Metro-East News

PrideFest: A celebration of rights

Scenes from metro-east PrideFest

West Main Street in downtown Belleville was the site of the annual PrideFest featuring music, food, and a variety of vendors.
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West Main Street in downtown Belleville was the site of the annual PrideFest featuring music, food, and a variety of vendors.

This year, PrideFest was about celebrating.

“We can marry who we want to marry!” said Sarah Sowell during opening remarks at the PrideFest. The nationwide legislation allowing gay marriage passed just after last year’s PrideFest, so “we’re going to party like rock stars today because we can.”

The festive words kicked off the ninth annual PrideFest in Belleville, sponsored by Metro East Pride of Southwestern Illinois. The Gateway Mens Chorus started the musical entertainment, and was to be followed by The Next Best Thing and Middle Class Fashion, among others. A few hundred were at the drag show Saturday evening while a few vendors packed up; the festival was to wrap up at about 10 p.m.

Vendors at the fest were there to sell everything from candles to cars; there were also representatives from the Human Rights Campaign and Equality Illinois.

Among the advocacy groups was the Gay/Straight Alliance from Collinsville High School. Co-sponsor Cathy Kulucka, a special education English teacher, said the group sponsors several activities during the year including spirit days leading up to the National Day of Silence.

“The community takes a vow of silence – as a teacher that’s so hard to do but that’s kind of the point,” she said. The National Day of Silence protests harassment and discrimination against students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

Dumas, who is finishing credits to graduate from Collinsville High School, said the other Kahoks are more accepting of his sexuality than other schools he has attended. Until recently, he lived in the Detroit area. He was at PrideFest with the Collinsville High School Gay/Straight Alliance.

Evan Dumas, at PrideFest with the Collinsville group, identifies as pansexual, which he said means he is attracted to a person’s personality rather than a person’s sex. He is not bisexual.

Dumas, 19, said his experience of a few months at Collinsville High School was “more accepting” than some of his previous schools. Dumas recently moved to the metro-east with his family from the Detroit area.

“Some people can be very judgmental,” he said.

Co-sponsor Tiffany Droege said she sees the fight for acceptance changing.

“As a teacher observing, I feel like the fight has shifted from gay and lesbians, who I think are more accepted, to gender non-conforming and transgender,” she said.

Dumas said he didn’t know what big issue might be next for the LGBT community, but he is concerned that future legislation could take away his right to bear arms and thus protect himself.

He said he has felt threatened at times, but not physically.

“I identify as a guy,” he said.

Dumas doesn’t understand why “people are making such a big deal” about transgender people using a gendered bathroom.

“If they go by dude standards,” he said, then they should use male bathrooms, explaining that “dude standards” would be a person identifying as a male. Conversely, he thought “girl standards” should apply to those born male but identifying and appearing as female.

Sex and gender are two different things, a concept that sponsor Droege has had to explain before. Droege is a co-sponsor of the high school group and an English teacher at Collinsville.

Droege said the high school has two transgender students, and those students use “gender neutral” bathrooms that are single stall. She said the order from President Barack Obama mandating schools to have gender neutral bathrooms was “basically a press release.” Because Collinsville already allows the students to use a single-stall bathroom it had little effect on the school, but more binding legislation is warranted.

“I feel like we do a really good job mitigating the issues,” she said.

Another tough concept she’s had to explain has been “gender non-conforming,” which she says several students at Collinsville identify as.

“They don’t see gender as male or female,” she said. She said some gender non-conforming students will wear a dress one day and a suit another; others present themselves in a more androgynous manner. Then, there are the students that are still evolving.

“They don’t want to be either/or; they want to try on different hats. Some people say it’s just a phase –well, let them have it,” she said.

As for Dumas, it’s been a journey for him to get to the pansexual identity. He says he started off as straight before realizing it wasn’t for him; he then thought he might be bisexual. It was only the last year or so that he started comfortably identifying as pansexual.

“I find it easy being me right now,” he said.

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