Randy Kozlowski was aboard the Buffalo Gay Men’s Choir open-air bus Sunday afternoon as it rolled along Elmwood Avenue as part of the annual Pride Parade.
Amid the cheering, the music and the overall frolicking on the packed sidewalks, Kozlowski took a minute to reflect on the progress of the event.
“Twenty years ago, the gay pride parade was a couple of convertibles with some drag queens on Delaware Avenue,” said Kozlowski, 55. “And today, I looked out and saw thousands who came to see us because they love us, they accept us. I’m just elated to see this kind of growth.”
That growth meant a record 20,000 people, up from 15,000 last year, taking in the parade in the Elmwood Village and then joining in the party at Canalside for Pride Festival, which featured national acts.
“It grows every year, and with this phenomenal weather, we’ll see a much bigger turnout,” said Jorien Brock, senior director of the Pride Center of Western New York, which organizes the event.
Sunday’s festivities capped off Buffalo Pride Week, a week of activities celebrating the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. The week included a pep rally at LaSalle Park to celebrate the Queen City Softball League’s 2014 season; a flag-raising ceremony with Mayor Byron W. Brown at City Hall; a “Gay 5K”; an art exhibition, curated by and comprising works by LGBTQ artists from Western New York; the “Dyke March”; and the Allentown Street Festival.
“It’s great seeing the community come together and being ourselves, showing that we have nothing to hide,” said Gabby Castro, a 23-year-old Clarence resident. “Seeing so many people from the community, you realize you’re not alone and it’s OK.”
The parade, a rolling party down Elmwood, started at Forest Avenue and thumped all the way to Allen Street. Willie Salters Jr., a 51-year-old Buffalo resident, and his girlfriend happened upon it during a shopping trip.
“This is a good time,” Salters said, after catching beads from a drag queen atop a float. “People are people. It doesn’t matter the race, religion or sexual preference. Everybody here is having a good time, and I’m enjoying myself too.”
Along with a wide array of food and drinks and deejays in dance tents, the Canalside gathering featured music by DEV, The Cliks and Like A Parrot. The emcee was Bianca Del Rio, the season six winner of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” on cable television.
“Our entertainment has been growing along with the parade and festival, we get bigger and bigger acts each year,” Brock said.
For Emma McCabe, 16, and her friends, who were so joyous they turned Elmwood into a dance floor, the parade was validation.
“It was awesome, super fun,” she said. “This is where I feel comfortable and understood.” Others from the area’s LGBT community also expressed feeling support, comfort and, of course, pride, during the events.
“Today was the first time we held hands in public because we feel like we’re home,” said Thomas Nolan, 39, who attended with his partner, Steve Sanderson, a 27-year-old Cheektowaga resident.
President Obama’s declaration of June as Gay Pride Month is a national step in the right direction for sexual orientation equality, the couple said. Brock said major progress has been made in the fight for gay rights, and the festival’s mass appeal is a testament. But she said members of the LBGT community still face homophobia, transphobia, gender-identity and gender-expression discrimination. The week of events was a kickoff to a monthlong list of educational events, including cultural competence training for the community, Brock said.
Kozlowski, with brightly colored beads around his neck and a fedora with rainbow feathers on his head, walked around Canalside beaming.
“When I was a young man, you wouldn’t have seen anything like this,” he said.