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At 44th annual Pride Parade, a city celebrates

The Boston Hoohahs took part in Saturday's Gay Pride Parade.

Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff

The Boston Hoohahs took part in Saturday's Gay Pride Parade.

Thousands of people marched and danced through the city’s streets Saturday for the 44th Boston Pride parade and festival, a colorful and upbeat celebration of the region’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities.

Organizers said a record 25,000 people in 200 groups marched in the annual parade, which was led by Governor Deval Patrick and Mayor Martin J. Walsh and ended with a festival on City Hall Plaza.

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Groups in the parade included bands, advocacy groups, university clubs, churches, and even corporations and political candidates — a sign of Pride’s shift from a fringe demonstration to a mainstream, family-oriented staple of Boston’s event calendar and marker of an ongoing sea change in public opinion on gay issues.

“There’s been a huge evolution in the kind of folks attending,” said Boston Pride president Sylvain Bruni, who has worked with the nonprofit for 10 years. “There are more families, more babies, more couples, more youth, more straight people — it’s much more diverse than it’s ever been.”

While some in the gay community fear a loss of identity as the event becomes more mainstream, Bruni welcomes the change.

“You can see big bears in leather carrying a rainbow flag, and right after them, a group of LGBT parents,” he laughed. “It shows the diversity of all the communities LGBT people belong to.”

Clad in matching rainbow wigs, Annika Backstrom, 31, and Charlotte Park, 35, of Rumney, N.H., watched the parade from Clarendon Street with their three young sons.

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“We’re a queer family, and it’s important for them to see other queer families,” Park said. “I like that they can see kids their age come by as part of the floats.”

Pride is celebrated in cities worldwide throughout June, in part to commemorate the anniversary of the June 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City that helped spark the gay rights movement.

While the Pride celebrations share common elements — a parade, the rainbow flag, music, dancing — each incarnation assumes some of the personality of its host city. In the case of Boston, that means a slightly buttoned-down party.

“I was expecting people here to be crazy, throwing condoms,” said Shannon Milroy, a 29-year-old Harvard University graduate student, explaining that Pride in her native Toronto is a far raunchier affair.

Milroy’s mother, 60-year-old Chris Dowell, said she loved the energy at Saturday’s Pride Parade, her first.

“It’s fabulous to have both kids and the older people,” she said, “because the kids are the hope, and the older people are the redemption.”

The parade was not entirely tame, with some revelers in skimpy garb. But the mood was one of levity and playfulness, not overt sexuality. Parade-marchers mingled easily with families in the crowd, as when a man in a chest harness and tight leather pants handed a young boy a Tootsie Roll while the child’s mother smiled and waved.

Along the route, 51-year-old Tracy Welch repeatedly brushed the curls from his face as he posed for photo after photo with families attending the parade. Even after 30 years of doing drag, he said, it was hard to choose the right dress for Pride. He settled on an elegant red gown studded with silver details.

“I love it,” he said. “I can’t believe that families want to come up and take a picture with me.”

Fewer politicians and political candidates attended this year’s parade because of an oversight that led to Pride coinciding with the state Democratic Party’s convention in Worcester. Some had campaigners and family members attend in their place.

Walsh, who attended a breakfast with delegates in Worcester Saturday before returning to Boston for Pride, lauded the parade as emblematic of Boston’s progressive spirit.

“I think Boston is right at the top” of the list of LGBT-friendly cities, Walsh said. “We’re just an open society here.”

Before the parade’s 11 a.m. start, Patrick, spiritual leaders, and advocates packed the pews of the Old South Church for a Pride worship service.

“Look how beautiful everybody is in their rainbow colors,” beamed the Rev. Nancy Taylor, who helps lead the church’s progressive United Church of Christ congregation, as she greeted a diverse crowd of parishioners. “We’ve turned a corner in Massachusetts, and there’s no going back.”

During the service, which included prayer and music, Patrick accepted an Open Door Award from the church for his support of gay rights. He dedicated the award to the memory of his grandfather, whom Patrick said, “showed me through his example . . . to understand and value the dignity in every living soul.”

Patrick said Pride was about “acknowledging the wholeness of people.”

“I hope by now . . . people know they have a home here [in Massachusetts] and that we’re a welcoming place,” he said in a brief interview before the service.

Advocates, including Hillary Goodridge, a plaintiff in the landmark 2003 court case that opened the door for gay marriage in Massachusetts, also attended.

“If you had told me 11 years ago that I’d be standing on the stage with the governor, I wouldn’t have believed you,” said Goodridge, who read a section of the court’s ruling during the service.

The court case bearing her name has “unleashed a tidal wave of love,” said Goodridge, who cautioned that there are still battles to fight in other states.

Also honored with an Open Door Award was the Rev. Frank Schaefer, a Methodist minister from Pennsylvania who made headlines last year when the church stripped him of his title for officiating at the 2007 wedding of his son, who is gay.

“The hierarchy of the church took my credentials and said, ‘We no longer consider you a minister,’ ” he said in an interview. “But this award says, ‘We do.’ ”

Schaefer lauded Massachusetts as a leader in gay rights.

“We call Massachusetts ‘the good state,’ ” he said. “It’s so safe here for the LGBTQ community. It’s wonderful, it’s like a mecca.”

Dan Adams can be reached at dadams@globe.com. Claire McNeill can be reached at claire.mcneill@globe.com.

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