Gay pride event still a tough sell

Southern Utah doesn't embrace the celebration; instead, out-of-towners constitute most of the participants

The Salt Lake Tribune/September 4, 2008

Salt Lake City's gay-pride festival draws tens of thousands of people. Major sponsors such as Wells Fargo, Hilton and Bud Light line up to splash their logos at the event. And politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, march in the parade - second only in size to Utah's Days of '47 procession.

Not so at southwestern Utah's only pride festival.

St. George-based Southern Utah Pride Association (SUPA), which serves the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) communities, struggles to secure sponsors, attract politicians and boost attendance in one of the nation's most conservative regions - home to cities that spawned an official "U.N.-free zone," a short-lived ordinance requiring a gun in every home and a resolution embracing "natural" families.

Still, SUPA President Chris McArdle hopes the event comes into its own this year - the festival's sixth - by luring 5,000 people to Springdale on Sept. 26 and 27.

"Last year, we had 1,013 - and we thought that was impossible," he says, noting previous years had only a few hundred attendees. "We're at that transitional period. Everyone who's afraid to support us needs to realize that there's a lot of people who do. The fear is they're going to stick out."

Most of this year's sponsors are other GLBT groups or businesses, including Q Salt Lake magazine, Equality Utah and The Advocate. Securing venues in St. George for fundraisers or even store windows to place fliers has proved difficult, McArdle notes.

And The Spectrum asked to have its logo removed from SUPA's Web site and brochures, McArdle says, after the St. George newspaper deemed an earlier promise of $1,000 in free ads made by a former marketing director as unauthorized.

The paper agreed to run the ads. But Publisher Donnie Welch says the logo was pulled because SUPA wanted more free advertising in return for keeping up the logo.

"We do not agree that [SUPA's] Web site is worth what we were going to give them in print," Welch says. "We would make the exact same decision on any other business, organization or project in the community."

McArdle says he never asked for additional ads to continue displaying the paper's logo, which he would have preferred to keep on the Web site because he was "proud" to have The Spectrum as a sponsor.

Politicians attending the festival are limited to Utah's three, openly gay legislators - Sen. Scott McCoy, Rep. Jackie Biskupski and Rep. Christine Johnson, all from Salt Lake City - and a handful of Democrats vying for state office, including gubernatorial long shot Bob Springmeyer.

"It would be a big political liability" for southern Utah politicians to attend, says Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner, who is up for re-election this year. "I wouldn't have any interest in supporting that movement."

His Democratic challenger, Lin Alder, won't be going, either. Alder cites a scheduling conflict, but acknowledges that "the politics of Washington County makes it difficult for a moderate candidate to openly support" the GLBT group. "I can understand the challenges that they're facing," he adds.

SUPA relies on the festival's attractive location - red-rock-ringed Springdale, the gateway to Zion National Park - to draw visitors from other more liberal locales.

Most attendees do not hail from Washington County, McArdle concedes.

"The biggest challenge [here] is the inability to be gay and lesbian people without fear of backlash," he says, noting many choose to remain in the closet. "They're afraid to show up at our events because they're afraid they'll be outed."

Claudia Bradshaw, founder of the St. George chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) hopes the visibility of GLBT people at the pride festival helps more gay men and women feel comfortable being out in Washington County. She has trouble getting parents to openly acknowledge their gay children and march with her in SUPA's parade.

She hopes the event will help prevent suicides among GLBT youths.

Her 36-year-old son, Braden, believed as a teen that he was the only gay person in Washington County and the only gay Mormon on the planet. He thought about suicide and kept his sexuality secret, she says, but later came out to his family at age 26.

"There are all kinds of stories, but it's all the silence that is just killing people," Claudia Bradshaw says. "If everyone came out and told the truth about who they are, and if parents spoke up for their children, it would be the end of discrimination."

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