Circle City IN Pride Festival: 25 years out of the closet


  • Mark Lee

It was 1988 ... the year Nike unveiled its "Just Do It' campaign, pop sensation Milli Vanilli was exposed as just two good-looking guys who lip-synched all their songs and Indy Pride "came out of the closet" with their Celebration on the Circle.

Twenty-five years after that momentous day, Indy Pride will honor the milestone during its annual festival, June 1-9 in Downtown Indianapolis. This year's theme - Celebrating 25 Years Out of the Closet.

"The very first Pride event was actually a few years before that - in 1981 - and it was a dinner at the old Essex House Hotel which has since been demolished," said Stephanie Swanson, 2013 co-chair of the Circle City IN Pride Festival along with Chris Morehead. "A lot of those attending that year actually wore masks so no one would know who they were."

For the next seven years, various Pride events moved around the city until Monument Circle ultimately became "home" to the festival in 1988. For three years, the celebration continued on the Circle before moving to University Park from 1992-1994. After a brief move to the Canal, the festival returned to University Park. Since then, the festival has moved to the American Legion Mall, and it has only continued to grow.

"A spirit of togetherness"

"Each year as this festival grows, we still strive to maintain a sense of family and community. You can expect the same focus on this being an event for the whole family," said Swanson. "We have added more free features for convenience, like a trolley for transport to and from the festival and a Pedal and Park area. You can expect more sponsors and vendors - diverse, unique and happy to be part of this celebration. You can expect more people - all walks of life celebrating our common bond and uniting in the spirit of togetherness."

It's a spirit of togetherness that 44-year-old Tobin Strader and his partner, Anthonie Lardiere, 40, want to impart to their 6 and 9-year-old sons.

"It speaks to the changing face of the gay community and American family - you see straight families and gay families at Pride because it is a fun day. There are more kid friendly events so you can take the entire family," Strader said. "I think it is definitely important that people see it isn't a stereotypical event. Several years ago it was so small and difficult to get people to participate, but now you have people from around Indiana and outside the state coming to our festival."

Reveler at last year's parade. - MARK LEE
  • Mark Lee
  • Reveler at last year's parade.
Strader feels the festival is important in helping young men and women who might be struggling with their sexuality and how to tell their families. However, he said, some still go to great lengths to keep it from their loved ones - even going so far as to get married and have kids because they believe they have no other options.

"We are very lucky that we never felt that was the only route we could take. Anthonie grew up in the New York City area and I lived in Chicago. It was always second nature for us to be okay with who we are, and that's due in large part to the acceptance of our families," said Strader. "We know, however, that isn't always the case in Indiana and the Midwest. So the festival is very important for those who do not have a good support system. Even if it's just once a year where they can come here and have a place to feel comfortable."

And, that is just what the Circle City IN Pride Festival is all about - a place everyone can come and be comfortable in their own skin and find a variety of activities to participate in. This year, festivalgoers will find a vast array of entertainment on the DeKuyper Main Stage, including international superstars Detox - stars of the current season of Ru Paul's Drag Race - and Grammy Award winning singer and actress, Mya. The IndyMojo 2nd Stage will feature great local talent and DJ's.

The party of the year

IndyMojo president, Jason King, said it's an honor to be asked to again produce the entertainment for the 2nd Stage. IndyMojo is an Indianapolis based Jam/EDM/Festival music blog, radio station and event promoter.

"After our first experience in 2011 as a media sponsor, I was kicking myself and wondering why we hadn't been a part of this from the beginning," King said. "And, of course, there is the whole underlying aspect that, as an organization, we feel love is love no matter what. This is our generation's civil rights movement and it's important to me as an owner - and to our staff - to be a part of that and help represent that to the best of our ability."

Music on the 2nd stage starts at 12:15 p.m. on June 8 and continues the rest of the day. A drag show will also be a part of the lineup, all of which was selected by Indy Pride organizers. "Pride festival is for everyone - not just the gay community - but for everyone," King said. "It's the party of the year, and that's why we are there."

One of the featured DJs on the 2nd stage will be Jack Shepler aka Jackola, who is a member of the Indy Pride board and on the festival's entertainment committee. Shepler is set to take the stage at 1 p.m. His company, Ayokay, also handles the majority of the graphic design for the festival, and designed, developed and maintains its websites.

"I'll be playing a combination of underground house as well as favorites amongst the Pride audience. We have a great and diverse lineup throughout the day, so attendees are sure to hear something they love," Shepler said. "The 2nd stage is awesome for DJs, though, as it's where people can really get down. The dancers will love the 2nd stage, and DJs will love it for that."

Shepler loves the festival for all that it stands for.

"Pride to me is many things: a celebration of our history, a celebration of both diversity and unity, and of course a great excuse to have a good time. Let's face it: gays know how to throw a party," Shepler said. "Not only that, it's 100 percent run by volunteers, which means all of the money raised is filtered back into great causes, such as Step-Up Inc, The Damien Center, Indiana Youth Group and even initiatives set for Indy Pride's future."

Emcee Lola Palooza - JASON NELLIS
  • Jason Nellis
  • Emcee Lola Palooza
New events this year include the LGBT Film Fest Night at the Movies on June 5th.

"We will feature a fun film from 1988 for outdoor viewing on Mass Ave.," Swanson noted. "We have also added a new partnership with the Cabaret at the Columbia Club to present Pride Night at the Cabaret featuring Ana Gasteyer on June 7th. We are extremely excited about both events!"

This year, the Arts Garden downtown will feature an art/history exhibit for the event.

"It will be a mixture of historical pieces and art displays that will honor the spirit and history of Pride in Indianapolis," explained Swanson. "Mike Barclay of the Herron School of Art is curating the exhibit that will run the entire month of June. This will be an amazing kick off to the entire week of events that create an array of highlights."

The biggest parade in town

The biggest highlight is the annual Cadillac Barbie Pride Parade June 8. The parade, which starts at 10 a.m. at the corner of Mass and College Ave., continues to get bigger and better each year, according to co-chair Shere Brooks, who shares duties with HR Jung. In 10 years, it has grown from a handful of vehicles and people to a two-hour production in 2012 - making it bigger than even the Indy 500 parade - both in the number of floats and those lining the streets.

"I love to say that, and people find it amusing, but it's true. We have a rule that we will take you even on the day of the parade because we like being known as the biggest parade in the city. The Indy 500 parade caps out at 75, but we continue to grow," Brooks said. "Word of mouth is key when it comes to adding participants, or someone will see the parade one year and think their group should be involved and so it goes."

Social media has also played a large part in getting the word out.

"That has made a huge difference in advertising this parade and getting people involved," she explained. "When you have people photographing a group and instantly posting them and tagging Indy Pride and someone replying in two seconds from another state - it's just amazing. I spend hours going through pictures to see what has been posted."

Many of those pictures are taken and posted by volunteers.

"It takes a lot of volunteers and it's always a struggle to find the help to do this. We will grow 20-30 more between now and then. They don't get much for it - a few trinkets, a t-shirt, a lunch voucher," Brooks said. "We ask them to come out on a hot day and it always rains - usually when we are setting up - but we always have fun and you meet some of the most amazing people. In fact, two of the best friends I have, I met through volunteering with the parade."

This year, parade attendees will see it all.

"We always have our local standbys like the area gay bars, the politicians and the floats. But, what I like to see are the smaller groups," said Brooks, who has been involved with organizing the parade for six years. "The lady who makes jewelry, the kids and the church groups - they are some of our biggest numbers. Take for example, Broadway United Methodist, who has been with us a long time. You see all age groups and whole families."

A defining moment for Brooks came last year as she watched the American and the LGBT flag going down the street side by side.

"And, then here came the police officers and I see our friend, Steve, in full uniform, holding his partner's hand in public," she said. "For me, that said it all."

It is that acceptance that keeps Brooks - who would like to see the city become more involved and the event garner more press coverage - a part of the parade.

"I want more people to see it is all a big family. I am not gay, but they treat me like family," she said. "I like trying to expose that this is every day life - people with the same concerns and worries - and that everyone wants to be part of something and be accepted."

A message of acceptance

Strader believes it's a message his sons need to grow up with. "It's okay to be yourself. Your life should be filled with all sorts of people and we should celebrate everyone's differences and we should celebrate the different facets of society," Strader said. "It's the same reason I take them to Irish Fest and Italian Fest or any of the different cultural festivals, so they can grow up knowing that they are part of a larger community."

Jason King wants his 2-year-old son to grow up embracing this community the way he does.

"I want him to look back on my time just like I look back on my dad's time with Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights and know that his dad is on the right side of the battle," he said.

"We all share the same values."

Randy Milender has attended the festival the last 18 years. He realized he was gay when he was 5-years-old and singing "Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend" on the Thanksgiving Day dinner table. He officially came out to his family in 1980 at the age of 24. It was relatively easy," Milender said. "It was the disco era and straight people were going to gay bars."

He believes attitudes now are even more positive.

"Because I think people are more educated and have more experience knowing someone gay. And, with girls, everyone wants a gay friend. We will tell you if your ass is too big in that dress," he said. "The message of 'family' has also been extended to same-sex and based on values that are beyond the norm. The 'Old School' crowd (Coby Palmer & the Bag Ladies) have been friends for years and [they're] a big draw. They have spent countless hours raising money for The Damien Center and various organizations when it wasn't acceptable or fashionable."

Putting Indy Pride on the map

Festival numbers continue to climb. Attendance in 2002 was 6,000; 2003 saw 10,000 people, while last year's Indy Pride festival saw nearly 80,000 people - a number Swanson expects to exceed this year if the weather holds.

"We continue to add more layers of entertainment features, diverse events, guest services, community involvement and logistical refinement," Swanson explained. "Chris and I really want to put the event on the map as a destination event and this is the only way we know how to do that."

Feedback is also important.

"I certainly don't have the only right way of doing things," she said. "Feedback is crucial and we are always open and receptive to it."

It is that sort of feedback that saw Pet Pride added to the festival in 2010, an event that continues to grow. This year it has been moved to a new location - Garfield Park.

Emcee Knayte St. James - JASON NELLIS
  • Jason Nellis
  • Emcee Knayte St. James

"We outgrew the generously donated space at Zesco and with the move gained a nice green space for the animals," said Swanson. "We have over 20 vendors, food trucks, and the ever popular fashion show and Red Carpet with our newly crowned Miss Circle City IN Pride. It's a good time for pets and their parents." It's just another layer of a festival that strives hard to offer something for everyone.

"On the day of the festival we are already talking about how to do it better the next year," Swanson said.

And, if Swanson has anything to say about it, the festival will only continue to thrive.

"We will definitely outgrow the space. That's a bittersweet thought because the current location is so perfect for our event," she said. "If we stay true to the vision of a destination event, Circle City IN Pride will be on par to be one of the biggest and best Pride celebrations in the US."

But one thing will never change - the overarching message.

"I think the message has been that our community stands strong together. Over the years the "Pride Pioneers" have worked together to make these celebrations possible. A lot of people donate their time and energy to build this event," Swanson said. "It shows a tremendous ability to work with other members of the LGBT community, the greater Indianapolis Community, our ally partners and countless volunteers to bring this event to the mainstream. In the end, this is a microcosm for how the world should operate."


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