To that end Vital VOICE caught up with Sarah Baldwin, President of Metro East Pride of Southwestern Illinois who shed some light on the growing Festival which hosts its 4th-annual event, June 18 in beautiful downtown Belleville, Ill.
Colin Lovett: What does LGBT Pride mean to you? Do the Pride festivals today convey the homage to Stonewall like they intend—or are they more “celebrations of who we are?”
Sarah Baldwin: LGBT Pride means to me acceptance. Pride’s across the world offer a place or event where people know they can be open and just be who they are without judgment. I feel the pride events are a celebration of who we are and how far we have come.
CL: Many people consider Belleville, Alton and other Metro East cities to be part of the Greater St. Louis metropolitan area. Pride St. Louis and St. Louis Black Pride both host festivals celebrating LGBT Pride. How is Metro East Pride different and what purpose does it serve that Pride St. Louis and St. Louis Black Pride do not?
SB: Metro East Pride of Southwestern Illinois is different primarily for the communities we serve. We are surrounded by rural towns where “coming out” isn’t as easy or comfortable as it may be in a big city. We are able to outreach to these communities and offer them events throughout the year on a smaller and less intimidating scale from STL.
CL: Metro East Pride was founded as a project of the Coalition for Economic and Social Justice, but now is branching off as its own group. Why are you forming it into your own organization?
SB: We just felt it was the next step to ensure the growth of our organization.
CL: Belleville was once known for its discrimination, particularly with racial profiling by the police. Would you say it’s still deserving of that association, or have events like Metro East Pride and other equality efforts changed that perception?
SB: I believe that Belleville has certainly come far in its way of thinking and its level of acceptance with all minorities and sexual orientations. I think this is partially due to positive events like Pride, supportive political leaders in the community as well as positive and respected gay establishments in the city. I also feel that more people are coming out in such positive ways and showing the normalcy of our sexuality.
CL: It was predicted that Metro East Pride was/is a way for many Metro East residents to express their sexuality, many of whom for the first time. You mentioned in your bio that you came out in June 2008; was Metro East Pride the reason? Can you further comment on this as a resource for others in the Metro East to come out?
SB: I came out in 2008 because for me it was time. I am a mother of two little girls and I felt like I was lying to them every day so how could I ever expect them to be honest with me when they got older. It also helped that I met Heather and knew that she was the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. She helped me so much through all of it.
I think one thing that I personally would like to convey to people is that a person will come out when it is right for them. We shouldn’t push a person to come out because people expect that of us. When it feels right to you it is time.
CL: In all 3-years of Metro East Pride, the festival seems to be centered on the LGBT Bar, Club Escapade in Belleville. What is the reason the event is located where it is?
SB: Club Escapade is located right on the heart of Main Street, so for us it was an easy decision. We loved the fact that we have open exposure for our event and we aren’t tucked away in some desolate location never to be seen. We are very lucky that the owners of Club Escapade are so accommodating to many of events we have throughout the year.
CL: Illinois is a far more progressive state than Missouri. But when Mayor Mark Eckert spoke at your first Festival he seemed somewhat apprehensive to embrace the event, saying that he wasn’t “glad,” but that he “didn’t have a problem with people coming together to celebrate, as long as it’s in an orderly fashion and it’s about educating the public on different beliefs.” Has his position changed? Has he become more proactive about supporting Metro East Pride?
SB: That is a hard question to answer and one maybe for the mayor himself. I can only assume and hope that with his continued support year after year we must be doing something correct.
CL: It’s been said that the second year of any event is the most pivotal for long term success. How would you say the 2nd, 3rd, and looking forward to the 4th annual Metro East Pride has gone in terms of the long-term success of the festival?
SB: I believe every year is pivotal. Every year you learn more and become stronger. I feel that every year we are able to have the Pride event and raise awareness in the local communities we are a success.
CL: Doug Bernier once mentioned that Pride St. Louis, St. Louis Black Pride and Metro East Pride “Play off of each other.” Do you feel this is true? How would you rate the partnership level with the other two Pride organizations and what would you like to see in the future?
SB: I think having our Pride the week before STL is a great way to get the “Pride Ball” rolling. I am still wet behind the ears and still in the process of meeting everyone on the STL side. But I feel we have a great relationship with them, one I hope only gets stronger and more productive through the years. This would only prove positive for LGBT community.
CL: Recently, Metro East Pride held a candlelight vigil to draw attention to LGBT teen suicide; a Halloween Block Party; a collection of food and non-perishable items for US Troops and adopted an at-need family for the Holidays. What events will we see from Metro East Pride in addition to the annual festival in June, and what significance do these events hold for Metro East Pride, the LGBT community, and everyone in Belleville?
SB: When I agreed to come onto the Pride board I made a promise to myself that our organization would become more involved in our community. As to date we have been successful. We are still in the planning stages of many things but we want to have a Pride Prom so that people can re-experience their prom and be able to go with a date they want instead of what was expected of them.
I would love to see a center set up for LGBT youth and LGBT allies. I think this is so necessary especially in today’s world where suicide is so high. Our youth need a safe place to go and express who they are and get assistance dealing with the obstacles life will throw at them.
I know these and many other things are possible. I have the honor of working with such an amazing group of people on the board and on our committees. We all have work with the same ethic and standards in mind. We know one of the first things we have to do in order to work towards acceptance in our surrounding communities is give back.
CL: This will be the 4th annual Metro East Pridefest. What will we see this year that we didn’t’ see last year or in years past?
SB: We have a few surprises this year and changes…. But I can’t let the element of surprise be ruined. I guess everyone will just have to come and see!!!!
BY: COLIN LOVETT / MEP BOARD PHOTO BY: JOHN ELKINS