By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Members of Hawaii Island’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community are planning a gay pride parade and festival in Hilo this summer.
Organizers hope the July 6 event will help to start a long tradition here, cementing the connection members of the gay community on the island share, as well as building a stronger relationship with the straight community, said Natasha Johns, one of the festival’s organizers.
Johns, 34, has lived in Hawaii for 15 years and said Monday that in all that time, she had never experienced discrimination because of her sexual orientation.
“But, when we started this process (of organizing the festival), we did experience some,” she said. “I had thought Hawaii was a little more progressive than that. So, with Hilo being the second largest city in Hawaii, we thought it’s time to have something like this.”
A similar parade has been held in Kona, but Johns says she hopes this effort will help to establish a regular, annual event that could be an islandwide affair, perhaps moving back and forth between the coasts.
“We have a huge population of gay people on this island, and I just don’t think the general population is aware of it,” she said. “The reason we do something like this is to tell people, ‘We want you to know we are members of your society. We are your lawyers, your teachers, your police officers.’”
She added that this has been a monumental year for gay rights, with legislation legalizing gay marriage becoming a hot topic across the country and in the state of Hawaii.
“It’s an important time to show people that it’s OK that we’re here. We lift up this community, and it’s OK to bring us closer,” Johns said. “The gay and lesbian population on this island doesn’t really connect well with the general population. I don’t know if it’s because of the isolated nature here, but we would like them (the gay and lesbian population) to be more vocal and visible in the community.”
A loose affiliation of members of the gay community have formed a committee and continue to work on the details of the event, Johns said. Members have worked over the past several months on obtaining permits for the parade, as well as collecting signatures from owners of businesses along the parade route supporting the event.
The parade will begin at 11 a.m. and run from Kamehameha Avenue to Ponahawai Street to Keawe Street to Waianuenue Avenue and back down along Kamehameha, ending at the Mooheau Bandstand. It’s about half the length of the Merrie Monarch Parade, Johns said, and should take a total of about an hour.
So far, six groups have confirmed their plans to field floats in the parade, with a total of 12 entries, and more are welcome, Johns said.
“Our goal is to have between 18 and 22 participants,” she said. “We want to make sure that is this something that will be worth closing the streets down.”
Following the parade, there will be a number of musical acts and entertainment in the park, as well as plenty of food and vendor booths, as well as games and bouncy rides for the keiki.
Johns added that organizers are working toward creating a fun, family-friendly atmosphere in keeping with Hilo’s small-town feel.
On Tuesday, Hilo Downtown Improvement Association Executive Director Alice Moon said she is looking forward to adding the pride parade and festival to the list of regular events that bring visitors to shop and recreate in downtown Hilo.
“I thought, for me, it was a great idea,” she said. “The more activities downtown the better. I think parades are fabulous.”
Moon said that parade organizers were concerned about how their plans might be received by the business community, and took time to survey and speak with between 40 and 50 shops as they planned.
“They took it upon themselves to go out and talk to businesses. It was very respectful,” she said. “They weren’t certain what kind of reaction they would get, but I think they have found in talking about it that everybody is very supportive.”
Event organizers say they welcome community input, and invite members of the public to attend their planning meetings, held every Wednesday at the Church of the Holy Apostles at 1407 Kapiolani St., near the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Those seeking more information may also email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Johns at (808) 217-1288.
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.