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Phoenix Rainbows Festival embraces diversity amid proposed anti-drag legislation

Diverse crowds celebrated LGBTQ+ people and culture during the free event at Heritage Square Park in downtown Phoenix

Phx PRIDE booth at Rainbows Festival pictured at Heritage Square in Phoenix on Saturday, April 1, 2023.

The 20th Annual Rainbows Festival celebrated the progress and resilience of LGBTQ+ people this weekend. The free event was held April 1 and 2 in Heritage Square Park, adjacent to ASU's Downtown Phoenix campus, and drew a diverse crowd of up to 25,000 attendees. 

“I guarantee you, this is the most open, welcoming crowd you’re gonna find in Phoenix this weekend," Phoenix Pride spokesperson Jeremy Helfgot said.

The focus of the event was to emphasize the strength and joy of LGBTQ+ people with two full days of family-friendly drag performances open to the public, a contrast to recent proposals of anti-drag and anti-trans legislation in Arizona and across the nation.

"We’re demonstrating to the state of Arizona and to the community that drag culture is for everyone, and can be done in a family-friendly, all-ages way that’s really about celebrating, it’s about welcoming, about inclusion, and it's about being together and having a good time,” Helfgot said.

Mollie McCurdy, a junior studying public service and public policy, has been disappointed in a lack of University response to legislation that could greatly impact many students.

"I have not seen any communication from ASU about supporting or representing this community. They have been largely silent," McCurdy said.

At ASU, several organizations have hosted drag events — one upcoming is El Concilio's Viva La Drag! on April 10. Last spring, Student Connection and Community held Drag U at the Downtown Phoenix campus.

The proposed Arizona bills have left many LGBTQ+ people nervous for the future, as their creative freedom and expression are targeted.

READ MORE: Anti-drag legislation is a threat to ASU's LGBTQ+ community

"It’s a scary time for a lot of people to just be who they are. It’s not the direction I would want for our country," Scott Burnam, a volunteer for Free Moms Hugs, said. "I hope it’s a direction that advocacy and presence and visibility can help to change."

Helfgot said it’s one of two things creating animosity against drag: either people have been exposed to drag performances previously and suddenly decided it’s threatening, or people haven’t been exposed to it.

If someone falls into the first category, Helfgot asked, "What makes something that has been culturally acceptable since the days of ancient Greek drama suddenly taboo?"

For those in the second category, Helfgot asked, "What business do they have judging something of which they have no first-hand knowledge?"

Helfgot said until someone can answer those questions, it is safe to assume the current attacks on drag are entirely driven by the "culture war," political campaign fundraising and another opportunity to spew hate at a community that lawmakers don’t understand or engage with.

"Because, if they did, they would see it’s a community of people just like everyone else," Helfgot said.

The attacks on the drag community have led to a bigger conversation about inclusion, tolerance and awareness.

"People don’t know if they don’t know. You need to share your part of the story," Miss Phoenix Pride 2023 Veronica Savage Rose said. "I think people just get scared about what they don’t know, and there’s so much to know about us."

The Miss and Mister Phoenix Pride Pageant is a community event supported by entertainers and bars in the area, Phoenix Pride's website says. The winners become the face of the organization, promoting pride, acting as role models and raising awareness of the organization's scholarships and grants.

Rose said she is the first queer cisgender female to hold the title in quite some time. Although she feels that the community has always been strong, she said her position in the rainbow as a cisgender female married to a cisgender male hasn’t always been understood, even by LGBTQ+ people.

The event allowed people in downtown Phoenix to gather to tell their stories no matter how they identify.

"There has to be a place where everyone can feel accepted and loved, just as they are," Ruff said.

While recent anti-drag and anti-trans bills have inspired many cities to host Pride events such as this one, others have mobilized through activism.

Kanix Gallo, a Chandler High School student who was invited to attend meetings with ASU’s anti-imperialist group MECHA in light of Arizona's proposed anti-trans bills, said he has been exploring what minority groups can do to fight for their rights. He has employed tactics like attending protests and signing up for Arizona's "Request To Speak" system to speak to legislators about the community.

Regardless of how community members are getting involved, they are striving to tell their stories and create a safe space for everyone.

"What we’re all doing, whether we’re thinking about it or not, is we are being visible. No matter what opposition we’re getting, we’re still having our events, we’re still having our shows, we’re still out and about and showing people that you cannot push us back in the shadows," Rose said.

Edited by Sadie Buggle, Greta Forslund, Anusha Natarajan and Grace Copperthite.

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