This year marks the first fully in-person Denver PrideFest since 2019, and organizers are cooking up a “truly over the top” celebration to mark the occasion.
The festival went virtual in 2020 and became a hybrid event in 2021 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The last fully in-person PrideFest, which is produced by The Center on Colfax, had an estimated attendance of more than 525,000 people.
Denver PrideFest will take over Civic Center Park on June 25 and 26. The lineup boasts pop singer Betty Who, the headliner on Sunday, as well as stars from RuPaul’s Drag Race — Kylie Sonique Love, Yvie Oddly and Silky Nutmeg Ganache.
The Center’s CEO Rex Fuller said it’s difficult to predict turnout, but Pride events elsewhere are indicating this year could be big. Parade entries are also sold out for Denver’s festival, just surpassing 250, and vendor slots are nearly filled.
More: Pride events throughout Denver
“People really want to get out and they really want to be with each other and be in-person,” Fuller said.
‘Over the top’
DeMarcio Slaughter, the festival’s emcee of two decades, said he and the main stage team have three years of pent-up ideas and acts ready to dazzle the crowds. For Slaughter emceeing will include 16 custom costumes from his longtime design partner Darlene C. Ritz, and onstage costume changes.
He is particularly excited for the “jukebox” sing-along he leads with the crowd, which will raise thousands of voices into belting everything from pop anthems to rock classics.
“It’s an incredible, incredible thing,” Slaughter said.
The sing-along used to be on Sunday only, but this year Slaughter will lead it both days of the festival. Slaughter is also working up a version of the singalong for Saturday that will acknowledge hardships people experienced during the pandemic and lives lost.
But it will also take a tongue and cheek approach by including sing-along songs that make light of some COVID-19 experiences, like running out of toilet paper.
“Let’s not pretend that craziness did not happen, but let’s also acknowledge that we’re here today and ready to move forward,” Slaughter said.
With a front-row view of the thousands who attend, Slaughter said he knows the Denver audience to turn out for a celebration of individual diversity and having “pride of who you are within.”
“I expect to see good positive energy, smiling faces, dancing. I expect to see gladness,” Slaughter said. “I think the mood is going to be over the top.”
Creating a more inclusive festival
This year’s PrideFest will feature its first-ever sober section. Debbie Scheer has been involved with the festival for almost seven years. She has previously co-emceed the main stage and the parade, but this year is excited to both co-emcee the parade and help run the sober section.
People might choose sobriety because they are overcoming addiction or because it’s a health-driven decision that a makes them feel better, Scheer said. Scheer, who chose to become sober roughly four years ago, said navigating Pride as a sober person “can be a little bit tricky.”
She’s excited to see society becoming more embracing of sober lifestyles and that this year’s PrideFest will offer “a safe space” for people who do not want to drink.
“Hopefully our community is ready to embrace and support this kind of a space at PrideFest,” Scheer said.
The section is located down the festival’s main aisle and will have a clear view of the main stage. Scheer said the section is very visible, and that’s important to her.
“I think it sends a message that says, ‘you are an important part of our community and we’re going to create a space that sends a message of that,’” she said.
A sober section expands who is able to participate, Fuller said. While some people come to PrideFest and enjoy a beer, “that can be very difficult for people who are in recovery.”
“One of the points that we have put in our strategic plan for The Center is addressing issues of addiction and substance use in the LGBTQ community,” Fuller said. “It’s something we’ve had calls for before.”
The national climate
Fuller said a dramatic uptick in anti-LGBT legislation across the country and the controversy regarding overturning Roe v. Wade could influence this year’s events, “because of how that may indicate a rollback of LGBT rights to follow.”
“There is a lot of importance of being out and being visible in the community, just because many people who are not part of the community suddenly realize that their friends and neighbors are affected by this legislation,” Fuller said.
The festivals started in the 1970s to protest police harassment. Focus shifted in the 1980s toward addressing the AIDS crisis and calls for LGBTQ civil rights ramped up in the 1990s and 2000s, Fuller said.
“Throughout the history of Pride events, there have always been some sort of pressure on people,” Fuller said.
Slaughter said grassroots advocates will be able to highlight legislative accomplishments, particularly within the festival’s messaging as the weekend draws closer.
“Because in addition to having years of built-up energy and songs, there’s a message to the community,” he said.
The festival will celebrate a return to a new normal, and areas where there have been gains in support for transgender communities, young people and women, Slaughter said.
“As we take back to the stage, we are celebrating not only this return to in-person, but the education that the world has allowed itself to go through,” Slaughter said. “There’s a new-found awareness and accountability.”
A growing event
A version of Denver’s Pride festival has been running for 46 years. The Center on Colfax started producing the festival in 1990, and it remains the organization’s biggest fundraiser of the year.
Proceeds help The Center function year-round, run adult programming, youth programming and providing mental health support for the LGBTQ community.
“I feel blessed to have watched the LGBTQ movement” evolve into what it is today, Slaughter said, adding that what started as an event lasting a few hours on a Sunday is now a two-day extravaganza in Denver.
“Twenty years ago, when I started it was one of those things where I covertly asked for time off work to work for this,” he said.
Now Slaughter’s office jokes about not bothering him the entire week, because employees know how important the week of PrideFest is to him.
“It just makes my heart smile,” Slaughter said.