In the opening years of the 21st century, the volunteer organizers of the Oklahoma City Gay Pride parade and festival, realizing that the permit to use a city park for the annual one day community festival that preceded the Sunday evening parade actually covered the whole weekend from Friday evening to Sunday evening, decided to take advantage of what was available – but up to then not used.
The plan was to have some form of musical event on Friday night followed by two days of the usual festival activities of information booths, vendors, food, and entertainment, culminating in the annual parade, and letting the greater community know that everyone was invited.
In spite of its being the buckle of the Bible Belt, the pride parade was the biggest parade in the city, and the festival one of the most attended, and eventually even the state tourist board would recognize this and include it in its tourist guide.
But back then there was a need to advertise the expansion of the festival, tout its importance to the whole city, and, perhaps, attract a bigger crowd. It would still be geared to the LGBT community and the celebration of its pride, but it would also become welcoming to all people so they could see how diverse, and, as was also necessary, how “normal” LGBT people were to counter the cartoonish representations presented by churches and extremely conservative politicians.
Nothing would be compromised or “toned down” as there was no reason for that.
The national theme (chosen by whoever chooses them) was not relevant to Oklahoma City as it was geared toward those cities where LGBT communities had made much more progress than we had, and so we would have been “celebrating” what we had yet to celebrate.
We chose to celebrate the strength and hard work of the community in the fight for its rights despite the odds, and used the graphic of a powerful locomotive and Dolly Parton’s version of Peace Train for advertising. We constructed a model steam engine with two box cars on a flat bed trailer, strung it with lights, and made it adaptable for any parades we could get into to advertise the festival and parade that year.
It was rather surprising how many local Christmas parades accepted our application for inclusion – and that made it necessary to add piles of white puffy material to have the train plowing through snow with Christmas gifts in the box cars.
There were banners on both sides stating who we were and what we represented, and along with the Rainbow Flags flying from the 4 corners of our float, it was not a closeted thing.
We originally intended to walk along beside the float wearing rented animal costumes, but because the cost of renting both the bodies and heads made the cost of this prohibitive, we marched as animal bodies with our human heads.
Peace Train played on a continuous loop as we tossed candy and strings of beads into the crowds, and the response from the spectators was positive, unlike the negative responses we had anticipated, and we saw that the people did not fall in line with the religious leaders and politicians who, while pushing their animus toward GLBT people, were obviously out of touch with the general population.
It was after our participation in the Norman, Oklahoma Mardi Gras parade that we received an invitation that was historic.
For many years, LGBTQ communities throughout the country had been suing or protesting St. Patrick Day Parade organizers in their communities to be allowed to march in their communities’ parades. Because of the continuous denials, their suits and the news stories about them had become as annual as the parades.
The invitation we received was to be part of the Oklahoma City St Patrick’s Day parade.
On the morning of the parade as we “Irished up” the train float with plenty of green and pots of gold at the ends of rainbows, the person who was in charge of the flags was a no-show. We had to go to a local flea market we had passed when bringing the float to the staging area where we had seen a rainbow flag flying along with MIA-POW, Harley- Davidson, and Confederate Flags on poles above a flag vendor booth.
The Hells Angels/ZZ Top looking guys who manned the booth were surprised when we told them why we needed to purchase four rainbow flags, and got a good laugh at their unknowingly flying the LGBTQ flag along with those others.
As an aside, they continued to fly that flag with the others for many years after.
A problem in the wider LGBTQ community is that our own media pays a lot of attention to the large city communities while very little is paid to smaller communities and none, if any, to rural places. Our community was making great strides in LGBTQ rights, but major victories in Oklahoma were ignored in favor of covering even the most minor win in the big name cities. And it is not because they are not aware of these victories in the “second tier” flyover places.
While the bigger news story should have been that without any law suits, the LGBTQ community in Oklahoma City had been invited to participate in the parade, the story the media covered was that Chicago had finally won its suit while Boston and NYC, as well as other big name cities, had, once again, failed to win theirs.
The OKC parade stepped off one half hour before the one in Chicago which means that the LGBTQ contingent in Oklahoma was already marching when the Chicago parade began. As a result, not only were we the only community invited to be in a St. Patrick’s Day parade, bypassing the need for lawsuits, but also the first to actually march.
The big news in the LGBTQ media that day was Chicago. The bigger news was Oklahoma City.
It has been 16 years since history was made, but during those years which major city has won or lost its lawsuit, which major city LGBTQ community will or won’t be allowed to march continues to be the coverage of St. Patrick’s Day parades.
Not once in those years has what happened in Oklahoma City been mentioned.
Joseph Quigley is an award winning teacher and longtime labor and LGBTQ rights activist. He received the Angie Debo Award from the ACLU of Oklahoma for his work to protect GLBT students in the Oklahoma City Public Schools.