When Linda Young first realized she was gay, many words came to mind – none of them close to pride.
“It’s sad because you go through so many emotions when you come out, like fear and shame and guilt and all kinds of crazy things,” Young said during the annual Windsor-Essex Pride Fest on Sunday.
But after years of hiding her true identity, Young said she can now say she is proud to be a lesbian. And she said she is over the moon with joy that she can share that feeling of pride with thousands of others each year.
“Just to see this and to be able to see the young kids be able to be so free, it makes everything that we went through in our youth so worth it,” said Young, who is in her 60s.
She said a lot has changed from when Pride festivities began locally a couple of decades ago. Early celebrations took place in business parking lots — a much different environment than today’s party atmosphere.
“We were still hiding. Ninety per cent of the population was outside looking in instead of in looking out,” said Young. “The majority were afraid to participate, but nowadays they participate and it’s amazing. It just makes my heart fly and it makes my soul soar because it’s just so great to see people being able to be themselves and not worry about repercussions.”
Pride Fest vice-president Robert Vitella said about 5,000 people attended this year’s four-day celebration, which is the largest turnout to date.
“It’s grown by leaps and bounds,” Vitella said. “It’s about celebrating our community as a whole.”
This year’s celebrations included a Family Fun Day, a bowling night, a flag raising, a rock concert, an interfaith service, a white-themed dance party the annual Pride Parade. The parade ended at the Riverfront Festival Plaza – where most of the events were held – and kicked off Pride Day Sunday.
Vitella said a lot of kids and young people attended the family-friendly festivities, which shows how accepting society has become of the LGBT community.
“Kids don’t care. You know they think: ‘What colour is your hair? What colour are your eyes? Are you straight or gay?’ It’s such a non-issue,” said Vitella.
Jennifer Woodrich, who brought her son Jessey, 4, to the parade, said she is hoping he learns some valuable life lessons by participating.
“I want him to get to know this while he’s younger so that when he gets older he realizes what it’s about and to respect people for who they are, whatever they may be, said Woodrich, who is a bisexual.
Stephen Chrisomalis attended with his son, Arthur, 8, and wife, Julia Pope, who is a bisexual. He said Pride Fest is something people from all walks of life should attend.
“It’s a community event and we have to show the whole community that we’re tolerant and understanding and supportive,” said Chrisomalis. “It’s a great event for everyone. It’s just fantastic. Everyone’s smiling and everyone’s having a good time. What else could you ask for?”
For Foeke Donga, who grew up in the Netherlands and moved to Canada in 1971, being gay wasn’t as accepted as it is now, so he hid from it.
“I knew I was gay when I was 12 but I grew up and got married and had kids because that’s just what you did in your life at that time,” said Donga.
Eventually, he said, he was able to reveal to his wife that he’s gay and they divorced.
But it was just 10 years ago that he felt comfortable enough to come out as a gay man. Since then, he’s never been happier.
“I’m free and it’s just a good life. I feel like I’m part of a community and I belong,” said Donga, who rode on the Legends of 2012 parade float Sunday. “It makes me feel very proud of what Canada has done for the gay community. When you look at how gay people are treated in other parts of the world, even across the river, it’s appalling.”
There were people of all ages waving rainbow flags, many with faces brightly painted with multicoloured stripes and some dressed in elaborate costumes and wearing colourful beads to show their support during festivities Sunday. Hundreds lined Ouellette Avenue to take in the Pride Parade and many downtown businesses set up patios along the parade route.
For Geena Hayze, showing his true colours meant dressing in high-heeled leather boots, fishnet stockings, an auburn wig, metallic-hued eye shadow and red lipstick. Hayze, who is gay and has been dressing in drag for the past ten years, was dancing on the Legends of 2012 parade float Sunday and said he feels liberated and free every time he participates in Pride Fest.
“Pride Fest is where we can all come together as one big family and support each other, no matter what group, ethnicity, anything like that,” said Hayze. “And I think it’s good because it’s teaching younger generations and then they won’t know any different. The more this happens, the more the younger people will just accept it and it won’t be something new or different anymore.”