Oakland Pride, a festival celebrating the city’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community, drew about 20,000 people to the city’s Uptown district on Sunday.
The festival—now in its 3rd consecutive year after returning from hiatus in 2010—featured hot musical acts, including hip hop artist Rah Digga, local rapper Clyde Carson and Santana tribute band Caravanserai. The celebration also hosted children’s events, such as face-painting and balloon art, and a host of area medical clinics were on hand for free HIV testing and counseling services for the LGBTQ community.
Hundreds of festival-goers—some just wearing scraps of leather, some in wheelchairs, some covered head to toe in rainbow attire—donned buttons and stickers expressing support for the gay community here. Even some pets wore rainbow handkerchiefs.
“The best part is everybody is getting along,” said festival attendee Joseph Stallworth, who lives in Richmond. “So many people are having fun.”
Dozens donned stickers that read “LGBT for Obama,” which were being passed out by supporters of the president’s move this year to back marriage equality for same-sex couples. “He’s done more for same-sex marriage than anyone else in office,” said Oakland resident Robyn Meltzer.
Meltzer said that’s why she was at the festival—in part, to encourage more people to get to the ballot booths on November 6 and vote President Obama in for another four years. “This election means everything to me,” she said.
Some participants idled in the sun, sauntering in the fast-growing crowd. Ken Prag—who was wearing nearly 100 buttons on his navy blue sweater—stood out amongst them. One read “H8 is wrong,” referring to Proposition 8, which made it illegal for same-sex couples to marry in California. Another read “Legalize gay,” and another said “I love my dads.”
“We love all pride festivals,” Prag said, referring to himself and his partner Steve Collins. “We go to as many as we can and even find new buttons.”
In one booth, surrounded by vendors selling everything from hot dogs to beer and burritos, Marsha Martin handed out free lemonade to the passersby willing to get tested for high blood pressure or HIV. The booth she worked represented an organization called Get Screened Oakland, a testing program that was started in response to the city’s HIV epidemic.
“It’s important to show the community that we’re here,” Martin said as people scattered about the tables offering literature about HIV. “These groups, especially gay and bisexual men, are the most at-risk.”
Other nearby booths offered free STD testing, mental health counseling for transgendered women, and one group, called Lavendar Seniors, boasted programs aimed at providing community support for elderly gay and lesbian people who might feel isolated or are disabled.
Organizers said Pride is not only a way to help people access critical health and social services, but it’s also a way to show off Oakland and all its local businesses, the local arts scene, the diversity of the city and its inclusiveness as well.
“These festivals—whether they’re in Chinatown, or Temescal, or East Oakland or Jack London Square—they create new economic vitality and attract people to the city,” said Jason Overman, a spokesman for at-large city councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, who is the first openly gay person to serve on Oakland’s City Council and who was active in getting the celebration started again in 2010. “Pride is also very personally important to her. The city has the largest per-capita population of lesbians, and as a member of the LGBT community herself, it’s important to create a place in Oakland for the community and their allies to come together.”
But organizers want a bigger, glitzier festival next year—two days instead of one, a parade, more booths and more people. “Oakland Pride is just a one-day event,” said event chair Amber Todd, who also took turns answering questions through her radio, for the festival’s volunteers and attendees. “We bring people here, gay and straight, because we want to have a community presence. With all of these people here at once, it’s the perfect time to make them aware of the services we offer that they might not be aware of.”
“We want people to know what we are here,” she said, referring to the health and wellness services available to the gay community in Oakland. “So if you need to get tested, or if you want mental health services or want to know how to get started buying a house if you’re gay, we can help.”
Todd said she wants the health outreach community in Oakland to connect with more underserved populations. “We have a hard time getting to people in the East Bay, especially parents of color who are gay,” she said.
According to organizers, the festival costs between $150,000 and $200,000 a year to put on, most of it paid for by sponsorships and individual donors, as well as the $10 admission fee for festival-goers. In 2010, an estimated 25,000 people came to the festival, and last year’s Pride drew about 30,000 people, according to Todd.
Organizers said the city kicked in $15,000 this year in the form of waivers for fees for police services, parking and permitting costs. At an August event, Mayor Jean Quan raised an additional $20,000 for the organization. The labor involved in organizing the festival is made possible by a cadre of unpaid volunteers.
But, Todd said, they’re hardly breaking even. “We can barely open the gates,” she said. “We need more sponsors and we need more donors. The first year we were negative, last year we broke even, and we’re looking a little better this year, but it’s hard.”
More funds are needed if the city wants to host a parade at next year’s Pride, or make it two days instead of three, Todd said. Ultimately, Todd said, she wants the event to be successful enough to not only break even but offer year-round health and wellness services to the gay community at a local LGBT center. “We are not sustainable right now, but we know Oakland Pride is gaining momentum,” she said.
Whole Foods, which has a store on Harrison Street near Lake Merritt, is a great example of a local donor, Todd said. On Sunday, the Austin, TX-based grocery was raising money by asking the public for donations to fund a Pride parade next year.
As the celebration continued, crowds headed for the musical acts on the four main stages—one general Pride stage, one with Latin music, one for women and one for urban soul. On the main stage, headlining R&B and dance artist CeCe Peniston asked, “Are y’all here to celebrate?” as the crowd burst into cheers.