Rob Sparks attended his first Pride Festival in 2016 in Grand Rapids, shortly after relocating to the city for a job with MIX 95.7.
“It was crazy. It was a very cool experience,” he said. “I think that year there were 8,000 to 10,000 people there.”
He said the experience made a big impact.
“Sometimes you feel alone and for my first Pride Festival I’m looking around and realizing there are so many people who have gone through the same things and we’re all here together. It was a really cool experience.”
Sparks said his move to Grand Rapids allowed him to be out in a way that he’d never been able to be previously.
“This was the first job I had where they allowed me to be out and proud,” he said. “I was able to be my true self.”
He also said the community was more accepting than other places he’d lived. “This community was more embracing and more accepting.”
That freedom allowed Sparks to get involved with the Grand Rapids Pride Center. He became a co-chair for the 29th Grand Rapids Pride Festival and this year he joined the Grand Rapids Pride Center board and became the Pride Festival chair.
Over its 30 years, the Grand Rapids Pride Center and the Pride Festival have offered a refuge to countless members of the LGBTQ community. As LGBTQ visibility and acceptance grew across the country, moving from a call for tolerance to a call for acceptance, the Grand Rapids Pride Festival has continually reflected that change.
The festival has moved from the fringes of Grand Rapids (previously being held at John Ball Park and then Riverside Park) to the center of downtown at the Calder Plaza. It has also grown to include international entertainment. This year the festival brings David Hernandez, Betty Who and En Vogue to the stage along with an array of local talent. And, the festival continues to grow in size.
Sparks said the Pride Festival organizers set out this year to create an entertainment lineup reflective of the past 30 years. The festival organizers have also worked with organizations across the community on several additional events, creating essentially Pride Week in Grand Rapids. During the entire month of June there are no less than 14 events tied to Pride.
Grand Rapids has come a long way.
The Pride Center’s anniversary has prompted reflection from the organization’s current leaders, including looking back to the beginning.
“One of the things with getting ready to the 30th festival was looking at the history, starting in 1988,” Sparks said, noting a newspaper headline from the opening of the Pride Center: “Homosexuals Open a Community Center.”
Today, the Pride Center offers nine support groups and a network of resources, it’s involved in a number of initiatives with partner organizations including current projects like Safe and Supported, a project to help prevent LGBTQ youth homelessness, and Justice for Our Neighbors, which provides free immigration legal services to LGBTQ individuals, and it provides resources for local businesses including diversity training.
The Pride Center also no longer stands alone as a beacon of support. Thanks to its efforts, several corridors of Grand Rapids are lined with Pride and Trans visibility flags hung in shop windows in a show of support and as a sign of being welcome to the LGBTQ community. There are also additional nonprofits, including HQ, dedicated to helping at-risk members of the LGBTQ community.
Sparks said these changes have grown both organically and as part of the Pride Center’s strategic initiatives to grow support across the community.
He noted one of the most unique things about Grand Rapids Pride Festival is that it serves as a fundraiser for the Pride Center. The festival’s $8 entry fee, along with sponsorship dollars and money raised from beer and food sales help support the Pride Center throughout the year.
“One hundred percent of the net proceeds benefit the Grand Rapids Pride Center,” Sparks said. “So after we pay for the festival, everything else comes back to the Pride Center and that makes up about 50 percent of the budget for the Pride Center each year.”
Learn more at Grand Rapids Pride Center.
*Photos courtesy of Grand Rapids Pride Festival