Bruce Winter loved visiting his grandparents in Belleville because it was a break from the anti-gay bullying he faced growing up in St. Louis.
He eventually moved to Kansas City and carved a life for himself as an openly gay man, drag performer and emcee. His stage name is "Melinda Ryder."
"I'm known as the Queen of Benefits," said Winter, 57. "Any time anyone wants to raise money for charity, they call me."
Winter will serve as emcee for the Sixth Annual Metro East PrideFest in downtown Belleville on Saturday and perform in its "Drag on Main" show. He's thrilled.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd be performing in drag on Main Street in Belleville," he said. "It's almost like a homecoming. If my parents were alive, I think they'd be very happy."
The festival celebrates diversity in the region and raise awareness of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.
"I think visibility changes hearts and minds," said co-organizer Colin Murphy, 42, of O'Fallon. "And by coming out and showcasing and celebrating our community on Main Street, we're reaching the height of visibility."
Murphy is president of Metro East Pride of Southwestern Illinois, which sponsors the festival. He emphasizes that everyone is invited, not just LGBT people.
Murphy predicts a heightened sense of excitement this year because the Illinois General Assembly is considering a same-sex marriage bill, and the U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to issue a decision on a challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
"We are living in rapidly changing times and very exciting times for the LGBT community," said Murphy, who is editor of The Vital Voice, a LGBT magazine in St. Louis. "Our equality is being voted on at the highest levels, so everyone is paying keen attention."
The festival is from noon to 10 p.m. with West Main Street blocked off between First and Third streets. Activities include live music all day. About 50 vendors will distribute information and sell crafts, souvenirs, food, soft drinks and beer.
Last year's festival attracted an estimated 5,000 people.
"The first year, we only had 200, so it grows every year," Murphy said.
Metro East Pride board member Vengerflutta Smith sees the festival as important not only for openly gay people but for those still in the closet at work or church or in their families.
"It might be the one time, the one day that they can be 'out' in the community," she said.
Smith, 56, a substitute teacher, moved from Boston to Carlyle four years ago to be with her wife. They married in Maine.
Smith has lived in several big cities with gay pride celebrations. The one in Boston lasts several days with music, movies and lectures. The governor, mayor and state legislators have marched in its parade.
"(The Belleville festival) is smaller and quieter, but it's still very powerful," Smith said.
Bruce Winter has performed drag shows as Melinda Ryder throughout the Midwest for nearly 40 years. He lipsyncs to hits by Patti LaBelle, Aretha Franklin, Natalie Cole and others.
Ryder was crowned Miss Gay Midwest in 1979, Miss Gay Kansas City in 1982 and Miss Gay Missouri in 1984.
"It's more like a caricature of a woman," Winter said. "It's like Lady Gaga. It's over the top."
Winter's full-time job is kitchen manager at a hospital day care center. He also performs a regular drag show at Hamburger Mary's Kansas City.
"I'm very lucky," he said. "I married a hairdresser (who owns a salon). He's also a makeup artist and costumer. He does it all."
Winter was referring to Kirk Nelson. The couple married in Iowa two years ago after nearly 30 years together.
It takes about an hour and a half for Winter to transform himself into Ryder, complete with glitzy costumes, high heels, big hair and painted nails.
"We put foam from my knees to the top of my hips," he said. "That gives me a womanly shape. Then I put on three pairs of tights and one pair of hose. Then I put on a girdle and wrap my waist in duct tape to make it small, and then I put on another girdle to smooth it over."
At a glance
What: Sixth Annual Metro East PrideFest
Where: West Main Street between First and Third streets in Belleville
When: Noon to 10 p.m. Saturday
Noon to 1 p.m. -- Welcome and Gateway Men's Chorus
1 to 2 p.m. -- CHARIS, the St. Louis Women's Chorus
2 to 3 p.m. -- Acoustic music by POWJr.72 (Phillip Womble)
3 to 3:30 p.m. -- Metro East Pride Community Service Awards
4 to 5:30 p.m. -- Classic hits by the Avery Hill Band
5:30 to 6 p.m. -- Cabaret show by Kirk Nelson
6 to 7:30 p.m. -- "Drag on Main" show with Olivia DeMornay, Paris Amor, Melinda Ryder, Dayonna Hilton, ButterScotch, Victoria DeMornay and the reigning King and Queen of Metro East Pride Matt Simpson and Tiana De La Qua
7:30 to 8:30 p.m. -- Folk and rock by Jen Norman
8:30 to 10 p.m. -- Folk and rock by Summer Osborne