April 20, 1980 was a typically cold and wet St. Louis Sunday. It was also the birth of what would become a Gateway City tradition, St. Louis PrideFest. Organized by the Magnolia Committee, the first march was billed as “Gays and Lesbians Walk for Charity” and was used to raise funds which were donated to non-gay charities.
There were many gay and lesbian Pride signs that morning (the “B” and “T” had yet to become a part of our communal consciousness.) About 300 people actually participated in that first walk – many carrying balloons, which were released at the Brooking’s stairs at Washington University.
The route that year stepped off at the fountain in Maryland Plaza in the Central West End, then moved east on Maryland, south on Euclid, then west on Lindell to the W.U. Campus. The following year St. Louis held the second Gay and Lesbian Pride March and Celebration, organized by a unified Pride Committee, later named Pride St. Louis.
In 1984, the march was officially dubbed a “parade” and for the next 14 years would queue in Forest Park and travel into the CWE, down Euclid, and back for festival. Those early parades were sparse and would oftentimes have more people marching than actually watching from the sidewalks.
Whether the battle cries of ACT UP and Queer Nation, the harmonies of the Gateway Men’s Chorus and Metropolitan Community Church, or the ever moving presence of Growing American Youth and Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays – these early parades proved the stepping stones to the dynamic event we enjoy today.
Pride St. Louis moved its celebration to South Grand and Tower Grove Park in 1998 where both the parade and festival have enjoyed unprecedented growth.
Freeman Bosley, Jr. was the first St. Louis mayor to speak at PrideFest and Clarence Harmon the first to ride in the Pride parade. They were big moments. Since then, Mayor Francis Slay has been a steady presence along with sundry supportive politicians.
“Size wise, the city says they consider us the second largest parade only to Mardi Gras due to the type of parade they are,” Says Ellen Vanscoy, who has held the position of Pride Parade Director since 2007. “As far as the mixture and type of entries we have – we’re bigger. We have dignitaries, hundreds strong walking groups, build out floats, horses. We have kind of the whole spectrum that some of the other parades in the area do not have. We’re actually bigger in terms of the number of participants in the parade.”
Last year’s Pride parade had 125 entries and some 2,500 people participating. For the past four years the city has required Pride to purchase bike rack barricades from Magnolia down to Utah due to swelling crowds.
“Our community comes out en masse – but you also get people from the neighborhood that come out,” Vanscoy explains. “The neighborhood kids, the neighborhood families—but I find all over the city, wherever I am – if it comes up that I’m Parade Director, they say: “Oh – I go to that every year because it’s fabulous.” We’ve grown to the capacity that we are recognized and it is a destination event.”
Last year Lumière Place Casino & Hotels and River City came on board as presenting sponsor for the Pride parade and are returning this year. Indeed, what was once decorated cars and trucks and walking contingents has given way to a cornucopia of impressive and colorful entries.
“We do very basic decorations along the route because we want to put the focus back on the entries,” says Vanscoy. “They’ve really stepped up with larger, built out floats and more elaborate walking entries. They’ve really embraced that. It’s your Pride – make it what you want.”
Vanscoy is presently the longest serving Pride St. Louis Board member and early on realized the importance of both parade and festival working together.
“I worked really hard to make the parade more inclusive with festival,” she states. “Prior to my coming on board, the parade was almost a separate entity. When I took over, I said I will only do this if we make it a combined effort and we are a unified front for the entire weekend – and we’ve worked really hard to do that. I think that’s why participation has exploded even more, because vendors know what’s going on.”
Vanscoy calls Pride St. Louis her second family – which includes extended family members like Vital VOICE publisher Darin Slyman who has been the
Tower Grove and Grand South Grand has proven an idyllic home to PrideFest and the annual Grand Parade. But as crowds continue to grow – edging closer to 100,000 each year – it begs the question if the mid-summer celebration is a victim of its own success.
“It’s possible that the parade will one day out grow Grand,” she admits. “But we’re always using creative staging areas to see how we can better utilize space. Obviously the Tower Grove community welcomes us and wants us there and we want to stay there just because of the atmosphere.”
Pride Parade applications are accepted up until the day before the event. Late fees may apply. For more information check out pridestl.org.
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