By Leslie D. Rose
For the fifth consecutive year Mayor-President Kip Holden proclaimed June 28 as GLBTQ Pride Day in Baton Rouge. That’s just one sign that things are taking a turn for unity in the Capital City.
But change may be just as far away as it is nearby.
On the outside of the Belle of Baton Rouge atrium where the 2014 Pride Fest was being held, a group of Christian radicals preached from hand-picked Bible passages with anti-gay picket signs and bullhorns. It quickly became a tale of two Baton Rouges, as the inside of the atrium was filled with color, life and hope. Children played and danced, people celebrated and over 60 corporate sponsors supported the cause.
Pride Fest is an annual celebration of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer community in Baton Rouge. This year marks the eighth annual for the city.
The Grand Marshals were Cami Miller and Joe Traigle, who are both well known in the Baton Rouge GLBTQ community and have played a variety of key roles in it, including leading Capital City Alliance (CCA) in some of its earliest days.
Along with the day filled with live entertainment from some of the city’s top performers including the Michael Foster Project, the six hour event had door prizes, refreshments and a blessing/acknowledgement of relationships led by the Rev. Keith Mozingo of Metropolitan Community Church, who wore a rainbow stole over his white church robe.
“I would like to be doing mass weddings,” Mozingo said. “It could happen next year.”
Pride Fest ended with directions for the day’s activism – The Equality March. Sponsored by CCA and Equality Louisiana (EQLA), the march began at the Belle of Baton Rouge and ended on the State Capitol Steps.
The purpose of the march is to draw attention to the inequalities experienced by GLBTQ people in Louisiana with regard to employment, housing and relationship recognition, and to the verbal, physical, and sexual harassment and assault perpetrated against this population. According to its mission statement, the march is also to make visible an invisible population, one that is often overlooked and disadvantaged in Louisiana legislation and raise awareness among Louisiana residents.
This is the third year that The Equality March has been coupled with Pride Fest.
“Really the idea is to display publically in a real way the struggle and the fight for equality,” said CCA board chair David Samuels. “This is hopefully one of the ways that we can be seen in the community and throughout the state.”
Protestors against equality marched alongside the equal rights activists as a means of displaying their own free speech.
“They have as much of a right to be on the street as we do,” Samuels said of the protestors. “The police were really great to ensure that they weren’t disruptive. Ultimately they only made us chant louder -they had megaphones but there were only two of them – there were hundreds of us.”
Samuels said he welcomes the protestors by the hundreds next year because he knows that no matter how loud they can get, the GLBTQ activists can get louder.
Once at the Capitol, there was a rally hosted by CCA volunteer of the year Zoiliss Rios that included speeches and awards.
CCA is a community organization dedicated to engaging, promoting, and advocating for the LGBT community in greater Baton Rouge.
The CCA gave an award to its advocate of the year Casey Phillips of the BR Walls Project. EQLA honored PFLAG New Orleans as the coalition of the year. David Dowdle and Splash Nightclub received the CCA donor of the year award. EQLA awarded Wesley Ware and Baylor Boyd with outstanding community advocate of the year, Deon Haywood with volunteer of the year and Michael Beyer and Hannah Ellsworth with rising star of the year.
Along with the acceptance speeches, powerful words were also spoken by some of the city’s GLBTQ’s strongest activists including representatives from BreakOUT, Louisiana Trans Advocates and Acadiana CARES.
But it was outgoing president of Spectrum who really led the crowd into an emotional and honest part of the day.
Her speech began with the request that she remain anonymous in the media as she is a recent college graduate and unemployed music teacher.
“It is legal in 34 states for me to be denied employment,” she cautioned.
Louisiana is now among those states.
Using the catchphrase “It’s bullshit” to offset her points, she then referenced local crimes against transgender women in Baton Rouge.
“It think it’s okay to admit to ourselves that it gets a little tough when we have to step outside our little bubble,” she said. “We cannot get complacent! Some people don’t recognize the daily struggles we endure so it’s our job to make them understand.”
As the march came to an end, Rios returned to the microphone for closing remarks.
“I believe what we’re here for is important and I want to see this group bigger and bigger,” Rios said before leading the group in a quick chant.
What do we want?
When do we want it?
Sadly the smiles that stood on those steps faded almost as quickly as they appeared as the sun set on the day of pride. There is much more work to be done in the state of Louisiana, especially with the upcoming late July vote on an ordinance that would ban discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on categories that include sexual orientation and gender identity – such is already the case in Shreveport and New Orleans, but a similar bill failed to pass earlier this year.
Also in recent news, a U.S. District Court Judge in New Orleans has announced that he would decide whether Louisiana should allow gay couples to wed – rather than just ruling on whether the state should recognize gay marriages from other states.
But with every beam of hope, there is both pushback from the opposition and fear from activists. These items are constant issues on EQLA’s list according to coalition manager Bruce Parker.
“One of the things we do is look at data and talk to people,” Parker said. “It looks like the general population isn’t worried about these issues – people are more worried about jobs, healthcare and education.”
Parker said he believes that the legislature, governor and a very small group of religious people are the only ones who are regularly against marriage equality.
“So it’s really now about getting our elected officials and the law caught up,” he said.
According to its mission statement, EQLA works to achieve full equality for all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Louisiana by supporting the development and on-going success of strong LGBT college, local, regional, statewide and allied organizations while also providing a collective voice for the expansion of civil rights through policy and legislative advocacy.
“More than signing a petition, people need to talk to each other,” Parker said. “We have to change people’s hearts and minds because it doesn’t do me a whole lot of good if I can get married on Sunday and get fired for having a picture of my husband on my desk on Monday.”
“We need to change the culture,” he continued.
Since the end of the Civil Rights Era some fifty years ago, GLBTQ rights or lack thereof has been at the forefront of inequality issues. While activists say they are hopeful, there is indeed no telling when change will come.