It’s hard to say which group of football fans was more surprised to see a gay pride festival in Provo — the visitors from Wisconsin or the BYU faithful. But a lot of people driving by the Provo Pride Festival had, shall we say, quizzical looks on their faces.
The thousands of people who passed through downtown Provo on their way to LaVell Edwards Stadium for the Cougars-Badgers game Saturday afternoon couldn’t miss Provo Pride 2017. For the first time, it was staged at the historic Utah County Courthouse at the corner of Center Street and University. And some 30 businesses in the area were displaying rainbow flags.
Brigham Young University student Tom Christensen, sporting a Cougars sweatshirt, stopped by.
“I just work across the street and thought I’d come over and check it out,” he said. “It’s pretty cool.”
A few Badgers fans also dropped in, and to say they were startled to see a pride festival directly across the street from a Mormon temple in one of the state’s most conservative cities would be an understatement.
“We definitely weren’t expecting this here. Not at all,” said Mike Flannery, who drove down from Pocatello, Idaho, for the game. “We were really surprised. It’s good to see it, though.”
Yes, Provo Pride was on the same day BYU hosted No. 10 Wisconsin — but that was a coincidence.
“We decided in Year One that we wanted the festival to be the same time every year,” said James Bunker, Provo Pride board president and festival director. “So we settled on the third weekend in September.”
This was the fifth annual Provo Pride Festival, but it was the first time it was staged in such a prominent place. Previously, it took place about eight blocks to the east, at Provo Memorial Park. The move downtown “is a sign of the growth of the festival,” Bunker said — and was prompted by the lack of parking at Memorial Park.
“Actually, Mayor [John] Curtis helped us get moved to the County Courthouse. His office reached out to us and worked with us.”
Organizers were hoping the new site would increase attendance to something upwards of 5,000.
“I really think the location is going to draw regular people who are downtown anyway. They’re going to stop in and check it out,” Bunker said. “And this is where all the other big festivals in town go. This is going to give us more legitimacy.
“We’re here. We’re part of the community, too.”
No group was more visible than BYU’s unofficial LGBTQ support group, USGA (Understanding Same-Gender Attraction) — their booth was right on the corner of Center and University.
“A lot of people on campus don’t know that we exist, so they feel alone. And some of them think about suicide,” said Sabina Mendoza, 22, a BYU senior from Houston. “We don’t want anyone to feel that way.”
Dan Bunker, 26 (no relation to James Bunker), drove south from Draper for the event. And it brought back memories of when he came out while he was attending BYU.
“My professors were very open to it. When I came out, they gave me a lot of sympathy and empathy,” he said.
That included BYU Professor Roni Jo Draper, who was in Dan Bunker’s LDS ward. She “was right there to support me,” he said. And Draper was at the festival manning the PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) booth.
“I have a queer son, so my work with PFLAG is about helping parents and communities work with young people, and help them thrive,” Draper said. “The truth is that our community has LGBT young people, and they need to be loved... I think that God wants me in this work.”
The Provo event is considerably smaller than its Salt Lake counterpart, held annually in early June, and it’s missing one element that’s become a fixture at events in the capital city — anti-gay protesters.
“We only had one protester in Year Two,” James Bunker said. “And, since then, we’ve been very blessed not to have any.”
Bunker, a former LDS Church missionary, has lived in Provo since he was 5. And he said it was “super difficult” for him growing up gay there in the 1980s.
“I look back on it now and think, ‘Oh my gosh, I lived through that. And now look at us — we have a downtown pride festival,’” said Bunker, who attended in drag as his alter-ego, Jackie O. “It gives me chills because I never would have thought when I was a teenager that we would have a pride in Provo. Or that I could be a 100 percent-out person comfortably in Utah County. And I don’t have any issues.”
Bunker even put a glass-half-full spin on the July decision of Provo’s Freedom Festival to boot a parade entry from Encircle, an LGBTQ resource center.
“We’ve applied and never even heard back. So the fact that they actually got approved and then denied — I guess that’s progress,” he said with a laugh.
Provo Pride does not have a parade, yet. Bunker said they’re hoping to organize one to accompany next year’s festival.
“Honestly, it all boils down to cost,” he said “It’s pretty expensive. It will cost us a minimum $10-$15,000 to have a parade.”