It’s been 20 years that I’ve been volunteering with Jersey Pride’s annual celebration in Asbury Park, New Jeersey. Ever since the amendment to NJ’s law against discrimination passed in 1991 and was signed into law in 1992, New Jersey has celebrated grandly, peacefully, and colorfully in the shadow of Asbury Park’s Convention Center, and this year, Jersey Pride celebrated 21 Rallies, 21 Festivals and 21 Parades, whose progress includes the aptly named Grand Avenue, then Sunset Avenue, and processing onto the Festival grounds. This year’s Rally was Emceed by the first openly gay comedian on television, Suzanne Westenhoefer, who did the honors for the very first celebration. Here’s how it all came together during the first weekend in June.
It looks like Pride is so easy–that it must happen by itself. After all, we plant veggies and things in the spring and, with a bit of mostly benign neglect, we get tomatoes and beans and squash and things later in the summer. Not so with Pride. Pride coordinators start planning a few days after they are finished their most recent event for the one happening the following year. Imagine planning an event, in Jersey Pride’s case, for more than 25,000 of your closest friends.
What does it take to coordinate 165 vendors selling food and merchandise of interest to LGBTI people and their families? What does it take to get organizations and groups and sponsors to exhibit and coexist in harmony with one another? Who wants a tent? Who’s bringing their own pop-up? What if it—shudder-shudder—rains? Every contingency is planned for, as much as is possible.
What is the flow of the festival? Jersey Pride’s Festival team carefully plans the layouts and orders tents, chairs, and tables for the vendors and groups and organizations that need them. What does the Names Project require to display and protect the AIDS Memorial Quilt panels that are now far too numerous to display as a whole anywhere in the country? The Festival team makes all this happen, and more.
The Rally committee is working across Pride seasons to source and program the best and hottest talent available. The Rally team also orders the stage, determines the sound, and helps to coordinate stage plots for the professional musicians, some of whom literally have traveled from around the globe to be in Asbury Park, New Jersey on the First Sunday in June. And minute-by-minute changes are made when Mother Nature decides to show her power.
7:30 a.m. was when the Festival Team and volunteers are on the field, showing early-bird vendors where their spaces will be. Atlantic Park was buzzing with activity as people set up tents, set up under existing tents, and pull in food carts for everything from spiral cut butterfly fries to sausage and peppers to vegetarian delights. Are you getting thirsty as well as hungry? How about a frozen lemonade? A fruit smoothie served in a real, precision cut pineapple? Or perhaps a more potent potable?–whatever you were thirsty for, it was here—even good old-fashioned water.
The parade stepped off promptly at noon and this year floats included Gay Activist Alliance in Morris County (GAAMC), whose members were resplendent in their bright red polo shirts as they celebrated their 40th Anniversary, riding in style on a float. Other floats included The Pride Center and Condom Nation, as well as the Wells Fargo Stage Coach. QSpot’s Marching Band performed and the parade proceeded so quickly that one organizer quipped that they must be dancing or running the route!
Speaking of water, though, the day dawned brilliantly with a cool ocean breeze blowing and the sun just warm enough. The Rally stage kicked off with Yellow #5, a New Jersey band, who played literally something for everybody with a mix of cover tunes and away we went! Sir Honey Davenport appeared with a live band, and local politicians were there, including Asbury Park’s proud gay mayor, Ed Johnson, who invited people to remain and enjoy the city at night when the festival was done. Ocean Grove Mayor Randy Bishop was also there, as was Congressman Frank Pallone, who not only represents the district, but has been to Pride to greet his constituents with a message of support every year since he was elected. Felipe Rose, the Indian Chief and one of the founders of The Village People, is an Asbury Park resident and he spoke eloquently on the importance of Pride. Local talent Joanna Burns had attended Jersey Pride for a number of years just for fun, but when she took the stage, she captured the hearts of all those who could hear her voice. New York City-based blues virtuoso Trina Hamlin started her set with an almost human wail from her blues harp—or “harmonica” to most of the world—and, from that point, on held the audience of thousands in the palm of her hand, yet out west trouble was brewing.
Around mid-afternoon, dark gray clouds collected in the west and they marched as determinedly as the colorful paraders had done just a few hours before. A swift moving storm initially scattered the Rally attendees. After a brief “rain delay,” the stage was restored and continued with United Kingdom sensation Never the Bride, a duo who brought great gusto to their interpretations of familiar classic and a soupçon of originals. Athena Reich, a singer songwriter of great talent and verve, happens to impersonate Lady Gaga so well that the crowd swelled toward the stage when she came on, much as the Atlantic Ocean was surging to the shore just a few yards away! The proof of the pudding, however, was when Deborah Cox took the stage and there was not a place to stand in Bradley Park as thousands of people hung on her every word. Employees of a nearby hotel–still in uniform – wended their way forward, holding lunches and eating while they danced. People were peaceful and happy, singing every word with Ms. Cox, who gave us the news many had been waiting for–she’s hitting Broadway in the fall! Dynamic duo God-dess & She had only begun a brief portion of their set, when the sun was obscured by an even greater, even swifter storm than the one that had hit a few hours earlier. This time, however, there was lightning and this completely shut down the show for the day.
While the volunteers were beginning the clean-up of the field and the stage was being dismantled for yet another show, the sun broke out briefly in the west and rewarded the fortunate with not just one brilliant rainbow, but a double one–an echo of the love and Pride that will see us through another year. Be part of your community and experience that love all year ’round.