- Brian Chilson
Starting Monday, Oct. 10, Little Rock will celebrate the weeklong Central Arkansas Pride celebration of diversity and inclusion, a festival not just for the local LGBTQ community, but for all Central Arkansas residents.
Zack Baker, executive director of Central Arkansas Pride, has been working with the festival since its first iteration in 2013. "That first year, we just had a parade, and there were about 700 that came out. Then in 2014, when we added the festival aspect, we had almost 1,500 people come." The festival has continued to grow with over 2,500 attendees in 2015. Organizers are preparing for an even larger crowd this year. Just Communities of Arkansas Director Ruth Darrow Shepherd is the Grand Marshal.
The culminating event on Sunday afternoon, Pridefest, will feature over 60 vendors, up from fewer than 30 in 2014. "We've just seen such huge growth every year, in the number of floats and walkers in the parade, to everything else. It's been so great to see the community come together around this event."
One of the most important ways in which the community has embraced the festival is through sponsorship. "Our first year," Baker said, "we had just enough sponsors to make everything work, but now, for the first time, we're having businesses approach us unsolicited asking to be involved. That's really changing the nature of what we're able to do and offer at the festival." Many businesses in the River Market district, through which Sunday's parade route runs, will be "going rainbow" to celebrate the event, hanging Pride flags and banners in celebration.
The week's highlights include a burlesque show at Club Sway at 7 p.m. Monday and, for the second year in a row, an evening of onstage storytelling at South on Main, presented by the Human Rights Campaign at 6 p.m. Tuesday. Local members of the LGBTQ community and their allies will share stories of love, hardship and acceptance at the sure-to-sell-out event.
The official Pridefest pre-party will be at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15, at Club Sway, where international drag superstar Bob the Drag Queen will make an appearance. She is the first reigning winner of "RuPaul's Drag Race" to visit Arkansas. Known for her pop-art-meets-camp stylings, she'll participate in a ticketed post-show meet and greet on Saturday and will be emcee for Sunday afternoon's festival.
The festivities on Sunday, Oct. 16, begin at 1 p.m. with the signature parade, which starts at the Clinton Presidential Center (participants begin lining up at noon by Heifer International) and continues down President Clinton Avenue through the River Market district. The festival proper kicks off at 2 p.m. on the grounds of the Clinton Presidential Center, with food trucks, vendors, a children's area and performance stage. This year's festival will see the growth of the festival's Pride Talks program, in which LGBTQ friendly businesses and nonprofits are given a platform to speak to festivalgoers. This year's Pride Talks features speakers from the Arkansas Transgender Equality Coalition, Planned Parenthood, the Stonewall Democrats and Lucie's Place, among others. The Family Zone will feature face painting, a bouncy house and an inflatable obstacle course.
Entertainment at the festival will be anchored by a bevy of local talent in the form of dancers, musicians and drag queens. Local musician John Willis will take the stage with his six-piece band the Late Romantics, as well as the winner of Pride Idol, the monthlong singing contest sponsored by Club Sway, for which Willis was a judge. Drag king and queen performances from both Club Sway and Club Triniti will take place throughout the afternoon, and there will be a beer garden. The festival closes with a performance by the Chicago-based queer rock band Yoko and the Oh No's. Dancers from the Center for Artistic Revolution's Latinx Revolution LGBTQ program will present a gender queer performance of Latin American folk dances. Members of the Gamma Mu Phi fraternity will present multiple step performances throughout the afternoon.
After a string of legal advances for LGBTQ rights, it's natural for some to ask if Pride celebrations are still necessary. But in the wake of June's terroristic hate crime in Orlando, in which 49 people were gunned down in a gay bar, safe spaces like Pride festivals are as important now as ever — especially so in a state in which the lives and liberties of LGBTQ citizens are often demonized and politicized.
"Pride is so important here in the South, where so many people don't have the sense of community that people in more liberal areas have," Baker said. "It sends the message to people who are struggling with their sexuality that there's a community waiting to embrace them once they come out." Pride is also an important part of being visible to the non-LGBTQ community. "After Orlando," Baker adds, "we need to stand up and remind people that we're here and we're an essential part of this city."
A complete listing of Pride Week events is available at centralarkansaspride.com.