While St. Joe’s annual Pride festival has been canceled for the second consecutive year, local organizations continue to push for help and advocacy.
Pride organizers like Midland Empire Equality Coalition and PFLAG St. Joseph want to remind people that help and resources for the LGBTQ+ community are out there.
“It is vitally important to have the resources, being able to go to a PFLAG meeting for any person who has come out and is having difficulties with their friends or a family member,” said Daniel Ramming, president of Midland Empire Equality Coalition.
St. Joe Pride Fest 2021 was scheduled for Sept. 10 and 11 in Downtown St. Joseph. It was going to be the first big celebration for people in the LGBTQ+ community since 2019. While Ramming said organizers were excited, they ultimately decided they didn’t want to put people at risk with COVID-19 still out there.
“The general public would have probably shown up fairly well. But the volunteers who are going to sit there face to face, serving food, serving beer, checking people in, those were the ones I was worried about,” Ramming said.
Because some of the volunteers are immunocompromised, Ramming said the group didn’t feel comfortable putting them in contact with hundreds of people, especially with COVID-19 cases ranging from the double to triple digits in Buchanan County.
The problem for local LGBTQ advocacy and support groups is Pride Fest is the biggest outreach event to get people in contact with resources, ranging from mental health support to HIV testing to educational services. Without it, they worry people might not know where to turn.
“It’s frustrating not being able to have that sense of community. One of our goals is to reach out to people. It’s hard to do that when we’re 6 feet apart,” Ramming said.
On the community support side, PFLAG St. Joseph has been putting in the work, whether it’s online or in person. Brian Kirk, PFLAG co-founder and pastor at First Christian Church, said people are free to sit in on meetings to get support or to hear other people tell their stories.
While the meetings might not always be packed, Kirk said organizers see the importance of them with every life they touch.
“There are some weeks we meet when it’s literally just the leaders there. But anytime we think like, ‘Yeah, maybe we didn’t need to be here today,’ then somebody shows up that really needed to talk to somebody. This is why we meet every time that we’re supposed to be here,” he said.
When the pandemic hit, Kirk said, the group knew its resources would be more vital than ever.
“We just realized we could not take a pause for a year,” he said.
As a gay man who grew up in rural Oklahoma, Ramming said meetings like PFLAG provide support and perspective, not only for the person going through it, but their family too.
“Even though my parents shouldn’t have been surprised when I came out, they were. It took them a while to accept. It would have been a really great resource for them to have, but we live in a rural area. We didn’t have PFLAG,” he said.
At St. Joe Pride Fest, Ramming said there’s usually an HIV testing station. In the absence of the festival, he encourages people to get tested through the St. Joseph Health Department.
During the past year, MEEC also has established a $250 scholarship for any senior high school student identifying as LGBTQ+ for use at any accredited university, college or technical/vocational school.
“As the years go on, we’re going to try and grow that,” Ramming said.
In October, MEEC will hold its annual elections to fill some vacancies on the board.
“If people are wanting to get involved, we do have some empty spots,” he said.
Several events have happened that Ramming hopes a future Pride Fest can celebrate, from the 2020 Supreme Court reaffirming that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay, lesbian and transgender employees from discrimination based on sex to the St. Joseph Museum establishing its first LGBTQ+ exhibit. But first, he wants to be sure it’s safe to celebrate.
“We didn’t want to be responsible for putting people at risk. We understand that people want to celebrate. When it’s safe, we will literally be the ones who will throw the party,” he said.
In the meantime, local organizations want to be sure people have places to turn to for support.
“I think for the wider community, what we’re offering is that we’re creating a more inclusive and welcoming city. And, of course, we should all be wanting that, that we want St. Joe to be a place that folks feel safe, feel included or that folks want to move and know that they’ll be welcomed as they are,” Kirk said.