A little less loud. A lot more proud.6/4/2014
In many ways, PrideFest — the capital city’s annual celebration of LGBT unity — is all of us.
Drawing in an estimated 10,000-12,000 people annually, PrideFest is a vital, living, breathing thing. It pulses with the lifeblood of a community and embraces each and every one of its children with equal amounts of love and acceptance.
And now in its 36th year, PrideFest, like so many other Des Moines Gen-X’ers, is creeping up on middle age. For many of us, the closer we get to 40, the more we start thinking about our legacy — the kind of impression we’ve left on those around us, and what kind of future we’re building for those who will come after. In this regard, too, we are PrideFest. More specifically, we are Pride 2.0.
“Over the past five or six years, we’ve seen a lot of growth, and we’re trying to continue that,” said Capital City Pride President Jesse Driscoll, speaking of the committee’s plans for this year’s festival theme. “We’re also trying to open up opportunities for other aspects of the gay community. For example, we’ve been seeing a lot more gay families, so we’re trying to do more events that are family friendly.”
To that end, Pride 2.0 is less about reinvention and more about evolution. In the past, Pride has been a more or less adult-themed event. Traditionally held on East Fifth Street in the East Village, in front of legendary institutions like The Blazing Saddle and Buddy’s Corral, Pridefest has primarily catered to the gay community’s sweet-spot demographic: 20-30-year-old singles.
“It can get raunchy at times,” said Des Moines resident Jerome London, a veteran of eight PrideFests. “It’s not like you’re not welcome if you’re older or younger or straight or whatever. And I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t had fun there. But the party can get pretty ‘parental advisory’ at times.”
The idea that a non “party people” crowd has always been welcome, though not exactly catered to, is a common sentiment.
“I don’t enjoy it,” said Des Moines resident Kyle Chizek. Chizek has attended PrideFest in the past but hasn’t gone in several years because of the event’s atmosphere.
“I think it’s just one big ball of stereotype,” he continued. “Especially for something that’s trying to promote family? It’s not.”
For Chizek, London and people like them, there’s nothing wrong with PrideFest being a celebration. They aren’t even opposed to the majority of the festival being an adults-only affair. But they’ve always felt that certain aspects should be more inclusive.
“I understand it at night,” Chizek said. “It’s a street party. Let your freak flag fly. If you want to walk around on a leash, that’s awesome. But during the parade? When there’s children there? That’s what made me walk away.”
“They have always said, ‘bring your kids, bring your parents,’ ” London agreed. “The parade is supposed to be the most media friendly, openly accessible part of the fest. The part that we are supposed to be able to show to people who might know nothing about us and say ‘see? This is really cool.’ But the event doesn’t always make it easy.”
“The last year I went, there was the Le Boi Bar float, with dancers in soaking wet, boy’s medium-sized underwear, hanging necklaces on children,” Chizek added. “(The parade) is a place to promote the gay community — I don’t want to say in ‘the normal way’ — but it’s a family-oriented place. And to me, tiny men in tinier underwear is not my idea of that.”
Driscoll said it was Capital City Pride’s aim to specifically address perceptions like those by offering an array of options for families and people looking for a more subdued experience.
“For starters, we’re opening earlier on Saturday,” he explained. “Typically we’ve opened at 5 p.m., but now we’re opening at noon to give those people with children more of a chance to experience the festival.”
Of course, PrideFest hasn’t been a static entity for the past four decades. The event has grown exponentially in size and, as the years have gone by, various themes and events have come and gone. New ideas are always being floated, with some sticking and others never making it out of the planning stages. But Pride 2.0 marks the first wholesale shift in thinking for the the planning of the festival.
“The idea of trying to cater to different parts of the community has been talked about for several years,” Driscoll explained. “Every year someone makes a little bit of an attempt. As you can imagine, you’re not going to make everyone happy, so every attempt has been successful in its own right, but never to the extent that it needed to be. So this year, being given a brand new venue, we’re hoping to get a little bit of traction.”
That change in venue will be the first and most obvious difference that Pride-goers will notice. No longer in the East Village, the main body of the festival will take place on the Grand Avenue Bridge. Additional vendor and entertainment space will be featured in the Brenton Skating Plaza, under the Plaza’s newly installed canopy. The Pride Committee sees this as an opportunity to cater to a couple different demographics in a way that’s inclusive of everyone while still providing enough separation to ensure that families can adequately control how much of the festival their children will see.
“We’ve got a magician and some other family-oriented activities to try and create a more fair-type atmosphere,” Driscoll said. “Liberty Gifts has donated some toys and other small things for families and small children. We’re putting those folks into the Brenton Skating Plaza. We’ll have the more ‘adult’ vendors, if you will, on the bridge, and the family-themed things in the skating plaza.”
Additionally, the festival has brought in more family-oriented main-stage musical acts, from local act Madison Ray & All the Single Ladies, to Minneapolis tribute act Pop ROCKS.
“It’s a high energy act, and it’s a very PG-rated show,” Driscoll said of Pop ROCKS. “They dress up like the various bands they’re covering, and it’s a lot of fun. So that will be another options for folks looking for something family friendly.”
For Driscoll and the rest of the committee board, the decision to move the festival was a difficult one, but it wasn’t made solely in the name of family accommodation.
“One thing that we’ve heard is that people are disappointed that we’ve left the East Village,” Driscoll admits. “But with all of the construction that’s happening around there, we didn’t feel like having a street festival was going to be fun or safe. As a board, we had a lot of discussion about the venue (change). We considered where other festivals are, and discussed the pros and cons. The bridge and the Skating Plaza together kept us close to the East Village. The biggest challenge is that we’re going to be away from the social aspect of the East Village. Having it on the bridge really meant that we had to focus on options to keep people entertained throughout the day, as well as making sure there was plenty of access to food and bathrooms. But I think with the addition of the Skating Plaza, we’ve got some really great space on that end of town. And all of our vendors are bringing their operations down to the bridge and making sure that everyone is hydrated and fed.”
The new location appealed to the board for pragmatic reasons, as well, Driscoll admitted.
“The opportunity to become a bigger, more involved part of the downtown area was exciting to the board,” he said.
Whether everyone involved with the carrying out of PrideFest admits it or not — hell, whether everyone who GOES to PrideFest admits it or not — the festival is the most aggressively public face for the whole community. It’s the annual chance to show the rest of the state exactly what the gay community is all about. That’s not something unique to PrideFest: Every festival or street party that caters to a specific demographic serves, involuntarily or not, as the poster child for that demographic. Some acquit themselves well. Indie music lovers take pride in the fact that 80/35 has gone off without a hitch or complaint for six years now. Others, have less desirable reputations. Iowa State University administrators wish that VEISHEA would just die already.
PrideFest, for its part, has maintained a sterling reputation within the city, but the Capital City Pride Committee is now turning its eyes toward the goal of greater integration and acceptance within the downtown corridor and the city of Des Moines as a whole. Driscoll and his fellow board members understand that it’s through greater community outreach that PrideFest will be able to continue to grow and to meet the generally held goals of unity and understanding.
“We’ve really put a new focus on our marketing and sponsorship efforts,” Driscoll explained. “(We’ve) focused on adding value for people who want to help sponsor Capital City Pride in that fashion. We’ve focused a lot more on social media advertising, and we’ve had a lot of positive response from our traditional sponsors regarding that new approach.
“That’s really the next place that Pride needs to go,” he continued. “Every year, Pride gets about the same number of sponsors. So we hope that by having a more consistent social-media outreach process, we’ll get more and more sponsors and have a bigger and better festival for folks.”
So far, all of the announced changes are being met with optimism.
“I’m excited for all of it,” said Indianola resident Amanda Acton. “I’ve brought my children to Pride in the past; it’s fun to be able to talk to them about it this year and have things for them to get excited about.”
“I don’t feel like it’s got anything to do with some desire to be deemed ‘more acceptable’ by the straight community,” added Ankeny’s Ryan Billings. “To me, all of the changes are just a way of acknowledging that there’s no hard-and-fast truth about what the gay community likes. Some of us love to party and drink and dance, and some of us really like taking our kids to shows and eating corn dogs. And I know it sounds crazy, but some of us even like BOTH of those things. So if I can drink and have a good time at Pride in the evenings, but still take my kid to the parade in the morning, it’s a great thing.”
More than any one thing about PrideFest, it’s the parade that people hold most dear. The vast majority of Pride-goers love a good street party, and the music stages are immensely popular, but the parade has always been Pride’s symbol. It’s a legacy that Driscoll is intimately aware of.
“The parade has been a tradition in Des Moines for many, many years,” he said. “The first-ever Pride was four people marching on the capitol. So the parade is a key part of any Pride festival.”
Last year, the Pride parade made a small but dramatic adjustment to its route, turning off of Grand Avenue at East Seventh Street, before turning right at Locust and continuing toward downtown with the State Capitol building directly at its back. The image is one that’s both symbolically powerful and aesthetically beautiful, and it’s one that Capital City Pride has brought back again this year. Additionally, due to the change in venue, the parade now dead-ends right next to the gate of the festival grounds, allowing people to follow the parade down Locust and step right into the festival, if they so choose.
Driscoll and his fellow board members know that perceptions are not changed overnight. They also know that no one festival configuration is going to please everybody. But the group feels that these changes make the event more accessible, more welcoming, and give PrideFest its best chance at continued growth and success.
Driscoll knows that he’s helping today to construct the foundation for future festivals. The decisions made for Pride 2.0 will, for better or worse, resonate within the PrideFest itself for years to come. CV