The rainbow was the order of the day in Concord Point Park in Havre de Grace Saturday — rainbow flags, large and small, rainbow shirts, rainbow face paint, even rainbow pet costumes — as thousands of people visited the waterfront park for the inaugural Upper Chesapeake Bay Pride Festival, celebrating the local LBGT+ community.
The event also drew a number of straight families such as Brad and Donna Stevenson, of Bel Air, and their 4- and 1-year-old daughters.
“It was just really awesome in general,” Donna Stevenson said as she and her family departed the festival, heading along Lafayette Street. “It was great see the community come together and for everybody to have a good time in a safe environment.”
Stevenson said the atmosphere of the festival was no different than any other community event she would take her children to, “because people are people.” She said she and her husband have a lot of LGBT friends, then corrected herself, saying, “we’ve just got a lot of friends.”
“Ultimately, a lot of intolerance is just fear of the unknown,” Brad Stevenson added, as his younger daughter waved a small rainbow flag. “The more that we can expose [our children] to these things at an early age, the more tolerant they’ll be when they grow up.”
The festival was put on by PFLAG Bel Air and Together We Will-Harford County/Upper Chesapeake, with support from the City of Havre de Grace, Harford Community College, the Harford County Cultural Arts Board and many other local businesses, community organizations, religious institutions, musical acts and individual sponsors.
Organizers estimated up to 5,000 people attended. They could enjoy — along with views of the historic Concord Point Lighthouse and the Susquehanna River — live music, drag queen performances, multiple vendors, artwork, food, face painting and a parade along the Promenade boardwalk.
“I am blown out of the water by how well this day went and how much fun everybody had,” Yvonne Matthews, president of PFLAG Bel Air, said.
People could also hear remarks from speakers on the main stage, such as Havre de Grace Mayor William T. Martin and Maj. Gen. Randy Taylor, who recently stepped down as senior commander of Aberdeen Proving Ground as he heads to a new assignment with U.S. Strategic Command in Nebraska. Taylor and his husband, Lucas, have represented the Harford County Army post at many community events during the general’s two-year tenure as APG commander.
DeLane Lewis, president of the Together We Will chapter, noted that many LGBT people still face discrimination, such as the threat of losing their jobs over their sexual orientation or gender identity, and experience situations where it is “basically illegal to be yourself.”
“It was a very family-friendly event,” Lewis said of the Pride festival. “A lot of small kids, a lot of teenagers and young adults; it was great, a great day.”
Marsha Harden, 63, of Union Bridge in Carroll County, said she has attended Pride festivals in large cities, but she has recently been attending more events in smaller communities such as Havre de Grace — she said her father’s family is from the Aberdeen-Havre de Grace area.
“I think they’ve done really well here, for their first time,” she said of the organizers of the Upper Chesapeake Bay festival, noting there were more food sellers and other vendors then she expected.
Harden, who is a lesbian, said it is “very supportive and helpful” to have straight people attend Pride events and serve as allies of the LGBT community, and that it is “important to a lot of people” to have support from religious institutions.
The festival was briefly disrupted by a small group of religious protesters. They could be seen in photographs holding up signs with Bible verses on them — the LGBT community still faces backlash from various religions, as official hierarchies, clergy and practitioners condemn homosexuality as a sin.
The community has received support from religious institutions in recent years, plus same-sex marriage was legalized in all 50 states in 2015.
A counter-protest formed, a group that included representatives of churches taking part in the festival. People posed for photos in front of the protesters, same-sex couples kissed, and they chanted back at the protesters, according to festival organizers.
“The attendees handled it very well, and their chants were about, ‘God loves everyone,’” Lewis said.
About 20 men from Reformation Bible Church in Darlington went to the festival in order to “lovingly and respectfully proclaim the truth at the Upper Chesapeake Pride Festival,” according to a statement issued Tuesday by Rev. Adam Eshleman, associate pastor for the church.
“We were motivated by compassion for members of our community who are evidently proud of their rebellion against God, His created order and His revealed law,” Eshleman stated. “Our goal was to bring the Truth of the Word of God into the festivities of the day.”
He noted that all people are “rebels against God by nature.”
“The only difference between us and those gathering at the festival was that God graciously opened our eyes to the Truth of His Word so that we repented of our sin and trusted Jesus Christ,” he added.
Eshleman said the men from the church held their signs with Bible verses in silence, had planned to not speak unless someone approached them “with a sincere inquiry,” and would only spend a short time at the festival.
“Our men faced great hostility from the crowd,” he stated. “They were ridiculed, shouted at, and cursed. We commend the Havre de Grace Police Department for their professionalism and protection.”
Matthews praised local police on duty during the event, whom she said were “super-friendly and on top of things.”
The protesters acted peacefully, and the majority left about half an hour after they arrived. There were no injuries or arrests reported, according to Cpl. Daniel Petz, a spokesperson for the Havre de Grace Police Department.
“The festival was well attended, and we protected all attendees like we do for all of our festivals and events,” Petz wrote in an email Monday. “From what we observed, it sounded and looked like everyone there was having a great time.”
‘It won’t be my last’
North East resident Rebecca Harman said she was attending her first Pride festival, but noted “it won’t be my last.”
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“It’s nothing but positive energy, and I love it,” Harman said while holding her 9-month-old son, Kyree Harris.
Renee Reed, 59, of Edgewood, sported a painted heart symbol on her cheek, filled in with rainbow colors. She said she has “many, many” LGBT friends, noting that “your preference is your preference, and love is love.”
“We were all out here for a reason,” Reed said. “We’re not all supposed to be the same.”
Reed shared her impressions of the festival with Donna Kasnic, 49, of Havre de Grace. Kasnic attended with her husband, George, a faculty co-sponsor for the Edgewood Middle School Gay-Straight Alliance, and their 22-year-old daughter, Kimberly.
I think it’s been amazing; we’ve been thrilled with the turnout,” said Donna Kasnic, a Harford County Public Schools teacher who works with gifted and talented students at Abingdon and Norrisville elementary schools.
She added that she and her family had “also just been amazed at the diversity of people here today, age, race and everything.”
George Kasnic, 57, worked a booth promoting his school’s GSA. He teaches sixth-grade math and sponsors the club with his colleague, special educator Colleen McKenna.
She and Kasnic said their booth drew interest from from other HCPS educators and students, such as those who wanted to start a Gay-Straight Alliance at their schools, or representatives of high school GSAs.
“I loved how pleasantly surprised people were to see a GSA at a middle school,” McKenna said.
Kasnic said the clubs, which are student-run, serve several roles, including providing social support for LGBT youths, emotional support as they weigh coming out about their sexuality and community education and outreach.
He said GSAs “help make the schools better,” as they “give some of the most at-risk students a feeling of support and recognition.”
Kasnic said his daughter, Kimberly, is LGBT. He recalled his time in the Army in the 1980s and deploying to Iraq while working for the contractor Halliburton.
“I believe in our rights, in everyone’s rights as Americans,” he said.
Kasnic said the Edgewood Middle GSA will hold a meeting in the fall when the next school year starts.
“We hope to keep it going and have a place where kids can be accepted while they figure out who they are,” he said.
Kimberly Kasnic, 22, works for the Delaware Division of Family Services and resides in Wilmington, Delaware. She grew up in that city and attended the Cab Calloway School of the Arts, which had its own GSA.
“It’s so incredibly important, especially when you see the younger kids come out,” she said of Pride festivals.
Kimberly also worked at the Edgewood Middle GSA booth and heard youths who have not yet come out taking rainbow Pride flags.
“They still know that there is a whole community there for them, to support them, which I think is awesome,” she said.
Hugs from Mom
Festival volunteer Cheryl Adams, a member of Together We Will, wore a large “Free Mom Hugs” button on her shirt.
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Free Mom Hugs is a national organization that provides “hugs and love and support to the LBGT community,” according to Matthews, of PFLAG Bel Air.
The nonprofit group is “made up of parents and allies who love the LGBTQ+ community unconditionally and are working toward full affirmation and equality for all,” according to its website.
Adams, a Forest Hill resident, said she is not a member of Free Mom Hugs, but she did offer hugs to many people who requested them Saturday. She said adults who did not have support from their families when they came out “ had tears coming down their faces.”
Adams’ 16-year-old son, D.J., who is LGBT, said he enjoyed the festival, “walking around with my friends and getting food and going to booths.” He also said he was glad to “do my part to help out” by helping to set up for the event.
D.J. Adams, who is going into his junior year at Bel Air High School, said he could “really feel the gravity of the support” while at the festival, giving him a greater connection to other members of the LGBT community and the opportunity to meet straight allies.