Festival celebrates the Valley’s diverse LGBTQ community

Correspondent photos / Sean Barron The Pride Youngstown parade makes its way along Commerce Street in downtown Youngstown on Saturday to celebrate the region’s diverse lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.

YOUNGSTOWN — For an annual celebratory gathering, the concept of uniformity wore two seemingly contradictory hats: It was abundantly absent in the eye-catching diverse colors and clothing the participants wore, yet highly present in what they wanted.

“I am extremely proud of who I am,” Leandrah Hunt, who is part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community, said.

Hunt also did more than merely discuss her self-confidence. She put it in action via helping to organize Saturday’s annual Pride Youngstown festival and parade.

Those who marched in the parade that began at the Tyler History Center on West Federal Street and proceeded to Phelps Street wore a multitude of colors, and several of them carried equally colorful flags and other symbols to display their pride. Nevertheless, they were unified in what they wanted: greater acceptance and tolerance.

The free, nine-hour event, established in 2009, was largely to celebrate the diversity of the region’s LGBTQ community and allies.

Hunt expressed concern about the “anti-trans” legislation being considered, especially in Ohio, amid what she sees as a largely hostile political climate. In addition, many LGBTQ+ people suffer high amounts of stress and anxiety and are at risk for suicide not because of their sexual orientation, but largely because of how society treats them. Such treatment includes discrimination, hateful rhetoric and being ostracized by family and others, she noted.

Hunt, who has performed crisis counseling, also mentioned the Trevor Project, a nonprofit organization founded about 25 years ago that is essentially a hot line focused on suicide prevention efforts among LGBTQ+ people.

Echoing a similar point of view was Erica Putro of Champion, who said that her two children, 17 and 20, are queer.

Anti-LGBTQ legislation is not only discriminatory, but it also can make it more difficult for many of those with such sexual orientations to access life-saving medical care and treatment, she said. In addition, lawmakers who propose or support this type of legislation “are trying to remove our voices from democracy. The most important thing is, we’re not going anywhere,” Putro said.

The Rev. Jack Acri, pastor of North Jackson-based First Federated Church, along with Krystal Rockenfelder of Lake Milton, neither needed to make a speech nor lead a discussion to express their views. A 7-foot multi-colored peace sign they carried in the parade did the trick.

The core teachings of Jesus Christ instruct people to love one another, without taking exception to their sexual orientation, as well as to spread such love. To that end, since 2017, First Federated has adopted the mantra of being “an open and affirming” church, he said.

Acri added that because of his stance, he has received hate mail and calls, but he refuses to be intimidated or back down.

“I ignore the hate speech and love louder,” he said.

The festivities along a one-block section of Phelps Street included several dozen vendors, two stages for entertainment, arts and crafts.

Among the vendors was Alex Marie of Canal Fulton, who runs Alex Marie Crochet and had a table filled with her blanket yarn items that included pride-themed Pokemon figures, flags shaped like bees, gummy bears and cows.

Marie began her craft as a way to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, which morphed into a business of selling the merchandise, she said, adding that she sold out at her first event.

Other items for sale along the corridor included vegan leather sets, wrist lanyards, paintings and prints, waistbands and a variety of foods.

Chloe Rose-Wiley of Grove City, Pa., was on hand to represent Yinzers in The Grove, a business in the Grove City Premium Outlets that sells mainly Pittsburgh Steelers clothing and merchandise. This time, however, she had for sale colorful flags, pins and buttons with Pride-related sayings.

“I just want to show a lot of love and support, and for them to be proud of who they are,” Rose-Wiley said, adding that she has been at similar fests this month in Buffalo, New York, Washington D.C., Pittsburgh and Columbus, and will set up shop at the Pride Parade in New York City.

Also at the local fest were several members of an Oklahoma City-based organization called Free Mom Hugs, which lists as its mission statement empowering others to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community via greater visibility, education and conversation.

One of those representing the organization was Melissa Dicioccio of Canfield. Part of her desire was to back efforts to unconditionally love and support LGBTQ+ people while showing them they’re not alone, she said.

In 2015, Sara Cunningham, who has a gay son, founded Free Mom Hugs, which resulted in a larger movement to spread love for the LGBTQ+ community, along with its allies and parents who support it, the organization’s mission statement shows.

The entertainment consisted of Rust Belt Theater Co. members, who performed several comical parodies on stage. Robert Dennick-Joki, the theater’s founder, said that for about 15 years, he has staged LGBTQ+-themed performances that are comical yet raise important social issues. One of them is “How the Drag Queen Stole Christmas.”

Dennick-Joki recalled having grown up with no role models before feeling more accepted by the time he went to college. Consequently, he wants young people to know they’re not alone and are loved and valued, he said, adding that many of those who hate members of the LGBTQ+ community likely have no gay people in their lives.

During the fest, he and several others wore wings to remember someone and sponsor certain area businesses.

“We wanted something visually fun to look at,” Dennick-Joki said.

Also part of the fest were those registering others to vote.

On display was a rectangular board on which were hung affirmations and inspirational messages. Among them were those that read, “You are loved. It gets better” and “The world is better with you in it.”

A Pride Youngstown after-party followed Saturday’s fest. It featured drag, comedy and burlesque artists.

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