Akron knows how to party.
Hardesty Park was jammed Saturday with the joyful sounds of the third annual Akron Pride Festival. DJs and performers celebrated the area’s LGBTQ community and the themes of inclusiveness and diversity.
The crowd, estimated at more than 20,000 by fire department and law enforcement officials, was the definition of diversity: young, old, gay, straight, black, white. There were preening teens and dancing drag queens. Mothers and grandmothers pushed strollers past a vast assortment of friendly, tail-wagging dogs, many in Pride bandannas.
The park was a burst of bright rainbow colors. There were Pride flags, bags, T-shirts, tattoos, cat ears, angel wings, parasols, socks, sunglasses and buttons (“Proud Parent,” “Still I Rise,” “Honorary Lesbian”).
The colors extended from head to toe, but mostly head. There was pink hair, purple hair, aqua hair and lots of greens: bluish-green, reddish-green and greenish-yellow.
One young woman was wearing green sunglasses with zebra stripes, and part of her hair was tinted a wonderful shade of orange. Although, as she explained, the official name of the color is “sushi.”
Earlier, Mayor Dan Horrigan had kicked off the Equality March, which featured hundreds of people parading from Highland Square to Hardesty Park. The mayor also delivered the opening remarks at the festival, and declared Saturday “Reflections of Resilience Day,” to remember those who have been killed by acts of hate.
Led by the twisting, turning, twirling flags of the Ohio Flaggots, the marching groups represented city and county leaders, social service agencies, churches, hospitals, banks and other local organizations.
People were holding signs along West Market Street that read “All You Need is Love” and “Straight But I Don’t Hate.”
Jared Zuercher of Akron was standing with his wife and two daughters and carrying a sign that read “Free Dad Hugs.” He had given more than a dozen hugs by the time I spoke with him.
“It’s great to see the city of Akron come together like this,” Zuercher said. “Plus we have a whole bunch of people from out of town.”
At the park, they could choose from items offered by more than 200 vendors and exhibitors, hang out in the big-tented beer garden or peruse a collection of food trucks. Choices included beef brisket, fried green tomatoes, Sweet Memphis pulled pork, Mexican street corn, cookies, cupcakes, cotton candy, deep-fried Brussels sprouts, mini doughnut parfaits and, of course, rainbow Italian ice.
The Main Stage and Equality Stage were alive with local and national acts, including DreamStates and Detention. Cherry Veneer, queen of the Akron Pride Festival, fronted the festival’s Kings & Queens, who sang, lip-synched, danced and jawed with the audience, firing up the crowd for headliners Steve Grand and Deborah Cox.
Bear Houchin and J.J. Thornberry (reddish-orange tinted hair) swung by from Fairlawn with their dog Trace, who was getting around on three legs. The couple has attended all three Akron Pride Festivals.
“I like the fact that it’s very family-oriented,” Houchin said. “It’s really grown every year. It’s awesome to see so much support right down the road from where we live. We see our friends, we bring our dogs.”
The first thing Houchin noticed was the long line of parked city trucks, which served as a safety barrier around part of the park. There were also numerous police officers throughout the park.
“The presence of law enforcement makes you feel safer,” Thornberry said. “It feels like a very safe place here. People are celebrating diversity and being themselves and, seemingly, everyone is OK with that. In three years, I really haven’t seen protesters here, which is awesome. It’s different from some other Pride celebrations that we’ve gone to. We went to one in Cleveland where there were protesters.”
What were they protesting?
“Just against homosexuality, against gay people, against a little bit of everything,” Thornberry said. “But we haven’t seen any of that here.”
Clint O’Connor can be reached at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ClintOMovies.