REXBURG – A man wearing a rainbow mohawk made from straws and cotton balls posed for a photo in front of a large crowd at Porter Park in Rexburg Saturday afternoon. Another man stood in front of him, holding a sign with the words, “SAY NO! to kids at Drag Shows in Idaho.”
The crowd gathered around the man with the sign and started chanting, “No more hate.” Officers and security guards approached and quickly de-escalated the situation.
That was the only drama at an otherwise peaceful gay pride festival Saturday afternoon. Dozens of vendors were on-hand at the third annual event as thousands of spectators listened to multiple speakers at the Beehive Pavilion in the southeast corner of the park.
Ronny Nowland is on the board of directors for Flourish Point, a nonprofit LGBTQ+ resource center that sponsored the family-friendly event. He’s pleased with the turnout and the opportunity it gives people to “celebrate different lifestyles” and “build bridges between our community.”
“It can be very ostracizing feeling that you’re different from everybody else. Having an opportunity to meet other people who are similar (helps) you find community, accept yourself and realize that you’re a normal person just like everyone else,” Nowland says.
Nowland came out as gay about 10 years ago while attending Brigham Young University-Idaho. Though he initially felt “terrified about anyone finding out,” he says people never acted like it was a big deal and most people have been supportive.
He hasn’t experienced any hate directed at him personally and Rexburg is a place where he feels welcome and accepted.
Robert Little, who is also gay, moved to Rexburg from Los Angeles about five years ago to attend school. His experience has also been overwhelmingly positive.
“Since I’ve been here, the friends I’ve made — that’s been very welcoming and I’ve been accepted,” says Little. “In the gay community, we say we’ve found family or created family, and that’s what I’ve done here in Rexburg.”
Still, there are those who are opposed to the pride festival and the LGBTQ movement. MassResistance, a pro-family activist organization, was at Saturday’s event to protect kids from witnessing drag performers.
Ron Nate, the chairman of the Madison County group, believes drag performers are “pedophiles and groomers,” and are a threat to children’s safety as a result.
“Every event like this is a grooming event. They demand kids for an audience for a reason,” Nate says. “I don’t understand why men dressed in women’s clothes want kids for an audience. If it’s adult entertainment, fine — do it with adults in private. But let’s not corrupt or confuse kids with it.”
People of all ages attended the festival, including children, but organizers say the event is not targeting or grooming kids. It’s a family-friendly event intended to raise awareness and build positive relationships with others.
“Everyone wants to be seen and heard and this is a celebratory event to do that,” Little explains. “Seeing people like me in wigs and dresses — that aspect of pride is for us to show our true selves and our identity. I grew up in an effeminate environment and so I’m comfortable being effeminate.”
Despite the way Little and others were dressed, there were no drag performances in the park. A dance party with the Queens for those 18 and up was scheduled for 8 p.m. at the Romance Theater.
The change of venue for this part of the event was a welcome relief to Doug Norton, who is also a member of MassResistance. He considers it indecent for men to dress that way in public, and he says there are multiple city and state ordinances prohibiting public indecency.
The reason he and other protestors were there, according to Norton, was to make sure police enforced those laws.
“They (organizers) can have their pride day in the park and be proud of who they are, but leave the children alone,” Norton says.
Though Little acknowledges there is a “political tone” to events like this in L.A. and other places around the country, he says the Rexburg event caters to small-town values and is community-driven with no political agenda.
But Nate says “actions speak louder than words.” Though event organizers may not be trying to attack kids in the park, he says they’re trying to “normalize deviant behavior and get their agenda across through events like this.”
There were multiple concert performances in the park following a unity walk at 4:30 p.m. Nowland is grateful to the vendors and others who supported the pride festival.
WATCH HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE FESTIVAL IN THE VIDEO ABOVE.