A large and diverse crowd of people — gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and straight — streamed into the River Center auditorium on Saturday to share, discuss and celebrate everything that brings them together and sets them apart.
The occasion was the Baton Rouge Pride Festival, and many who attended this year were happily anticipating what they believe will soon be a U.S. Supreme Court decision that will put an end to state laws banning same-sex marriage.
Some festivalgoers danced to a procession of musical acts on a rainbow-draped stage as others gathered around tables where businesses and organizations from across the state offered resources and opportunities for advocacy.
Peter Jenkins, an organizer for Equality Louisiana, said that because Pride Fest is the largest LGBT event in the state, it has an important role to play as a gathering place for the community.
“People come here from all around the state,” Jenkins said. “It’s an event for people to come and see that they’re not alone.”
LGBT people face higher rates of suicide and depression, Jenkins said, in part because fear of coming out and persecution can cause them to feel isolated.
Courtland Douglas, co-founder of Qroma LSU, a support organization for LGBT students of color, said he is familiar with that isolation. He said his desire to help other students feeling the same way motivated him to start the group.
He said it’s often harder for people of color to come out, as they feel more pressure from their communities to suppress their sexual identity.
Douglas said creating an environment that was not only welcoming but familiar was important to him. LSU’s predominately white student base meant LGBT students of color still felt like outsiders, even among the college’s other LGBT groups, he said.
“They were happy to just have that space where they could come in and see there’s a variety of people here,” Douglas said.
Douglas said Pride Fest representatives sought out Qroma specifically and spoke at one of the group’s meetings. While he appreciated that the festival actively made an effort to be racially inclusive, he said he was concerned that people of color could see it as a “white” event.
“The trap people can fall into is they come in and see the crowd is mostly white, the leadership is mostly white, and they say, ‘Oh, this place isn’t for me,’ ” Douglas said. “In a way they can kind of ‘otherize’ themselves in their own mind.”
While conversation around the tables broached serious topics, the mood was still celebratory, as many looked forward to what they expect to be a positive ruling when the United States Supreme Court rules on marriage equality later this month.
Though Louisiana’s ban on same-sex marriage, which was previously upheld by a federal district court judge, may cause some delays, most advocates were bullish that the state will see same-sex marriages performed within the year.
Dave Samuels, treasurer at Capital City Alliance, an advocacy group for the Baton Rouge LGBT community, said he felt the moment the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case involving a state same-sex marriage ban was a tipping point.
“The Supreme Court gave a strong signal that a positive ruling is coming,” Samuels said. “Look, people can sense it’s coming. They’re excited.”
Keith Mozingo, pastor of Metropolitan Community Church, said he will be administering same-sex marriages as soon as he’s legally allowed.
His church currently offers “holy unions,” non-legally binding ceremonies that allow couples, gay or straight, to be united in the church, but he says he already is receiving reservation requests for same-sex marriages after the date the ruling is scheduled to come down.
Metropolitan Community Church also is offering marriage counseling and coaching classes, which instruct couples on the logistical and emotional intricacies of marriage.
Mozingo, who also served as a Pride Fest grand marshal, said he heard criticism that gay couples were approaching marriage flippantly.
“We want to show that we are taking this seriously, as seriously as any other couple getting married,” Mozingo said.
After the brass band, lip-synch drag show and other performers cleared the rainbow-draped stage, four pastors in white robes and rainbow sashes stood above a crowd of embracing couples and blessed their relationships in a gleeful ceremony that resembled an informal mass wedding.
Billy Dudley, 46, and David West, 51, both of Baton Rouge, were among those receiving a blessing. The couple got married in Boston last year after being in a relationship since 1995. They said the blessing acted as a reaffirmation of the commitment they made to each other.
Still, Dudley said, they would appreciate having their marriage recognized in Louisiana. He said the couple has had some inconveniences they wouldn’t have if the state recognized their marriage, such as granting each other medical powers of attorney.
“It’s great that we have recognition in other states, but this is our home state,” Dudley said.
Dudley and West said they would likely hold a second ceremony celebrating their marriage if same-sex marriage becomes legal in Louisiana.
Other couples were not so willing to wait on the movements of bureaucracy.
Angela Compton and Kendra Loupe, both 24 and of Baton Rouge, said they had their relationship blessed because marriage wasn’t an option in Louisiana. While they plan to get married eventually, they see the blessing as a first step.
“I don’t feel like I need the state’s permission to love her,” Loupe said.