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‘This is special’: How organizers seized the chance to reimagine Pride Week

As Pride adapts to the pandemic for a second year, LGBTQ storytelling moves front and center

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Pride Center unveils the Pride Story Garden as a replacement to the usual pride parade with an outdoor museum featuring LGBTQ-focused displays of history, artwork and current issues at Washington Square in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 2, 2021. The exhibit opens with limited ticket access to maintain social distancing Thursday, June 3 through Monday, June 7, 2021.

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As the Utah Pride Center began to plan Pride for 2021 in February, organizers decided to take a cautious approach because of the fast-changing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the state’s health and safety recommendations have changed since planning began, including the removal of the statewide mask mandate on April 10.

But the pandemic is not the only reason why this year’s celebration will have a more serious feel.

“This is special because we’re able to tell stories in a way that the festival has never really been able to do,” said Emily Walker, UPC community engagement manager over volunteers. Typically, Pride festivals have been “The festival has always been a great, big party. This year it’s not just a ‘Hey, look we’re here.’ It’s ‘Hey, look, we have a story and we have a voice. We want you to know us.’”

Rob Moolman, UPC executive director, said that this emphasis on storytelling is an important way to champion more representation and acceptance for LGBTQ individuals in Utah.

“Think about those individuals who are still in the closet, or who are sitting in a small town somewhere north or south of Salt Lake,” Moolman said. Storytelling is about bringing hope to people who are still “wondering what it must be like to be out and to be proud of their identity.” This Year, Pride is about helping people “to see a potential future for themselves as a queer person.”

[Read more: With the parade canceled, here’s how you can still celebrate Pride Week]

Utah’s Pride Week celebration is set to be the country’s first in-person Pride event in 2021, according to Walker, and the center is anticipating a large number of out of state travelers to attend. Organizers wanted to make sure that they could provide a safe environment for both vaccinated and unvaccinated attendees — and they welcomed the chance to change the core focus of the event itself. There won’t be a parade, extended dance parties or food vendors as in prior years.

With the reintroduction of a bill to ban transgender athletes from participating in sports that correspond to their gender and LGBTQ-inclusive curricula now on the forefront of discussion in Utah, UPC decided taking a more sincere approach was the right fit for Pride in 2021.

Public festivals like Pride “break down some of the fears and unknowns that exist in the broader community, Moolman said. “That leads to some of the cultural change we are hoping to see.” In fact, Utah’s Pride celebrations have often struck a more earnest tone when compared to other Pride events throughout the country.

“It’s always different planning things here because Utah is its own special place,” said Isaiah Mataele, UPC community engagement manager over promotions and marketing. “The influence of The [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] in the culture in Utah is specific to Utah. Other states really pursue more of a party attitude.”

The 2021 Pride Week Celebration will also help generate revenue for the Pride Center, which, according to Moolman, lost 40% of its annual income after canceling Pride Week in 2020. UPC closed its physical space at the onset of the pandemic but continued to offer all of its programs and services to the community. In fact, Moolman noted that demand actually increased for mental health and suicide prevention services.

The funds generated during Pride Week 2021 will go toward “ensuring that our staff, our programs and our services continue at the Pride Center,” Moolman said.

As for the future of Pride, Moolman reported that the parade will likely return in the future, but he said he hopes the more contemplative nature of this year’s celebration will continue on. He said that this year’s tone helps to bring Pride back to its roots — when gay rights activists took to the streets in protest of police raids at gay bars in New York during the Stonewall Riots of 1969.

For Moolman, the celebration will be “bittersweet,” as it will be his last Pride as executive director of UPC before his replacement is chosen later this year.

“To be able to leave making sure that the center is in a good place, that Pride has continued, and that Pride has been reenvisioned is something that I’m incredibly proud of,” Moolman said.

The full schedule of events for Pride Week 2021 is available on the Utah Pride Center’s website.

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