Upper Peninsula Pride

Participants of Pridefest march as part of the Walk of Awareness. (Photo courtesy of Marissa Jayne Wolfe)

By Neal Simons

LGBTQA advocacy group U.P. Rainbow Pride (UPRP) will hold its fourth annual Pridefest at Tourist Park in the City of Marquette on Saturday, September 16. This year’s Pridefest will include children’s games and activities, Pride merchandise, LGBTQ resources, drag shows, and various performers.

“It’s evolved where it’s gotten bigger. Our entertainment is expanding to where we have more performers for the people who come,” said UPRP board member Lee Maki. “We’re also expanding our youth activities. It just keeps evolving into a bigger festival every year.”

The first Pridefest began in Marquette in 2014, a year after UPRP first formed. Initially gathering at Presque Isle on a monthly basis, UPRP was inspired to form their own Pridefest after many of the original board members witnessed such an event taking place in Chicago.

“We met at a Perkins one day to discuss forming a board and putting on our own Pridefest,” Maki said. “We wanted to make a safe environment, where people could feel comfortable just being themselves as well as not feel threatened by anybody and just celebrate our LGBTQA community.”

The group was astounded by the thousands of people who attended their first Pridefest, as they were uncertain at the time as to what kind of crowd it would draw.

“We didn’t know what we were doing at first. We felt we’d be lucky if only a few hundred people showed up,” said UPRP co-chairperson David Shew. “There was also a lot of learning we had gone through about the acceptance in Marquette County. People are really genuine, and they really care about diversity here. It’s been an awesome experience just learning about people.”

It was not long before Pridefest in the U.P. began drawing people from all over the Midwest. People from Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Lower Michigan now come to Pridefest every year since its inception.

“You get a lot of family members who have somebody that’s gay or transgender who show their support,” Maki said. “They’re so happy that there’s something like this out here. I’ve some people come up and tell me that the most exciting thing they’ve done is go to Pridefest, and get a feeling that it’s OK to be who you are.”

Pridefest has also been received well by the local community, with a Marquette city commissioner commencing an opening ceremony for the event every year.

“This event is about love, and it’s an honor to be a part of it,” said Vice Mayor Sarah Reynolds, who opened for Pridefest last year.

Progressive Rock musician Hunter Wade is a returning performer for this year’s Pridefest, as are the Borealis Gypsy Bell Dancers. Jeff Jennings and North of Nowhere will also lend their musical talents, and several professional drag queens will return for an evening drag show. UPRP is also organizing its first-ever Gay Olympic Games, which will include relay races, a shoe boot/high-heel kicking contest, and a purse toss. This will also be the first year that UPRP works with the Gay, Lesbian, Or Whatever (G.L.O.W.) organization from Peter White Public Library. G.L.O.W. will set up several youth games and activities for this year’s Pridefest for families to enjoy, after meeting with UPRP last winter.

“It’s really important to include the youth, to let them know it’s OK to be gay,” Shew said.

Shew has also been pushing for the Michigan LGBT & Aging Initiative, a two-year project funded by the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, which seeks to improve care and reduce isolation for the LGBT elderly community. Shew will hand out surveys to take that will benefit the initiative, which is looking into three different regions in the State of Michigan, including the U.P.

“There are the older adults to think of too. These are people who are in their 60s and 70s, who have lived up here all their lives and may not know about a lot of the resources available to them,” Shew said.

As original members, both Maki and Shew are excited for this year’s Pridefest and believe it is more important now than ever.

“We need to be totally inclusive,” Shew said. “We’re all human, and we need to let people know that everybody can be good and that it’s peace, love, and diversity that are important.”

There are also some new members eagerly anticipating the chance to do their part for the U.P. event.

P.J. Stephens grew up traveling with a military family, and later settled in Alaska for 25 years. She joined the Army in 1996, where she became a combat medical specialist. She was stationed in Germany until 2000, and saw the psychological ramifications of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy at that time.

“They had a class where you’re not allowed to ask if you are gay or bisexual, but if you are you’re wrong,” Stephens said. “It was like a slap in the face, and a wake-up call that things aren’t as light as they seem.”

Stephens later worked with a pride group while living in Alaska, setting up fundraisers and charity events before moving to Michigan in 2015.

“I started seeing some things on Facebook about UPRP, and then this past year I started thinking that I should get into it a little more,” Stephens said.

Stephens’s sister, who lives in Illinois, has a trans nephew who’s been subject to bullying and rape threats, which have gone to court. The two were also evicted after their case was televised. What her sister and trans nephew are going through is what motivated Stephens to retake the mantle of an activist and join UPRP.

“It’s what lit the fire in me, to go back into activism,” Stephens said. “It hasn’t been great…I’m telling her these battles keep happening and we just have to persevere through them.”

After a year of volunteering, Stephens joined the UPRP board in July.

With this being her first Pridefest, Stephens is excited to see what this year brings them.

“There’s a good energy that’s coming out of the board members, volunteers and all the sponsors that we have involved with us,” Stephens said. “This looks like a really good year for Pridefest.”

Like many of the board members in UPRP, Stephens has faced intense discrimination in her life and is happy to be part of a group that is driven to keep Pridefest as an annual event in the U.P. She is also amazed by the community, and the amount of organizations willing to show their support for Pridefest.

“To even have the amount of people sponsoring us is phenomenal,” Stephens said. “I remember, 25 years ago, that there would have been very few people willing to participate. To have so many people willing to identify themselves with us has been a humbling experience, and a very hopeful experience.”

Stephens is looking forward to providing new input for UPRP, and is excited to see what the future holds for the group.

“I’m looking forward to people having a good time, especially in a year like this,” Stephens said. “We need that right now. We need to put the word out, and let them know they’re in a protective supportive group for LGBTQA people and allies alike.”

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