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Midwest small town's Pride festival attracts thousands who reject far-right local politics


GRAND HAVEN, Mich. (AP) — Shawn Duncan and her wife, Betty, moved to Grand Haven 14 years ago, but kept their relationship hidden for most of that time fearing a backlash in the small city in a traditionally conservative part of Michigan.

“We knew if we wanted our company to thrive, we were going to have to just squash that we were together and married,” said Duncan, who works in respite care. “We both had the same last name, so it was easy to just say we’re sisters.”

But last weekend, surrounded by allies and members of the LGBTQ community, the Duncans held hands publicly in their hometown for the first time, at Grand Haven’s inaugural Pride festival.

It was time to celebrate, she said, after decades in the closet.

Organizers had hoped the festival would attract at least 500 attendees to the city of 11,000 people, but instead the drag show, dance party and vendor-filled streets drew thousands. For many, it was a shocking rebuttal of the increasing hostility toward the LGBTQ community seen nationwide as well as in the region.

“I’ve definitely for a few years had a skewed perspective that Grand Haven was just a terrible closed-off place,” said Ames Goldman, a 22-year-old transgender male who lives near the city in Ottawa County. “But today is resurrecting that love and that hope that I have for Grand Haven.”

In January, a conservative Christian group known as Ottawa Impact claimed a majority on Ottawa County’s board of commissioners and made several controversial decisions, including immediately closing the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Department. The board also decided against sending funds to support the county’s largest Pride festival, in Holland, even though it had sponsored the event for two years. Board chair Joe Moss refused for months to sign a grant awarded to an LGBTQ advocacy group for a youth program. When he did sign it, Moss wrote “vi coactus,” Latin for “having been forced.”

Moss did not respond to questions from The Associated Press.

In May, festival opponents who spoke at a Grand Haven City Council meeting – apparently emboldened by the views of the county’s leaders -- called Pride a celebration of “sexual immorality” and “sin and depravity.”

Organizers of the Grand Haven Pride Festival first met in March to plan a small event inspired by Pride-themed worship services that have taken place on the city’s waterfront since 2021. Rev. Jared Cramer, of St. John’s Episcopal Church, said he organized the first service after realizing Grand Haven didn’t have any events to mark Pride month. He had expected a few dozen from his congregation to attend, but Cramer said around 200 people from the broader community showed up that year.

“We just sensed a real desire on the part of some businesses and people in Grand Haven for an actual full Pride festival,” Cramer told The AP.

In April, the City Council unanimously approved the plan for a Pride festival at the waterfront stadium in downtown Grand Haven, despite the local opposition. Over the next two months, the festival nearly doubled its fundraising goal, and the number of vendors had to be capped after they tripled that target. Over 100 people signed up to volunteer.

Even so, organizers were compelled to beef up security in the weeks before the festival. Festival co-chair Jessica Robinson said some organizers received threats online and in person.

The most common criticism in the heavily religious county was that the festival was offensive to the Christian community. Jeff Elzinga, a pastor at a local church, told a May 15 council meeting that the event was “directly against scripture,” and “harmful to the community.”

Robinson, who is a gay Christian, rejected that assumption.

“In Ottawa County right now, the loudest voices keep saying that you either need to choose God and Christianity or you need to choose your sexuality. I’m living proof to show that’s a fallacy,” she said.

On Saturday morning, Cramer was joined by two other pastors for the third annual Pride Worship Service. The crowd, predominately over 50 years old, wore rainbow colored apparel as they listened to a sermon about acceptance. Later, Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II told the growing crowd in the stadium that Pride “is about so much more than today,” and that he hoped “the expectations are raised about what’s possible in Grand Haven.”

As Gilchrist left the stage, he was replaced by blasting music and dancing drag queens. The crowd swelled and seating was sparse less than an hour after the festivities began. Organizers estimate around 4,000 people attended. There were no disruptions of note.

For many, it was a day they will never forget — and one they hope to repeat.

“I think we’ve been quiet long enough,” Duncan said.