Iowa City ‘proud’ of LGBT Pride weekend

BY IAN STEWART | JUNE 20, 2011 7:20 AM

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Waving rainbow banners and beating on drums, the paraders started down Johnson Street to the cheers of onlookers sitting in College Green Park. Then, the eclectic group wound its way through Iowa City’s downtown on Saturday afternoon.

A roller-derby club led a red pickup truck filled with people dressed in drag and a troupe of women honking the horns and revving the engines of their motorcycles. As the Iowa City Pride Committee’s annual parade approached the Pedestrian Mall, several hundred onlookers clapped and cheered.

The parade, and subsequent Pride Festival, are cornerstones of Iowa City’s celebration of National Gay and Lesbian Pride Month. For committee head Kirsten Plowman, the event is important for several reasons.

“The goal for us is to create awareness, to celebrate diversity,” she said. “Not only for [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] folks but [for] the different factions in the community.”

Plowman, who first became active in the LGBT community while studying at Grinnell College, said that pride parades anywhere are “part of the tradition of being queer.”

This is only the second year that the pride committee has secured the Pedestrian Mall as the location for the festival. In past years, the event has taken place in Upper City Park, but the new location has proved both more visible and less expensive for the group.

This year, the 10-member committee raised around $6,000 to pay for the events. The members hold five or six fundraisers annually, from wine tastings to family-friendly pool parties, and Plowman said the group is very well-supported. The biggest change this year was a free, catered community picnic held at City Park on June 17.

Under a shelter adorned with rainbow banners and flags, more than 150 people gathered to eat, socialize, and make T-shirts. The associate head of the committee, Bridget Malone, stressed Iowa City’s unique position as a center of LGBT activity.

“I think we have the most active LGBT community in the state,” she said.

Malone attributed the city’s general acceptance to the presence of the University of Iowa and to its historical connection to queer activism.

Kate Varnum — who, along with wife Trisha, was a lead plaintiff in the April 2009 ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court that legalized gay marriage — echoed that belief.

“For the most part, I think Iowans generally care about their neighbors,” Kate Varnum said.

But the Varnums did not just come to celebrate diversity and the LGBT. They were selling coffee and gift baskets in an attempt to raise some of the $25,000 it takes to adopt a child, a difficult task because most of the agencies they contacted refused to work with a homosexual couple. But there were plenty of same-sex couples with children in tow June 18, and 9-year-old Liam Barron, who was with his two mothers, had his own explanation for the value of the festivities.

“Some people think that it’s wrong,” Barron said about same-sex marriage. “But I don’t think it’s wrong.”

As the parade wound down, participants dissipated on the Pedestrian Mall, where local businesses and organizations had pitched colorful tents. A traveling magician from Des Moines sold shimmering, sequenced outfits. The Emma Goldman Clinic had a jar full of free condoms. Couples danced as two pianists played jazzy hits. While Plowman was enthusiastic about turnout at the events, she said, she has hopes for the future.

“One of the things we would like to see is more straight allies as well as a little more help from government entities,” Plowman said. “Currently, the only city office that does anything directly related to us is the Senior Center.”

The committee has made stride, however, and she praised the Iowa City police for leading the parade.

In her blue T-shirt plastered with rainbow stickers, 83-year-old Elsie Gauley Vega, the host of a monthly Senior Center Television show about LGBT issues, explained what she sees as a core issue the community faces.

“Nobody asks a heterosexual person, ‘When did you decide to be heterosexual?’ ” Vega said. “They ought to stop asking us when we decided to be lesbian, when we decided to be gay.”

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