In 2006, as New Orleans dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, East Baton Rouge Parish became the most heavily populated parish in Louisiana. But the capital city wasn’t celebrating LGBTQ Pride Month, at least not publicly.
“We had had pride events in the past, but those had sort of fallen by the wayside,” said Tom Merrill, who worked for the LSU Agricultural Center at the time. “Post-Katrina, we felt like it was time to pick up the ball.”
Merrill is a member of Metropolitan Community Church of Baton Rouge, which is part of an international LGBTQ-friendly Christian congregation. He helped persuade local church leaders to open their annual Pride picnic to the public.
That first Baton Rouge Pride Fest drew about 400 or 500 people to Forest Community Park, Merrill recalled. In the years since, the event has outgrown multiple venues, and co-chairperson Christopher Bradford expects more than 14,000 people to attend this year’s festival at the Raising Cane's River Center Arena on Saturday.
“We really want to give members of the LGBTQ community a place to go and feel that they’re safe to be themselves and show their true colors,” Bradford said.
According to the Library of Congress, Gay Pride Day originally was celebrated in the United States on the last Sunday of June to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall riots, considered a watershed moment in the gay rights movement. Typical events include parades, picnics, parties, workshops, symposia, concerts, and memorials for LGBTQ people lost to hate crimes or HIV and AIDS.
Baton Rouge Pride Fest held blessings of same-sex relationships long before the U.S. Supreme Court established nationwide marriage equality in 2015, and that tradition continues this year. Other entertainment this year includes performances from Theatre Baton Rouge, the Austin Babtist Women comedy troupe, a Krewe of Divas drag show, and Lafayette R&B artist YEHHITSKOOL, among others.
Organizers invited back all 70-plus businesses, groups and nonprofit organizations that participated in last year’s resource fair. And like last year, the event will host an arts festival in partnership with LEUR magazine.
Free HIV testing will be available, along with social workers to speak with anyone who gets “the results that they’re not expecting,” Bradford said. More than 200 people were tested last year, he said, and organizers have set a goal of 300 tests this year.
While Baton Rouge has a reputation as a socially conservative town, Bradford said local businesses have been happy to participate in the festival. Merrill added that organizers haven’t experienced opposition from local officials or the general public.
“The only protesters we get every year are groups that aren’t even from Baton Rouge,” Merrill said.
BATON ROUGE PRIDE FEST
WHEN: Noon to 7 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Raising Cane's River Center Arena, 275 S. River Road, Baton Rouge
COST: Free, register at eventbrite.com
11:30 a.m: DJ Cameron Kelly
12:45 p.m.: Theatre Baton Rouge
1:15 p.m.: About Last Night
2:30 p.m.: Krewe of Divas
3 p.m.: Recognition of Grand Marshal/Blessing of relationships
3:30 p.m.: Orphan Annie
4:30 p.m.: Austin Babtist Women
5:45 p.m.: Michigan Ave
6:30 p.m.: Krewe of Divas
The festival also features a resource fair, children's play area, welcome center, arts festival and concessions running from noon to 7 p.m.