Gay pride event, attitudes have evolved

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

Published:

 

If you go

What: The 18th annual Saturday in the Park Pride celebration, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered pride event. This year's theme is "Gateway to equality."

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday

Where: Esther Short Park, West Eighth and Columbia streets, Vancouver

Admission: Free

Information: http://www.sitppride.info or http://www.gayvancouverwa.org.

Vancouver has grown into a far more accepting place for sexual minorities since the first Saturday in the Park pride festival in 1994, said founder Ric Leonetti.

Back when it started, organizers were worried that a couple of initiatives would remove gays and lesbians from Washington's antidiscrimination laws.

The sponsors of initiative I-610 and I-608 had been actively gathering petition signatures to get the two measures on the ballot, and Leonetti and a group of friends wanted to rally the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community to fight them.

"The event was planned to be either a rallying cry or a celebration, depending on the outcome," Leonetti said.

When the petitioners failed to get enough signatures, Saturday in the Park turned into an annual party for the LGBT community. It was held at the Red Lion Hotel Vancouver at the Quay until 2001, when it moved to Esther Short Park.

"We had a beer garden, seating, lunch," Leonetti said. "And I remember that first year when it was all over and we tore it down, we just sat down and cried. I don't know if it was from exhaustion or joy, probably both."

About 300 people turned up at the 1994 event.

Since then it's grown to a full-fledged festival with booths, bands, family activities and a beer garden, said Steven Gibson, planning committee chairman.

"We expect between 1,000 and 2,000 folks will come this year," Gibson said. "We usually see more and more people every time."

Billed as a family-friendly event, Saturday in the Park draws people from a variety of backgrounds. Many families picnic on the grass and listen to music while they visit with others from the LGBT community and its allies, he said.

It shows that attitudes toward the community have improved significantly in the past 18 years, said Leonetti, who grew up Vancouver.

"It's great to see people from Vancouver hanging out at the event," Leonetti said. "I see families there. The first year I remember there were only two children, and one of them was my niece."

Until last year, when it closed, The Northbank bar had been a rallying point for the Clark County LGBT scene. In the early days, Leonetti said he remembers people harassing patrons and occasionally throwing rocks at them outside the bar.

That changed in recent years, but although the community had grown more accepting, owners Brent Bartling and Darrell Spoon couldn't afford to continue operating it and were forced to close last June.

"As seedy and terrible as it was, it was still the Northbank tavern," Leonetti said. "There was a lot of history there. Without it, the scene seems sort of scattered."

There have been some vague rumors of a new bar coming to the community, although nobody seems to know any details, Gibson said.

Since the Northbank closed, many LGBT events have moved to the Fraternal Order of Eagles at 107 E. Seventh St. and the Metropolitan Community Church of the Gentle Shepherd at 2200 Broadway St., he said. There's also a community bulletin board website with events listed at Gay Vancouver Washington.

The Saturday in the Park pride festival is the biggest event for the community each year, though, Gibson said.

"It's a fun time," Gibson said. "Anybody that wants to come is welcome, as long as they're part of our community or an ally. We do fundraising, we have raffle prizes we give out all day. I know a lot of people get very excited about it."

Leonetti hasn't been on the organizing committee for several years, but he still participates and enjoys visiting with old friends at the event.

"They've really done amazing things down there with it, and I just hope it keeps on going," Leonetti said.