The LGBT community is alive and well in Tulsa. This weekend marks the end of the Pride 2009 celebration that culminates at Centennial Park, 6th and Peoria, with a Diversity Festival, on Saturday, June 6.
Orchestrated by Oklahomans for Equality, the Tulsa Pride is in its 30th year. What began in 1979 as a humble picnic has expanded into a 10-day affair that includes a movie night, art show, Equality Gala, interfaith services, etc.
In fact, the festival is similar to other popular Tulsa revelry. "We call Mayfest 'Straight Pride,' the festival is almost identical." said Toby Jenkins, President of OKEQ's board of directors. "There is also have a strong element of what happens at Oktoberfest because we have a lot of beer drinkin'."
The event--which includes information booths, music, food and other activities--serves two important functions for the LGBT community. The first of which is to increase the gay community's visibility in T-Town.
"It empowers our people to not be ashamed of who they are, so that others can see...what we're really about," said Jenkins.
An evening parade is perhaps the most integral activity; and this is its 10th anniversary. OKEQ spent nearly a decade working with the city council to obtain permission to hold one. This year, it begins at Brady Theater next to Club 209 and snakes through the district, south on Detroit, and west on Archer. Extravagant floats prevent the procession from crossing the bridge over the hill. Jenkins pointed out that the new sidewalks and streetlights are sure to enhance Saturday's merrymaking.
"It'll be a beautiful parade this year," he said.
Pride's other primary objective is promoting tolerance.
"If they know us, then they don't vote against us. If they see us, it makes it difficult for them to hate us when they realize we're their next-door neighbors, when they realize we work for them..." Jenkins explained. "It levels the playing field so that we can actually have constructive dialogue about being a tolerant society."
Although a few states have embraced the Equality Movement, some Oklahomans have remained scornful of gays and others who defy notions of ascribed gender roles.
One of the state's most prominent anti-gay spokespersons, Sally Kern (R-Oklahoma City), comes to mind. The State House District 84 representative was scrutinized in early 2008 after her volatile anti-gay speech about the "homosexual agenda" made its way around the Internet. She likened the LGBT community to "cancer," adding that, "This stuff is deadly and it is spreading.
It will destroy our young people and it will destroy this nation." Much of the discrimination here is unspoken, though, and Kern's mentality is not uncommon.
"She's the most vocal," Jenkins pointed out.
On a local level, though, Jenkins is grateful for Tulsa's open-minded leaders.
"They're all very tolerant and work well with our community. Our present city council and our present commissioners haven't given us a bit of trouble. They're very cooperative. We've been very fortunate," he said.
The success of Tulsa Pride can largely be attributed to Greg Gatewood, who, before serving as the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center's first director, volunteered countless hours running Pride for more than a decade. Gatewood created a sound legacy for Tulsa's LGBT community, one for which Jenkins has been particularly thankful. "I still use his notes, his examples, his contacts, his connections, the relationships he built with the city and the Tulsa Police Department."
This year's festival chairwoman is Kristi Freeman who, evidently, has done a "kick ass" job. "She is my right hand girl," Jenkins said.
Serving this year as Grand Marshall for the parade is 9-year-old Noah Blatt, who donated some of his allowance money to OKEQ. "I know Oklahoma continues to be a battle ground with mostly losses for lesbian, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people. One evening I arrived at the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center and had a letter waiting for me," Jenkins said. "I received it the same week some of the Oklahoma State legislatures objected to gay minister Rev Dr. Scott Jones prayer at the State Capital."
The young boy's contribution was sent with a letter that read: I'm Noah Blatt, Age 9. I'm in 3rd grade. At my school for Martin Luther King Day we all had to write what we would do to change the classroom, Oklahoma, The U.S. or even the world, and I chose gay and lesbian rights. I think that any person should have the right to marry anyone they want. That's why I'm sending you $11.00 to help your organization.
Blatt's insight embodies the spirit of the day, and indeed, Pride festivities as a whole; his parents will accompany him in the march.
The LGBT community has and continues to remain strong in the face of opposition, and Saturday's festival is anything but a demonstration. Rather, it is an invitation for all Tulsans to transcend cultural barriers and abandon discriminatory thought patterns, all while having fun.
"Equality" is the operative word here. "We don't want special treatment," said Jenkins, "We just want to be treated like everyone else."
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