As society changes, Mid-Missouri PrideFest grows

Written by Muleskinner Staff

RUDI KELLER
Columbia Daily Tribune
(COLUMBIA, Mo., AP) — An engaged couple, sitting close in the shade while enjoying dancers during a street festival, is an occurrence so often repeated it is unremarkable.
Unless it is a transgender male and his bride-to-be starting life together a little more than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court said they have a constitutional right to marry. Jaz James, who graduated from Stephens College in May, and Alex Morgan, a senior at Stephens, said they emerged from conservative households to find each other and themselves.
Born female and in the first stages of gender transition, James said the climate at Stephens changed noticeably, for the better, during his years on campus.
“Columbia opened a whole new world to me,” James said as he sat with Morgan in Forrest Park at Rose Music Hall during Mid-Missouri PrideFest. “I found this is OK and nothing is actually wrong with me.”
The inaugural PrideFest, in 2004, brought about 100 people together for a potluck dinner in Cosmo Park, trying to make the community aware of gays and lesbians and their presence. Saturday’s event had brought almost 2,000 people by mid-afternoon to a street fair downtown that draws commercial vendors, political booths and service organizations that are just as likely to set up shop at other summer events, The Columbia Daily Tribune reported (http://bit.ly/2bRM1ud ).
Marriage equality isn’t the final victory over discrimination based on sexual orientation or identity, said Kari Utterback, secretary of the board of Mid-Missouri PrideFest. The nearly 60 vendors are there to show support, and many of the people who attend need a place they feel at home, she said.
“They know they can feel safe here and let their freak flags fly,” Utterback said.
While many communities in Missouri, including Columbia, offer civil rights protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation, there is no statewide law.
A law offering those protections is needed, Utterback said, but it along can’t stop discrimination or protect gay, lesbian and transgender people from violent attacks.
Last year’s PrideFest celebrated the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, and this year’s event remembered a tragedy, the June 12 shooting spree at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando that left 49 dead and 53 wounded. At 3 p.m. Saturday, the festival paused to remember the dead and wounded.
“We can pass laws all day, but that doesn’t change people’s hearts,” Utterback said.
Amber and C.J. Johnson brought their son, Quentin, 2, to PrideFest, but by late afternoon he was snoozing in his stroller. They moved to Columbia less than a year ago and said they are impressed by the size of the event.
“Missouri gets a bad reputation for being backwards,” Amber Johnson said.
“What I see is an atmosphere of acceptance,” C.J. Johnson added.
The most important thing PrideFest offers, Morgan said, is a chance to relax in safe surroundings. “This event is about finding your community,” Morgan said. “It is about unapologetically being yourself.”
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Information from: Columbia Daily Tribune, http://www.columbiatribune.com