A T-shirt booth near the entrance to Headwaters Park gave Blaine Hall a front-row seat to the thousands streaming into Pride Fest on Saturday.
Each person – especially each young person – filled the 52-year-old with joy.
“I was born in an era when we did not have these things,” said Hall, a California native. “It means a lot to me for people to have a safe place to come, a place to come in as 100% who you feel you are, and be accepted.”
Organizers expected the two-day event, now in its 22nd year, would attract 15,000 people, based on past years' attendance.
Nikki Fultz, Fort Wayne Pride's director, compared the event with other local annual gatherings, including Germanfest and Greekfest. Attendees don't have to be born in either country to enjoy the gatherings, just as they don't need to be gay to enjoy Pride Fest.
Although many people value diversity in all its forms, Fultz understands that not everyone feels comfortable with members of the LGBTQ+ community. But hiding who they are isn't an option in her opinion.
“I think visibility is the best form of education for people,” she said, adding that the LGBTQ+ community is subjected to “a lot of stereotypes.”
Fultz described herself as a third grade teacher and mother of five who has been with her wife 13 years. In other words, a regular, nonthreatening person.
“I think if they just got to know me, they'd change their mind,” she added.
Pride Fest offers people an opportunity to have fun while learning a little more about the local gay community, she said. The act of walking through the gate doesn't brand someone as gay, lesbian or anything else except supportive and accepting, Fultz said.
Some out-of-towners stumble in just because it looks like a good time without knowing who organized the festival or why – and leave happy, she added.
“I think experiencing it is the best way to see that it's OK,” she said.
Fort Wayne Pride, a nonprofit, spends about $75,000 to put on the annual festival, which includes live music acts, food trucks, a drag show and 140 vendors representing banks, cellphone carriers, artisans and numerous nonprofits, including more than a dozen churches.
Money raised from the $5 admission fee also pays for college scholarships, contributions to a food bank, about a dozen families adopted at Christmas and other efforts throughout the year.
Valery Federspiel, an elder at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), was at Pride Fest encouraging visitors to attend her church's Bible study.
Although some denominations refer to the Bible when they preach against accepting gays, Federspiel sees no contradiction.
“The Lord has two commandments Jesus Christ put out,” she said, listing love God and love everyone. “He said all are welcome. He didn't say this person is welcome and this person is not.”
“We're all God's children,” she added.
Nicole Brown and Ellie Dart were sitting in the shade at a table with the following sign: “Shade never made anybody less gay.” The shade in that sense refers to treating someone with disrespect.
The friends were there as supporters.
“I'm not around it much, so I came just for the experience,” said Dart, 15. “It makes me really happy to see so many people here supporting” the LGBTQ+ community, including Fort Wayne Community Schools. Dart attends Carroll High School.
“I think there would be a lot less pain” if everyone loved and accepted everyone else, said Brown, 18. “(Pride Fest) is a really open environment. Everyone should feel welcome.”
Zaya Henn, 18, was sitting alone on a bench, soaking in her first Pride Fest. In previous years, she made excuses for not attending.
“Oh, I'm not out enough to come – or proud enough,” she recalled.
But the Warsaw woman, who will attend Herron School of Art in the fall, is in a different place emotionally. In the past year, Henn has made more friends in the gay community and feels more confident and secure in her identity.
She came out to her family three years ago, two years after her mother died. Her father has always been accepting. But not everyone is as supportive as she'd like.
That's true even during the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Inn uprising in New York against police persecution, a turning point in the modern gay rights movement.
“It can be hard to reckon with,” she said. “I feel immense pride that we have progressed so much ... but at the same time, a little disappointment.”
When Henn told a straight friend she planned to attend Pride Fest, she asked why she couldn't keep her sexuality to herself, why the gay community felt the need to have a party.
Henn, who was wearing a “Love Is Love” T-shirt and neon green hair shaved to about 1 inch from her scalp, paused to consider the question.
“On a day-to-day basis, straight people feel comfortable about kissing their partner in public and holding hands in a movie, and that's socially acceptable – and it should be,” she said.
“So why is there a problem with me celebrating my sexuality for one day?”