DeMarcio Slaughter has been the emcee on Denver PrideFest’s Center Stage for nearly 20 years. He’s introduced countless drag performers, bands, DJs, and dancers, usually while sporting Diana Ross-inspired outfits designed by Darlene C. Ritz, chair of fashion design at the Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design. Denver PrideFest, which began in 1976, is such a big part of his life that Slaughter married his now-husband on the stage last June. Mayor Michael Hancock officiated the ceremony.
“Even in the heat, the crowd stayed and watched,” says Slaughter, who is also PrideFest’s entertainment coordinator. “It was packed, and people were crying, and there was such emotion and positive energy. It was a message to all those kids at their very first PrideFest, that this is what your life can look like.”
This year, a crowd like the one Slaughter remembers won’t be possible. On April 27, Rex Fuller, CEO of Denver LGBTQ nonprofit and PrideFest producer The Center on Colfax, announced that Pride, June 20 and 21 this year, would be moved online to protect the health of the community. “We tried our hardest for as long as possible to continue with the celebration as-is,” Fuller told 5280. “It was just becoming increasingly obvious that it was not going to be possible to safely hold a large festival in Civic Center Park.”
The decision has massive ramifications. PrideFest is the biggest fundraiser of the year for many local and statewide LGBTQ organizations, including the Center on Colfax, which typically makes around $1 million from producing PrideFest, to be used on its mental health, legal services, and programs aimed at LGBTQ youth, seniors, and the transgender community. Denver-based nonprofit One Colorado, too, will feel the dearth of donations: Tickets to its largest political fundraiser of the year, a dance extravaganza called the Pink Party, typically bring in $40,000.
Last year, attendance surpassed 525,000 people, and PrideFest typically generates an estimated $25 million for the Mile High City annually. That money comes from permit fees, sales tax, and bar attendance—Caleb Roth, general manager at X Bar, says the gay bar on East Colfax Avenue makes a significant portion of its annual revenue during Pride. Additionally, thousands of out-of-towners spend money on hotels, restaurants, and more, all because they want to party at the Rocky Mountain region’s largest Pride event. Dede Frain, owner of 18-year-old Babes Around Denver (BAD), an event planning business providing social opportunities for the Mile High City’s lesbian community, throws the official Women’s Pride Party each year: “I think the cancellation of PrideFest will truly be a loss for many in the LGBTQ community,” Frain wrote via email, “not to mention an economic loss for the city.”
The monetary loss was only part of what made the decision so painful. “I’ve heard so many stories of people who’ve discovered their true selves when they attended a Pride event,” Fuller says. “Pride means a lot to so many people. It’s been really tough to live with this decision.”
Other members of the area’s LGBTQ community are mourning the loss of Denver’s PrideFest, too, though none have protested the decision. Robin Kniech, Denver councilwoman-at-large, told 5280 via email that, while virtual Pride is the right thing to do to keep people safe, she’ll miss the in-person fete of an event that has meant so much to her. “It was very humbling to walk down that parade route as the ‘first’ out member of Denver City Council in 2011, as someone who now served this big, beautiful, diverse LGBTQ community in a new way,” she wrote.
Pride has morphed into a family event for Kniech. “It brings tears to my eyes when I think of my then 83ish year old mother-in-law, Cle Symons, riding in the convertible car along the Parade route with us,” Kniech writes. “She held a sign that said ‘I love my lesbian daughter and her girlfriend’… Some years my son was there with his pink parasol happily squirting people with a super-soaker to provide some relief from the sunny heat radiating along Colfax.” X Bar general manager Roth will also miss out on including family in the festivities. His mom was supposed to visit for Pride this year, and he says he’ll miss sharing the festivities with her.
Of course, family goes well beyond blood relations. Jordan Blisk, executive director of the Colorado Name Change Project, a nonprofit helping transgender people legally change their names and gender markers, describes Pride as a giant family reunion, and a moving way to mark fellow trans folks’ journeys. “There are many people who I met early in their transitions, and we reconnect at Pride several years later, and you just see the happiness radiating off them,” says Blisk, who is also on the board of the Colorado LGBT Bar Association, a group of attorneys, judges, paralegals, and other queer folks and their allies working in the legal system.
Last year, the Colorado LGBT Bar Association participated in the Denver Pride Parade for the first time, another big moment for Blisk and his cohorts. “It was empowering to march with a group of queer attorneys,” he says. Shannara Quissell, the association’s programming committee chair, believed their presence was a powerful reminder that LGBTQ folks have people willing to advocate for them in the legal community. “Plus, it was just so much fun,” she says. “We’d been planning to up our game and do a float this year.”
Quissell and Blisk are hardly the only ones to reminisce about the parade. State Representative Leslie Herod has been an official announcer for the parade for ten years, introducing groups as they enter Civic Center Park after marching down Colfax Avenue, for several years now. “When I started, we had one binder of entries to announce. Now, it’s up to two,” says Herod, the first African American, openly LGBT elected official in Colorado.
Herod isn’t sure what her role in this year’s “parade” will be—the Center is producing a virtual version. John White, events director for the Center and longtime Denver drag performer, jokes it will be a mash-up of TikToks: Businesses and organizations can enter brief-yet-fun videos, which will be streamed during Pride weekend with live commentary. “That magnetic energy will be hard to recreate digitally,” White admits, “but looking back at the history of the LGBTQ rights movement, at Stonewall, we’ve fought for the ability to celebrate. So we’re going to celebrate.”
To pull it off, White’s team, made up of several Center staff members and 42 volunteers, is converting many popular events to an online format. The annual 5K race will be done remotely. Entrants will run on their own and submit their time, and a live scoreboard will keep track of the leaders as results roll in. The Center will live-stream performances, too— with Slaughter virtually emceeing between acts, of course.
Virtual dance parties, an online marketplace to buy merchandise, an online job board, and links to various organization’s donations pages will also be part of the event. Pivoting to a virtual format, White hopes, will still capture some of that joy, comfort, and sense of community. His team is still figuring out how to raise funds via virtual Pride: Sellers will pay a small fee to be part of the online marketplace, for example, but decisions about “ticket” prices to access other parts of the celebration have not yet been made.
Still, concerns remain. Anaya Robinson, who co-founded Transformative Freedom Fund (TFF) to help transgender folks pay for transition-related healthcare, worries that those without Internet access will miss out on virtual Pride. “On some levels, it’s devastating,” he says. “Pride often evokes a sense of belonging and safety and family that so many people in our community don’t feel in other spaces. I think this was the right thing to do, but it’s going to have a severe emotional impact on many.”
Robinson points out that events not directly related to the Center’s PrideFest will be impacted, too. TFF hasn’t had a formal presence at the festival in the past, but the group sets up booths at local breweries in June to educate Denverites about the need for improved transgender healthcare access. Those efforts to raise awareness—and funds—will likely be curtailed this year due to the pandemic.
Denver artist Kenzie Sitterud recalls attending a Pride festival after growing up in rural Utah, where they didn’t feel safe expressing their true selves. They worry virtual PrideFest won’t attract the same ally-ship the in-person affair does. “A big part of the physical Pride is being visible to the larger community,” they say. “But how many of my straight friends are going to sit in front of a live broadcast?” Instead of watching a screen, Sitterud is considering hosting a small, social distance friendly gathering in their yard. (Herod, too, suggests safely gathering in groups of ten or fewer.)
The Center on Colfax team isn’t done planning, and its goal is to make sure even those hesitant about virtual Pride, like Sitterud, will find a reason to tune in. Herod, for one, knows the Rocky Mountain LGBTQ community isn’t one to be scared off. “I remember one year, when I was watching different performances on stage, it just started raining out of nowhere, as Colorado does,” she says. “Everyone just stayed out and continued to dance in the rain and have a good time with each other. It was such a good time with the rainbow flags everywhere, and glitter, and rain, and dancing. That is something I’ll always remember.”