Utah Pride Festival security cost $300k this year — up five-fold due to anti-LGBTQ+ hate. It’s critical we resist that hate, Robert Gehrke says.

The spirit and festival around celebrating Pride Month feels different this year, Gehrke writes.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Pride flag is raised at Washington Square by Salt Lake City and LGBTQ+ leaders, marking the beginning of Pride Month on Thursday, June 1, 2023.

If you ask me, the Utah Pride Festival is probably the most fun, not to mention most important, event Salt Lake City hosts.

This year, though, it feels a little different. Sure, there’s the celebratory mood, but it also feels — in my mind, at least — to include a heightened element of protest and resistance that reaches back to its roots.

Pride, as you may know, originated after the Stonewall Uprising in 1969. If you went to school in Utah, you probably didn’t learn a thing about it — and likely won’t to this day. The riots began June 28, 1969, when police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Manhattan.

Patrons and neighbors fought back, sparking several days of rioting and protests that became a watershed for the LGBTQ+ rights movement. A year later, the first pride marches were held to mark the anniversary.

The first iteration of what would become Pride in Utah was held in 1974 along the shores of The Great Salt Lake. During the AIDS pandemic, the protest roots remained strong, as people zipped themselves into body bags around Temple Square.

So at its root, Pride — behind the rainbow flags and sequins — has always had an element of defiance and struggle. This year, though, it is especially present.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

How could it not be when the LGBTQ+ community in Utah, and elsewhere, is under attack?

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, there have been nearly 500 pieces of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation introduced this year alone.

In Utah, there were nine such bills introduced, including a version of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. Six of them passed.

In the last two years, we have seen lawmakers ban transgender girls from playing high school sports and prohibit any transgender kids from getting hormone treatment that could facilitate gender transitioning down the road — even though it is a medically accepted treatment for youth with gender dysphoria issues.

There is an organized crusade to remove books from school libraries that have LGBTQ+ themes — making it harder for kids to see themselves represented in the stories they read.

In St. George, a group of drag performers sued the city after their performance permit was denied. In January, an armed group of Proud Boys harassed attendees at a Salt Lake City drag show, prompting organizers to temporarily suspend performances out of concerns for guest safety.

According to state data, LGBTQ+ residents are more likely to be the targets of hate crimes than any other group, with more than a third of the attacks in 2021 directed at members of the community.

And there has been an alarming level of vile speech and vitriol targeting the LGBTQ+ community from knuckle-draggers who feel emboldened to spew their hate.

Consider this disappointing fact: Last year, organizers spent about $60,000 on security for the Pride Festival. This year, the figure is more than $300,000.

“We have hired an outside security team that has worked very closely with Salt Lake [Police Department] and the FBI to make sure we have the safest event Pride has ever had,” Jonathan Foulk, co-CEO of the Utah Pride Center, told me Thursday.

There will be TSA-grade metal detectors at the entrance and bags will not be allowed into the event.

It’s a far cry from when Stan Penfold, a former Salt Lake City Council member, went to his first Pride event held in a parking lot behind the Northwest Community Center. About 100 people attended.

“I remember sitting there and watching the poor drag queens performing on a flatbed truck that had been wrapped in some sort of skirt and thinking, ‘How are they just not melting on the spot?’” he recalled.

Over the decades since, he has seen it grow and evolve, gain community support and mainstream corporate participation. It’s unsettling, he said, to see the growing backlash and open hostility toward the community.

“I’m so aware that people are targeted and abused — physically, mentally and emotionally — all the time for who they are,” Penfold said. “I think partly that’s why Pride feels a little different this year.”

In the face of the animosity, it is disconcerting to see those who have professed to be allies and supporters unwilling to stand with their friends and neighbors when the cost — financial or political — got too high.

First, it was Bud Light who backed away when it faced a backlash over its LGBTQ+ support. Then it was Target, which moved some Pride-themed items to the back of stores and dropped other lines citing concerns about employee safety — concerns that were, it turns out, not unfounded, as irate idiots trashed displays and a bomb threat was called into the store in Layton.

Real friends stand with you, especially when things are hard. And that’s why this year, Pride feels different.

The theme of this year’s festival, Foulk said, is “Unapologetic,” and his big ask is for people to turn out and be seen and support the LGBTQ+ community, unapologetically.

“It’s critical in the times of this open hostility to defy the threats,” Penfold said. “It becomes more important to stand in your place of commitment when people are threatening to take away those rights or ability to speak openly. … It’s more important to be visible and to be clear — not just supportive, not just tolerant — but embracing to show a much broader community acceptance and embrace of the idea of identity and being OK with your identity, in spite of the hate around it.”

I’ll be there and I hope you will be too, showing how our community supports our neighbors. How love and tolerance will win in the end, and how we won’t back down. And — in the spirit of Pride — how we will resist and defy hate.