In the past two years, the Baptist General Convention of Texas kicked out a local church for accepting LGBT members, McLennan County Commissioners chose not to add gender identity and sexual orientation to the county nondiscrimination policy, and a Waco justice of the peace said she would only perform opposite-sex marriages.

At the state level, lawmakers have pushed to force transgender people to use public bathrooms that match the sex listed on their birth certificate, though no such law has passed in Texas. At the national level, President Donald Trump has asked for a ban on transgender troops serving in the military, a policy now under review.

But Saturday’s Out on the Brazos pride festival was about moving beyond the discrimination, organizers said. For the first time in about 10 years, the local LGBT community gathered in Cameron Park near Lovers Leap to celebrate and say now is the time to get involved and have their voices heard, organizers said.

“Clearly, we’re under attack from the Trump-Pence administration right now,” coordinator Deanna Leach said. “Women are under attack, racial minorities are under attack and we have got to stay visible and stay active.”

Anywhere from 200 to 400 people were expected throughout the day for speeches from Democratic political candidates, music, games, information booths and food. Organizers have been planning the festival for about a year. They started planning after billboards showed up locally referencing conversion therapy, Leach said.

Residents upset about the billboards started sending money to organizers to fight the display, but the boards disappeared before anything could be done, she said.

They had about $500, and the Rev. Charley Garrison, pastor of Central Texas Metropolitan Community Church, suggested a picnic. The idea grew from there, and he rolled with it, knowing that whatever they put together would be more than last year, Garrison said.

“Something like this brings people together and gives them a voice to be able to say the LGBT community matters,” Garrison said. “So many people feel isolated and they feel overwhelmed. This will show them they’re not alone. We’re all stronger together.”

As a new-to-Waco freshman at Baylor University, the event offered Cordelia DeDecker a way to connect with people, she said. A Flower Mound native, she is used to attending pride festivals in Dallas but doesn’t know too many LGBT students in Waco, DeDecker said. She learned about the event from a flier at Starbucks.

“I’m new to the area, so I don’t know the nuances very well, but I haven’t felt under attack per se. … I always have to be very cautious of who I tell that I’m dating someone,” DeDecker said. “I’m dating a girl, so I always have to vet the people I’m talking to on campus before I tell them because I don’t want to be berated for being in a relationship.”

Organizers haven’t received much backlash or criticism for hosting the festival either, they said. Garrison received at least one detesting voicemail, but more than open opposition, organizers noticed a lack of response when they invited other supporters to join in, they said.

The group asked for a proclamation for the event from Mayor Kyle Deaver, but Deaver said he didn’t think it would pass through the city council. The group was thankful for a letter of support instead, Leach said.

“Waco accepts and welcomes people of diverse backgrounds,” Deaver wrote. “I recognize that a diverse population leads to a more vibrant community, and I appreciate the contributions made by members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community to the cultural, civic and economic successes of the city of Waco.”

The group also invited Republican candidates to the event, but received no response, Leach said.

“I’m hoping people realize there is a large contingent of gay people in the Waco area,” Leach said. We’re not really cohesive in a lot of ways because we don’t really have a place to meet all the time, but we’re going to change that, I think.”

The group is establishing a Waco pride network, and is already making plans for next year’s event, possibly at Brazos Park East with vendors and food trucks, Garrison said. They’re hoping Waco’s pride festival can become an annual gathering, he said.

“What’s really cool is it’s a grassroots, community-sponsored event,” Garrison said. “It’s not just LGBT people that are making this happen. Different churches, Waco Friends of Peace, suicide prevention, Brazos Theatre. None of that stuff is specifically LGBT, but it’s all groups that are supporting us and I think that’s really important to be able to see.”

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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