day festivities with a concert in the Palace Theatre of Cleveland's historic Theater District. Stokes also served as the celebrity marshal of the parade.