Providence PrideFest gives sense of community one week after the Orlando massacre

Drew Milligan (front), of Providence, and Graham Stokes, of Exeter, R.I., held a flag while listening to music at Rhode Island PrideFest in Providence Saturday.
Glenn Osmundson/Providence Journal/AP
Drew Milligan (front), of Providence, and Graham Stokes, of Exeter, R.I., held a flag while listening to music at Rhode Island PrideFest in Providence Saturday.

PROVIDENCE — At the city’s 40th PrideFest Saturday, black armbands worn by many revelers stood in stark contrast with rainbow decor, hinting at a sadness just beneath the surface.

“People are just pushing through,” said Boston resident Malcolm Carey. “They’re just being part of pride.”

Holding the celebration this weekend seemed improbable last week, after a gunman went on a shooting spree and left 49 dead and more than 50 injured in at a gay nightclub in Orlando.


But Carey, who is on Boston Pride’s board of directors, said he came to Providence Saturday for the same reason everyone did: a sense of community.

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“Whenever there’s tragedy, people come together,” he said.

And now, it is more important than ever for people to come together, said Peter Swinglehurst, who traveled to Providence from Norwich, Conn.

“If we all stay home and act afraid,” he said, “then they win.”

Far from being afraid, Swinglehurst said he felt safe at the PrideFest’s events, despite the heightened tension stemming from the mass shooting in Orlando.


“I like being in large gay crowds,” he said. “I feel very comfortable.”

The 40th anniversary, plus a desire to show support for victims of the Orlando attack, drew a large crowd to the Rhode Island capital Saturday. Thousands of people walked up and down South Water Street, which runs parallel to the Providence River, stopping at vendors’ tents and dancing as singers performed on a stage near the river bank. A parade was planned for Saturday evening.

Security was an especially high priority this year, said George Evans Marley, who works for Rhode Island Pride, the group that organized the event.

“It’s definitely on the forefront of everyone’s mind,” Evans Marley said.

Rhode Island Pride hired a private security company and requested state police be on scene.


The Providence Police Department, which is always present, was out in full force, said Lieutenant Michelle Guerette.

“In light of what happened, we are definitely cognizant of the overall community wanting to feel safe,” she said.

But the festival’s tenor did not bog down in fear.

“If you didn’t already know what happened last week, you’d never know it by looking at the people here,” Swinglehurst said.

And that’s exactly what the organizers had in mind.

“We’re here for pride,” Evans Marley said. “We’re here to celebrate our community.”

Organizers wanted to do their part helping the Orlando victims and their families by raising funds, he said. Vendors lined the street, selling everything from flags to hula hoops. A portion of the vendors’ profits will go to a charity benefitting those affected by the shooting. And volunteers, many sporting black armbands, circled through the crowd collecting donations in buckets.

At 5:30 p.m., people stood around the performance stage to honor community leaders, but this year the gathering also served as a tribute to the Orlando victims.

US Representative David Cicilline said the massacre underscores the work that must still be done in the fight for equality.

“It’s a time of tremendous sadness and outrage,” said Cicilline, who was the first openly gay mayor of Providence, serving from 2003 to 2011.

He said the gay community has made a lot of progress, but still faces discrimination. A step in the right direction, he said, would be to push for Congress to pass the Equality Act, which would amend the Civil Rights Act to include a ban on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Passing that legislation, he said, will unify Americans against the kind of hatred that bred the attacks in Orlando.

“How will we respond?” he asked the crowd.

On a banner behind a tent giving out buttons that read “#Orlando,” passersby wrote messages of support.

“Especially in light of the massacre, this is the most important thing we can do,” Jess Markowitz said after she scrawled a note on the sign.

Her message read, “Never fear, you are always loved.”

Swinglehurst said he came because PrideFest was a place where he felt loved.

“I just like being able to be who I am,” he said.

Reis Thebault can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @reisthebault