About 1,000 people turned out in Cumberland to celebrate Maryland’s newest Pride festival. LGBT people, our friends, our families and our allies gathered downtown on the city’s main plaza to be seen and heard. LGBT parents brought their kids. LGBT teens brought their moms and dads. Rainbow flags and trans flags festooned buildings and bodies alike. There was drag, and music, and dozens of vendors.
It was big news. The local paper covered the story, so did the TV station. And whether or not the good people of Allegany County needed proof that we live among them, they certainly have it now.
When the New York Times reported the city’s first Pride Parade, they spoke with Michael Brown, one of the organizers. He said to them, “We have to come out into the open and stop being ashamed, or else people will go on treating us as freaks.” Nothing in that statement is any less true today. Ever since New Yorkers marched from the Stonewall Inn to Central Park chanting “out of the closets, into the streets,” visibility has been critically important to LGBT people.
The act of revealing our authentic selves to the world is a trait that fundamentally defines who we are. Gathering with others like us confirms we are not alone. Doing so publicly refutes the ignorance of those who insist we don’t exist and defies the foul stereotype that we are “freaks.” Celebrating Pride with our friends, our families, and our allies is therefore an essential, enduring part of our ongoing fight for acceptance and equality.
Unfortunately, coming out remains a difficult personal choice because our collective visibility isn’t yet a perfect antidote to the intolerance that poisons many places in America. The backlash against a higher profile for the trans community has led to a number of transphobic “bathroom bills,” most infamously in North Carolina. The Supreme Court of Texas, responding to the number of gay and lesbian couples seeking to be married, has chosen to torture the law instead of respecting the opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court. Dozens of states persist in willfully sanctioning discrimination against LGBT people in housing, employment and public accommodation.
When Maryland’s voters went to the polls in 2014 to decide the question of marriage equality, the people of Allegany County voted against it by a margin of 2-to-1; and since they recently voted for Donald Trump by a margin of nearly 3-to-1 it’s still an open question as to what would be their vote on the marriage initiative now. But what was known even when Question 6 was on the ballot, according to reports published by the Pew Research Center, was that support for same-sex marriage was highest among people who knew someone openly LGBT. That fact has not changed, and if we want to turn the tide of public opinion on issues related to our equality then we have to be visible even in Republican strongholds.
Cumberland and other small cities in America’s rural areas are right now at the vanguard of the movement for LGBT equality. They are among the places where the personal costs of coming out remain the greatest, so they are also the places where visibility matters most. The people of Allegany County, and North Carolina, and Texas have to see us in public to know that we are not freaks and we are not ashamed.
We need more Pride festivals in more downtown plazas in more parts of the country. We need to support them however we can – sharing knowledge, volunteering time, giving money or simply showing up. And we need to thank organizers like Cassie Conklin, Jeremy Gosnell, Beau Hartman, Jacqie McKenzie, Shannon Shine, Anthony Tagliaferro, and Lisa Wolford who are leading their communities.
At the end of the day’s festivities, Cumberland also saw its first Pride Parade. Among the crowd were the organizers who joined in marching and chanting, “We’re proud. We know it. We aren’t afraid to show it.”
Thank God for that. Happy Pride, Cumberland!
Brian Gaither (@briangaither) is a co-founder of the Pride Foundation of Maryland (@PrideMaryland), a tax-exempt organization focused on the history, culture and general well-being of Maryland’s LGBT community. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos provided by Jackie Street Photography.