Festival organizers in colorful clothes walked out Saturday morning in front of a stage along Paducah’s historic floodwall. Dozens of local businesses and vendors, their stands adorned with bright, rainbow flags, crowded downtown parking lots.
After months of grassroots planning, each person held a flag, billowing in the wind, representing a part of the LGBTQ community.
“I think with having those flags flying, all 16 of those flags flying, right out front, right in Paducah, it shows that our community doesn’t have to go to Nashville, St. Louis, Chicago to be represented,” said Dustin Havens, Paducah LGBT Welcome Center Director of Operations. “We’re here, and we’re not going anywhere. And it just melts my heart to see that it’s all coming together so well.”
Havens said the idea was inspired by all of the Pride parades and festivals he attended when living in Oregon. Havens wanted something similar for his new home in Paducah.
“And this last year it was just like ‘we’re doing it.’ We’re gonna just do it. Stop talking about it, let’s just do it. Let’s represent our community. It’s time that we take a stand. It’s time that we show them we’re here,” Havens said.
Yet, he said, those months of planning were at times difficult. Festival organizers faced online harassment, and Havens said Donna Riley, the President of the Paducah LGBT Welcome Center, received a death threat.
LGBTQ community members showed up to a Paducah city commission meeting in late July because of false, rumored fears that their festival would be moved indoors. Havens said they also decided to contract with Paducah Police for festival security instead of a private company for extra safety.
“I think all of us, we wanted the festival and we wanted the community more than we wanted to be scared,” Havens said.
26-year-old Alex Clark, a chemical engineer from Paducah, carried the Pride rainbow flag during the opening ceremony. He said he understands that some people might disagree with them in a traditionally conservative region. But that it didn’t stop him from dressing up for the occasion.
“Never ask a gay man about his outfit -- he’ll go on for days,” he said with a laugh. “I have six-inch red-bottom stilettos, I have a rainbow romper, and I have a pin on my lapel. And then I have a sailor’s hat that’s rainbow as well. I’ve got nails to kill. And these heels are killing me.”
Clark hopes the event can “open doors” for people to new perspectives.
“The more we come out and do events like this and see ‘oh, we’re not so different than me.’ Than the more that stuff will come naturally, the more people you can win over, the more impact you can have and the more change you can make,” he said.
Organizers believe the festival is also a chance to show younger people that they can be true to themselves by seeing others doing the same.
Veronica Saunders is a volunteer children’s pastor with First Family Church in Paducah. She said the festival is important because it celebrates diversity. “It’s not just about being homosexual or LGBTQ or any of that. It’s actually about celebrating our differences and that’s what I want to instill in the kids.”
“It’s about love,” Saunders said. “Let’s all be prideful that each one of us is different. Each color of the rainbow is important and is worthy and it doesn’t matter what flag you’re flying, it’s about love.”
50-year-old Lisa Burnett of Paducah said seeing younger generations of LGBTQ people openly expressing themselves at the festival is inspiring, given her past struggles. Burnett said she grew up in Graves County in the 1980s, and was ostracized for being a lesbian.
“Did I ever think that I would be able to come down to Paducah’s riverfront during the day, and see so much Pride and the Pride flag being displayed? No, but it’s a beautiful thing,” Burnett said. “And it warms my heart. It truly does, and it gives me hope.”
One festival supporter announced he was working with the local quilting community to build memorials through quilts, honoring the victims of HIV as well as the victims of hate crimes and suicides. Mitch Clark is now retired, having worked in the microbiology department at Baptist Health in Paducah for 26 years, and thought what better way to memorialize those in the region than with quilts, since Paducah is home to the National Quilt Museum.
“Folks, HIV has been around, in Paducah, ever since the very beginning,” he said, and described his experience drawing the first positive HIV test in Paducah on the first day the tests were made available in the 80s. He said Heartland CARES began in 1996 and now serves around 400 clients in a 43-county region. He noted that more than 300 clients have lost their lives since the clinic opened.
When asked what Pride means to him, Clark described himself as a ‘follower of Christ’ and said coming out of the closet was tough. “It was hard because of my faith but Christ kept leading me down the road that said ‘follow your heart son, follow your heart.’ And I did. I finally came out at the age of 34 and I’m 57 now.”
He said working with HIV prevention has been his passion for quite some time. “And, hopefully, with God’s grace, we will be able to end this scourge one day.” He described individuals he knew whose families have disowned them due to being gay. He said he’d do anything he can to help anyone in that situation.
He said, growing up, he never thought there’d be a Pride festival in West Kentucky. “Nothing like this,” he said. “The turnout, the support has been phenomenal. It is so heartwarming and the blessings that our church received yesterday - we know that over 300 people came through our booth alone. There’s a need out there. People are looking for church homes, but they don’t want to go to a church where they feel like they’re not loved. Christ’s message was to love our neighbors and not to judge others. And that’s what we believe and that’s what we live in our church.”
Keisha Curry is the leader of ‘Out Paducah’, a local LGBT youth advocacy group. She was named the Grand Marshall of the festival, and believes the event will be a turning point for years to come.
“This is going to change Paducah forever. And I believe, and I pray, we have this year after year, and it only gets bigger and bigger. And the reason why I say it’s going to change Paducah is because people are going to hear about it,” Curry said. “When you find young people who are willing to relocate for jobs who are in the LBGT community, they’re going to jump on board and say ‘they have an active community in Paducah, and I want to be a part of that.’ A lot of our kids are leaving because they don’t feel accepted.”
Maddie Leach of Paducah on Sunday led on stage a remembrance of transgender women, calling out the 19 names of those whose lives were cut short this year. She said Pride means being able to be who you are without any expectations. “Sometimes we place those expectations on people, to be passable, or to act straight or to act gay. And all of those expectations aren’t warranted. Pride means to me just being who you are and being able to do that on your own terms.”
Leach said she feels the organizers helped educate people not just on sexuality, but who they are as people. “While we may love different, or we may look different, or we may medically transition, we’re still part of this community and I think it’s what makes this country great. When we sing the national anthem at the beginning of a Pride Festival, I just thought: this is what our country is all about, liberty. And we don’t have to all agree on what Pride means or my lifestyle, but it’s good to know that we have a seat at the table.”
Festival organizers said the fairness ordinance passed by Paducah’s city commission last year was a step in the right direction and gave them confidence to hold the festival. Organizers are planning to extend next year’s festival to be a full week in May.