Provo lets freedom ring — and makes history — as it allows LGBTQ groups to march in its July 4 parade for the first time

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) America's Freedom Festival Parade, in Provo, is finally letting freedom ring. For the first time, it is allowing three LGBTQ groups to participate in this year's July 4 event, including Mormon's Building Bridges.

Provo • One of Utah’s most conservative cities made history Wednesday when it allowed, for the first time, LGBTQ groups to participate in its annual July Fourth parade.

“This feels like a big step for Provo,” Jeff Case, a U.S. Army veteran, said of the America’s Freedom Festival Parade. “This is a big deal. It’s sad that the Days of ’47 Parade hasn’t done this.”

Residents who lined Provo’s University Avenue for the parade clapped and cheered as the LGBTQ groups passed, garnering as much excitement as the beauty queens, marching bands and horses.

The loudest applause, though, was reserved for the group of Mormon missionaries — clad in white shirts and dark pants — that walked the parade route.

In years past, support groups for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people had applied — but been denied — participation in the America’s Freedom Festival Parade. Organizers claimed they were “activist groups” and did not meet the criteria for participation.

It happened again this year, when five LGBTQ applications were denied. But the move generated criticism from residents and accusations that festival organizers had breached nondiscrimination clauses in its contracts with Provo City and Utah County.

Representatives of Utah’s LGBTQ community met with festival organizers in an intense two-hour meeting that ultimately resulted in a compromise.

“I hope it’s the start of a new chapter,” said Stephenie Larsen, the founder and CEO of Encircle, a resource center for LGBTQ youth, as they prepared to walk in the entertainment or “pre-parade” section of the event.

More than 100 youths — along with many parents, siblings and friends — carried red, white and blue balloons while “I’ll Walk With You” played over a stereo speaker.

“We thought the song was really appropriate,” Larsen said of the well-known Mormon song, often sung in children’s Primary meetings. “Walking with people who aren’t the same as you.”

While making history is nice, several of the Encircle teens said they are more excited to be themselves at a community event.

“Being gay in a Utah town,” said 17-year-old Ally Smith, “you feel really isolated.”

Maddie Knowlton, who used the parade “to come out” to friends, believes that youths watching along the parade route “who haven’t come out yet” would be encouraged by the presence of the LGBTQ groups.

And maybe, she said, it would give them courage to get help if they are lonely or suicidal.

“I’m glad that we get to be part of something new and historic,” added 18-year-old Kora Keller, “but I hope we can make a huge influence, too.”

Provo Pride and PFLAG participated in Freedom Festival’s “grand parade,” carrying a quilt made from dozens of 12-by-12-inch squares.

Each square — hand-sewn by LGBTQ members, their families and friends — was unique with sayings such as “Free to Be Me” or “Gay Dad. Straight Mom. One Family.”

Using rainbows, stars and stripes and even cats, the squares “show how beautiful every family is,” said Roni Jo Draper, vice president of PFLAG. “We are all different, but together we make a beautiful fabric.”

In order for Mormons Building Bridges to participate in the main parade, it agreed to build a float. The nonprofit is still gathering donations through crowdfunding to pay the $5,000 costs, said co-founder Erika Munson.

The float, titled “Utah Salutes Our LGBTQ Veterans: United We Stand,” honored LGBTQ soldiers, many of whom served when they were prohibited from being open about their sexuality.

“It’s a supreme example of serving country over self,” Munson said. “They were willing to put their lives on the line without being able to bring their full self to the service.”

While many people believe the LGBTQ groups were making “too big of a deal” about parade participation, it sends an important signal, Munson added.

“Floats aren’t everything,” she said, “but floats and a parade are a way to turn hearts.”

After Wednesday, she added, Provo “is bigger and prouder and more American than it was before.”