Diversity and unity were all rolled into one big celebration on the Anchorage Park Strip Saturday afternoon. Alaska PrideFest is the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community’s annual expression of freedom.
From dancers dressed in drag to people milling in the crowd wearing wild and colorful garb, some come for the spectacle, others to make a statement that it’s OK to be different.
Phyllis Rhodes, who is 75, says she wholeheartedly approves of the flamboyant spirit of the gathering, which draws more than a thousand people. It’s an openness she didn’t experience as a young person.
“Oh heavens, no,” says Rhodes. “I didn’t even know what the word ‘homosexual’ was.”
But she knew she was different because she had “girl crushes,” which she had to keep secret.
Fast forward to today.
Gay couples were posing with a cut-out poster of President Barak Obama, who recently came out in support of gay marriage, an important milestone to Verner Wilson, who is 26 and says he’s experienced discrimination.
“I see gay TV shows. Gay characters. People are just more accepting,” says Wilson, who is 26 and Alaska Native. “It’s a big issue, not only being Eskimo but also being gay as well. Overcoming a lot of challenges is what people like me had to do.”
In the not too distant past, gay men hid the truth, even from their families and say they felt shame instead of pride.
“It’s getting easier as time goes by,” says Tim Evans, who is 27. “I would think for the next generation it’s even easier than it was for us.”
Anne Marie Moylan is 52 and says she’s glad to see the younger generation benefit from the work of older gay activists like herself.
“I’ve lived through the milestones,” says Moylan, who says she never told her parents she was bisexual. It was many years later before they figured it out on their own.
Despite the progress, Moylan says she’s disappointed that Anchorage voters did not pass a ballot measure earlier this year, which would have guaranteed equal protections under the law, no matter what a person’s sexual preference is.
Yet many at Pridefest say the measure may have failed, but they are not defeated. And Moylan says it’s her 17-year-old daughter, Katelyn, who gives her hope.
“She tells me that even though we did not pass the measure for equality in Anchorage, that it is inevitable, that when her generation takes charge, this will not be a fight,” said Moylan.
Phyllis Rhodes, who volunteers as director of a group called “Identity,” hopes Moylan’s daughter is right. She says her organization hears far too many reports of bullying and suicide attempts among Alaska teens, who are struggling to come to terms with their sexual identity.
“I will tell you that no one chooses to be gay or transgender. Who would choose a lifestyle of being treated so badly?” said Rhodes.