By Dave Fountinelle | firstname.lastname@example.org
Last year was supposed to mark the 30th anniversary of Fresno’s Rainbow Pride Parade and Festival. Fresno Rainbow Pride had initially planned a massive celebratory blowout. It was a journey they embarked upon from the moment they wrapped up the 2019 festivities. Unfortunately, due to the COVID pandemic and subsequent lockdown on social gatherings, the milestone soiree was put on hold. Instead, what replaced it was the virtual events conceived, organized, and successfully delivered on scarcely two months’ notice. Fresno Rainbow Pride decided to postpone the official 30th-anniversary celebration for a year. Everyone hoped that things would return to a “normal” state in time to give the landmark jubilee its proper due. Until then, the traditional parade and social gatherings were in an intermission.
In French theater, the term for intermission is “le entr’acte.” The notable difference between an intermission and an entr’acte is that there is a separate, typically musical and dance performance during an entr’acte. The idea is that a pause in the act doesn’t have to mean a pause in the action. For Jefferey Robinson, founder and organizer of Fresno Rainbow Pride, pausing the action simply was not an option.
“Pride is so much more than just the parade and partying. It’s a spiritual recharge,” Robinson explains, “for many people in the community, it’s a rare opportunity to express who they truly are without fear or judgment and interact with others who share the same experiences.”
When the Pride celebration concluded in 2019, Fresno Rainbow Pride immediately began planning for the big 30th anniversary in 2020. In February, as fears of lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic began to grow, some organizers held out hope that they would still be able to pull it off. Robinson wasn’t as optimistic. He made the difficult decision to postpone the official celebration and focus on creating virtual alternatives to the traditional festivities. A month later, the lockdown began, and all social gatherings were suspended.
“It cannot be overstated just how devastating the lockdown could have been for Pride,” Robinson says, “how do you have a parade and events and everything else when all social gatherings are banned?”
With only about two months to plan and organize a workable alternative, Fresno Rainbow Pride embraced social media and Zoom. They held drag competitions via YouTube video submissions. The organization also utilized the platform to host performances and inspirational speeches from activists, entertainers, and other voices in the LGBTQ+ community. Tik Tok was another popular app for younger people, in particular, to participate, interact, and show their pride. Not only were remote celebrations organized on Zoom, but support groups and lectures embraced the medium as well. Virtual Pride turned out to be more successful than anyone could have predicted. Robinson credits that success to the strength and resilience of the LGBTQ+ community.
“We have always been resourceful and able to adapt to whatever life throws at us,” Robinson continues, “We’re used to overcoming obstacles and making the best of what we’re given. At no point did any of us ever think Pride wasn’t going to happen. Whatever our alternative was going to be, there was going to be one.”
Not only did virtual alternatives save Pride 2020, but they also significantly changed the way the LGBTQ+ community provided support, outreach, and even mental health services for itself during the past year. Support groups taking place via Zoom meant that people could still attend meetings during the lockdown. They also attracted new faces who otherwise might not have participated. The most significant increases in new attendees were in the youth and senior groups.
“Young people and seniors actually have many of the same issues when it comes to attending these support groups in-person,” Robinson explains, “lack of transportation, lack of family support, feeling isolation but also anxiety about putting themselves out there. Having the meetings on Zoom solved a lot of these problems, and the response has been incredible.”
So much so that Zoom meetings will be a permanent part of the LGBTQ+ support system even after in-person meetings return.
“Connectivity has been a blessing,” Robinson shares, “we are able to facilitate support in a real, impactful way. It’s not the same experience that in-person meetings provide, but it’s definitely better than no meetings at all. And the fact that it has provided a way for people who otherwise might never have attended one of these meetings to participate is truly special.”
As a mental health professional, Robinson has observed a noticeably higher compliance rate for people using Zoom calls than other mental health treatment methods. Depression, anxiety, addiction, and suicide rates are exceedingly high among the LGBTQ+ community. The additional physical isolation imposed on top of that by the pandemic only made things worse. Having access to virtual support options has literally been life-saving.
“Our philosophy is: That which doesn’t kill us will only make us stronger,” Robinson observes, “the LGBTQ+ community is a very social one. We have always depended on making connections and providing that inclusion because so many of us feel alone.”
The lockdown could have been devastating to the community, but instead of killing Pride, it’s just proved how strong and resilient the community is. Indeed, many of the temporary virtual alternatives to traditional Pride events will be a permanent part of the festivities in the future.
Unfortunately, with social gathering restrictions still in place, the official 30th anniversary Pride celebration has been put on hold for another year. Restrictions are set to be lifted on June 15th, but that comes about three weeks too late for Fresno Pride, which occurs at the end of May. On the positive side, a year of adjusting to those restrictions has yielded more inventive alternatives to the traditional crowded events.
“Slay it with Pride,” the virtual fashion, costume, hair, and make-up competition Fresno Rainbow Pride hosted on their Facebook page last year, will return this year, with help from The Fool’s Collaborative. Choosing to hold the competition online rather than in-person resulted in a considerable increase in participation. Robinson expects it to be even bigger this year.
“Yardi Gras,” a Mardi Gras-inspired event, is also planned. Residents of the Tower District will decorate their houses to look like Mardi Gras floats to create a drive-by, reverse parade of sorts. Fresno Rainbow Pride will provide maps for people to find all the participating homes, and photo submissions will also be accepted. Prizes will be awarded to the houses with the best decoration. The organization will include a separate category for Tower businesses as well.
There will be a parking lot, drive-in-style drag show at a yet-to-be-named location. Modeled after the drive-in concerts that many musicians and comedians put on over last summer, the drag show will also feature prizes for winning performances.
“Take Pride Mobile” will be a caravan of decorated vehicles that will venture through Fresno and Clovis. Participation is encouraged. The bigger the caravan, the better!
Fresno Rainbow Pride is also planning a “Drive-thru” festival. Organizers and sponsors will set up kiosks for attendees to pull up and get free “swag bags” and information. Food trucks will be on hand as well.
In addition to the events planned for May, there will be a virtual dance party on June 5th for Pride. Sponsors and endorsers will present 60-second PSA’s, and there will be pre-recorded speeches, performances, and statements from artists, entertainers, and activists in the Fresno LGBTQ+ community sprinkled throughout the event. Local drag celebrities will act as hosts.
Fresno Rainbow Pride will also host a San Joaquin Valley declaration of Pride. The goal is to bring every city, county, and municipality in the Valley together in a unified message of support for their LGBTQ+ community.
Other events are also in the works. Robinson recommends visiting the Fresno Rainbow Pride Facebook and Instagram pages to get the latest updates, including dates/times, locations, and participation information.
Robinson furthers, “This year is really a hybrid of the types of events people normally associate with Pride, and the virtual ones we did last year. I think we’ve done an excellent job of adapting traditional elements like the parade and festival atmosphere to comply with social distancing protocols with things like Yardi Gras, Take Pride Mobile, and the drive-thru festival.”
When Pride 2019 concluded and Fresno Rainbow Pride begun planning its 30th anniversary, no one could have predicted the events that would put the party on hold a year later – even less so that social gathering restrictions would still be in place another year after that. Remarkably, despite a two-year delay, Robinson says the infrastructure is still in place.
“We didn’t lose any of our sponsors,” he explains, “we offered everyone refunds, and they all refused. Every one of our 30th-anniversary sponsors has let us hold their donations in reserve for when we can actually hold the real celebration. Even our Grand Marshalls are still hanging in there. Nobody is giving up, and that just speaks so much to the wonderful support we have.”
Robinson says that the true heroes are all the people behind the scenes who work all year long to make Pride Week such a success. Everyone involved with Community Link – the parent organization for Fresno Rainbow Pride – is a volunteer.
“This is truly a labor of love,” he beams.
Fresno Rainbow Pride is always looking for more people eager to volunteer their time or resources to help the LGBTQ+ community. Anyone interested can call (559) 266-LINK (5465) to volunteer, donate, or get more information about providing programs or services to their communities.
As more and more people receive the COVID vaccine, the odds are good that 2022 will finally be the year Fresno Rainbow Pride gets to throw a proper 30th-anniversary bash. However, what that celebration might look like could depend on several factors, not the least of which is the controversial and contested sale of the Tower Theatre to Adventure Church. The lot on Olive Avenue in the Tower District, home to past Pride events, is no longer available. The lot was sold to a private builder who has already broken ground on the property.
“We’re looking for alternative locations to hold the physical events once things return to normal,” Robinson says, “the biggest challenge for us is to find a space big enough to host everything that also has adequate parking close enough to be viable.”
As for concerns regarding the sale of the Tower Theater, Robinson is cautious but optimistic.
“For the most part, we’re hopeful that we can coexist peacefully and respectfully,” he says, “but, at the same time, it’s not unreasonable to worry that Adventure Church could be a voice of protest against Pride and the LGBTQ+ community.”
Pride itself is a celebration of inclusiveness and support that rose from the Stonewall Riots, a dark chapter in the fight for LGBTQ+ acceptance in America. It was with that same spirit and refusal to give up that Virtual Pride rose out of the pandemic, still providing that spiritual recharge for a community in lockdown.
“This is what we do,” Robinson states matter of factly, “we adapt. We overcome. We take whatever life throws at us, and we come back stronger than ever because we do it together. Our strength is in each other. Celebrating the power of inclusion and acceptance, that’s what Pride is all about.”
For more information about Pride events and how you can volunteer your time or resources to help the LGBTQ+ community, visit the Fresno Rainbow Pride Facebook (facebook.com/rainbowpridefresno) and Instagram (fresno_rainbow_pride), or follow them on Twitter (@pride_fresno)