Saturday morning in Helena started out with a bit of rain, but it was followed by rainbows, lots of rainbows – which have come to symbolize diversity, equality and inclusiveness worldwide.
Many of the hundreds of Montanans who gathered for the Big Sky Pride parade, which snaked through Last Chance Gulch and was followed by a rally in Anchor and Pioneer parks, were adorned in bright rainbow clothing and waved rainbow flags to show support for the state’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and question (LGBTQ) community.
Local stores, restaurants, hotels, bars and other businesses proudly displayed rainbow flags, and – for the first time ever – a rainbow flag flew over the Montana Capitol. At Bert and Ernie’s restaurant, you could even order a lunch “Pride” special of rainbow pasta.
The whole community, it seemed, embraced the festivities. University of Montana mascot Monte was there, carrying a rainbow-colored grizzly-paw print, as was a rainbow-clad Champ from Montana State. Even Glacier and Yellowstone National Park had official representation, with rangers waving rainbow flags in the Big Sky Pride Parade.
“I prefer to call it a march,” said Tom Gocksch, a leader of Big Sky Pride, a nonprofit group that organizes the annual event. “Marches seem more inclusive than parades, and we want everyone to participate. Everyone is welcome. We, as a community, need to be visible. It’s the only way to make progress. It’s difficult for folks to hate people who they know and love.”
And a diverse crowd it was – LGBTQ and straight, from all walks of life, united in celebration of diversity and acceptance, and in opposition to discrimination and hate. Such overwhelming support is a testament, in part, to how effective and successful Pride events have been.
Discrimination and hate were the catalysts for Pride. As several speakers at the Helena rally pointed out, this year is also the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. On June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York City, to arrest people simply because they were gay.
In protest, riots broke out that lasted for three days. It was an eruption of anger and frustration that had been building after years of discrimination, harassment, abuse, arrests, violence and hate directed toward the gay community. Many historians mark the Stonewall Riots as the beginning of modern LGBTQ activism.
A year later, on June 28, 1970, marches and rallies were held in New York, San Francisco and Chicago in remembrance of Stonewall and to continue bringing visibility and awareness to the fight for understanding, acceptance, fairness and equality.
The first Pride gathering in Montana was in Helena in 1973. It’s been held every year since, rotating through various cities, including Missoula, Kalispell, Billings and Bozeman. Numerous individuals and organizations based in Missoula – including the Western Montana Community Center, the Montana Gay Men’s Task Force, the Missoula AIDS Council and the Imperial Sovereign Court of the State of Montana – attend, support and help organize the event.
The parade and rally are just two elements of several days of celebration that include dances, comedy shows, drag shows, hikes, meals and other activities.
“Why do we have pride?” Kevin Hamm, one of the organizers with Big Sky Pride, asked the crowd at the rally. “Because not everyone is out. Because not everyone is understanding and accepting. We have Pride so we can be supportive. So we can be loud. So we can be safe. So we can be a community.”
Other speakers at the rally included activist Donald Stuker; Pride Parade Grand Marshal Kelli Twoteeth; Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney; gubernatorial candidate Casey Schreiner; Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins; Helena City Commissioner Ed Noonan; State Senator and Secretary-of-State candidate Bryce Bennet (the first openly gay man to serve in the Montana Legislature); State Representative and Attorney General candidate Kim Dudik; Attorney General candidate Raph Graybill, and U.S. congressional candidate Kathleen Williams.
Mayor Collins said the city of Helena had officially proclaimed the week “Big Sky Pride Week” to help contribute to a society built on love, not hate.
“People are people, and we welcome everyone to this community,” he said. Bennet shared similar sentiments. “Love is love,” he said. “Everyone is equal, and everyone should be made to feel that this is our home.”
Cooney reminded the crowd that, although we’ve come a long way, there’s still progress to be made, and reminded everyone that Pride is about more than just celebrating.
“There are people who want to take us backwards, back toward bigotry, bias, inequality and discrimination,” he said. “We can’t let that happen. We won’t let that happen. No one should fear to be who they are, and everyone should feel welcome in our great state and in our great country.”