It started with humble beginnings in Byrd Park on June 23, 1979, with a fake motorcade funeral procession for the death of denial.
Later it moved to the parking lot of Diversity Richmond in Scott's Addition among other ragtag locations. But when Virginia PrideFest, a celebration of all things LGBTQ, moved to Brown's Island five years ago, the party got a lot bigger.
Now in its 39th year, more than 30,000 people are expected to attend.
"It's about empowerment and people standing up and being able to claim 'This is who I am and I don't have to apologize for that,'" says James Millner, president of Virginia Pride. The theme for this year is based on the song "This Is Me" from the 2017 movie "The Greatest Showman." The song features outcasts from P.T. Barnum's early circus show expressing their unwillingness to stay in the dark.
"That's what we want people to feel at this event," Millner says.
The celebration kicks off Wednesday, Sept. 19, with a meet and greet social at Barrel Thief held by Cakes and Corks RVA and Gay Fathers Community of Richmond. Gay Fathers RVA is celebrating its 21st anniversary and is hoping to reintroduce the community to its mission of offering support for same-sex parents and those who wish to become parents.
"We're raising children and we're fantastic at it, but we're also a support group for those who have kids or want kids." says the group's president, Jason Fair.
On Thursday, Sept. 20, Chasen Galleries will open its doors to the art of gay Houston artist Jumper Maybach, whose work varies from the fanciful to the abstract.
"Art breaks down barriers, fosters acceptance and understanding and builds communities," Millner says, pointing to Maybach's work as a great example of LGBTQ visual story telling.
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Friday night, Sept. 21, Richmond's favorite LGBTQ bars — Babe's, Godfreys and Barcode — will kick off the celebration with cocktails and performers. But the big event, of course, comes Saturday, Sept. 22, at Brown's Island with gates opening at 11 a.m.
There, your first stop should be over at the Youth Pride stage where the folks at Side by Side, Richmond's leading LGBTQ youth support center, will hold family friendly events like Disney Drag, Richmond gay R&B sensation Dazeases and a Kesha punk cover band called Gliterally Can't Even. "Pride is for everyone and we firmly believe LGBTQ people come in all ages," says Ted Lewis, executive director of Side by Side.
This year's main stage acts include Miss DC 2011, Ashley Boalch Darby, cover-band favorites Red Light Romeo and the big-name guest, Scissor Sisters' frontman Jake Shears, closing out the night. See our interview with him online.
But for many the highlight will be the mix of drag performers including "Ru Paul's Drag Race" alums Akashia and Alexis Michelle. For edgier-types, look no further than Virginia native and the Boulet Brothers' "Dragula" season two's winning Supermonster Biqtch Puddin'. She now lives in Los Angeles, but spent her early years in Chesapeake haunting the halls of venues such as the Rainbow Cactus.
While Puddin' earned her title with help from some grotesque performances and buckets of blood, she says she can be family-friendly when she needs to be — though she might spook a few in the crowd. This is her first performance in Virginia in about four years and Puddin' says she's ready to prove that this videogame vixen isn't the same old Biqtch, while "eating some pizza" and other meat items.
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Between the musical performances, drag and family fun, there is an underlying message to the day, embodied in Zakia McKensey, winner of this year's Firework Award, which is given to community members who are catalysts for change.
McKensey is the executive director of Nationz Foundation, a group that specializes in services for at-risk LGBTQ populations with an emphasis on trans women of color. She joins the likes of Diversity Richmond President Bill Harrison and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in receiving the award.
McKensey says she's honored to receive the honor, but there's still plenty of work to be done. "There's still so much stigma related to those communities and them having limited access to those services like testing and condoms," she says. "We'll drop condoms off to them if they reach out on our text line. It's a holistic approach."
But McKensey, who is Richmond drag royalty herself, knows PrideFest is a time to party as well.
"Have a good time," she says, offering advice to those who plan to attend. "Be proud of who you are and stop by our booth and get tested."
This Is Me: Virginia Pride takes place on Saturday, Sept. 22, on Brown's Island from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. For a list of events visit vapride.org.