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Weeklong Pride festival celebrates a growing community

To see how much Buffalo's Pride Parade has grown since it began 25 years ago, look to the front of the line.

There you'll find the smiling face of Byshop Elliott, the McKinley High School junior whose recent legal battle paved the way for the official recognition of his school's first-ever gay-straight alliance. Behind Elliott, as many as 50 members of McKinley's new GSA, which remained underground until its first official meeting last week, will be lined up in support.

"It's like the end of a nice movie," Elliott said of his organization's spot at the front of Sunday's parade after a hard-fought battle at McKinley.

Pride Guide: A list of events

And behind them? Dozens more students, hoisting flags and banners that represent gay-straight alliances at some 30 schools, from Starpoint to Salamanca.

In all, Gay and Lesbian Youth Services Director Marvin Henchbarger estimated, about half of the region's 60 gay-straight alliances will be represented in Sunday's parade. The growth of the GSA movement would have been all-but-unfathomable during the parade's infancy in the early 1990s, when a couple hundred battle-tested veterans of the LGBT rights movement made their first march to City Hall.

"This year, more than ever, it brings chills to my skin and sometimes makes me want to weep because they're out there being who they want to be, in public, with people cheering for them," said Henchbarger, fighting back tears. "For some kids, it's an absolute first."

For observers, too, the parade and festival -- and the week of events that precedes it -- represents something much different than it once did. As public acceptance of LGBT culture has grown, so have the crowds. In the past decade, during which Pride Festival and parade attendance has more than tripled, the crowds have have become more diverse, more supportive and more comfortable demonstrating that support.

"I think people think of pride as something that is of and for LGBT people, and of course it is to celebrate that. But also, it's for our friends and our families," said Damian Mordecai, the newly appointed director of the Pride Center, an advocacy organization that provides year-round support to the LGBT community and organizes the festival. "It's just an incredible feeling, that people who just a few years ago wouldn't have come are now coming to support their daughter or son."

"They deserve to be at the front of the parade," he said.

This year's parade is shaping up to be the largest ever, with about 130 organizations signed up to participate. (It's worth noting that many individual groups, such as the GSAs, are represented under a single registration.)

And Pride Week, which starts May 30 with the ceremonial raising of the pride flag in Niagara Square, has grown in tandem with the main event. In addition to Sunday's parade and the Canalside Pride Festival, the week will feature a 5K run, two art exhibitions, a backyard drag performance and Saturday's Dyke March, which will end in a rally designed counteract renewed assaults on LGBT rights from the political right.

[PHOTOS: Smiles at the 2016 Pride Festival at Canalside]

For a full guide to Pride Week, see the June 1 issue of Gusto. Email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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