The juxtaposition of the Iowa Capitol and the section of Des Moines’ East Village where PrideFest takes place will be even more glaring this year after Republican lawmakers spent a bulk of the 2023 legislative session crafting and implementing anti-LGBTQ laws.
The 44th annual PrideFest takes place June 9-11 and is put on by the Capital City Pride, a nonprofit LGBTQ advocacy group. Last year’s edition drew more than 40,000 people over a weekend, and the ongoing legislative and rhetorical attacks against LGBTQ people and issues is one of many reasons this year’s PrideFest is so important, according to those involved in the event.
“Visibility is education,” said Capital City Pride Communications Director Bartley Mullin. “Just showing people that we’re here—we’re your servers, your teachers, your doctors—it’s really important.
“I think it’s really easy for a lot of our politicians to sort of latch onto these issues because it gets people riled up, but we are real people who are living these truths every day,” he continued.
In Iowa, Republican lawmakers passed laws that limit the rights of parents who have trans and non-binary children, restricted trans students’ bathroom access, created a requirement for school employees to out LGBTQ students to their parents, and prohibited any education about sexual orientation or gender identity until after 6th grade.
While those actions focused on LGBTQ youth, there was also a feeble attempt to ban gay marriage as well.
What’s happening in Iowa is part of a national wave of right-wing fueled anti-trans panic, which helps inflame overall anti-LGBTQ sentiment. So with that kind of backdrop, how does one plan an event that so openly celebrates the joys of queerness?
“There’s a lot of considerations that we’ve had to take this year knowing sort of what the current climate is,” said Mullin, who admitted he probably wouldn’t have moved to Des Moines from the East Coast if he had seen this turn of events coming.
“As far as planning this festival, we are trying to make sure that we have as many safety procedures and policies in place as we possibly can because there are a lot of people that are riled up right now and the last thing we want is that for the individuals that are coming to pride to be themselves [to not] feel safe and welcomed,” he continued.
Kristen Meyers, owner of Party On Des Moines which helps organize the event, said they started planning PrideFest 2023 in January. A big part of Meyers’ job is logistical: mapping out the festival grounds, getting approval from the city for street closures, as well as securing various permits and licenses.
“The thing that I love about being an event organizer is watching what I’ve been drawing up and making spreadsheets for come to reality, which is really amazing,” she said.
One paramount issue in planning this year’s PrideFest is safety. PrideFest typically has on-site security and officers from the Des Moines Police Department, but Mullin and Meyers said they’ve taken extra precautions.
“We’ve been working with Polk County Emergency Management and they’re a great organization in town that helps with safety planning for all kinds of events, but particularly large-scale events, which is awesome,” Meyers said.
“Through them, there is conversations with [Iowa] Homeland Security and National Weather Service just making sure the people that are able to make pretty big decisions like if a tornado is on their way or if an active threat is happening, those are the folks that know how to handle those situations best,” she continued.
PrideFest also partnered with Alert Iowa this year so that attendees can get text alerts about what’s happening at the event. Text “PRIDE” to 67283 to sign up for alerts.
Mullin said PrideFest organizers have a 40-something-page emergency action plan document that outlines all of the safety procedures for this year’s festival. In typical years, it’s only nine to 12 pages.
“This year we’re making sure that we have this specific barrier that gets filled with water so that a car can’t plow a street full of people,” Mullin said. “Our board has taken extra courses in first aid and CPR. We’ve taken an active shooter course.”
These precautions might sound extreme, but we also have to remember we live in a time period where rainbow displays at Target can make fully-grown adults froth at the mouth from rage, and politicians are waging war on Bud Light beer cans for partnering with a transgender social media influencer.
“That’s happening on the local level too,” Mullin said of the anti-LGBTQ blowback. “We’ve had sponsors who have come to us who were very excited to support us now saying, ‘Hey, like maybe our logo, maybe don’t put it on there,’ and that’s disheartening. Ultimately, when these people are bullying these corporations and they are pulling back their support, they are seeing these as wins, and that pours fuel on their fire to bully other corporations to not support LGBTQ organizations.”
Meyers doesn’t want people to be afraid to come out and celebrate at PrideFest, which has events and activities for people of all ages and even a new Pet Zone.
“I can understand folks being a little more hesitant just given the political climate, [but] we’ve really worked hard to be as preventative as we can,” she said. “We’ve done a lot of research, talked to a lot of people in the safety world to ensure that everyone have a safe and happy time.
“I know that the Des Moines police and security and even our restroom company that we use for our port-o-potties say it’s one of their favorite events because there’s almost no incidences. It really is a happy and fun time for everybody, so we’re just feeling really confident that our good streak will continue.”
AT A GLANCE:
What: The 44th annual PrideFest.
When: Friday, June 9-Sunday, June 11.
Where: The East Village neighborhood in Des Moines.
by Ty Rushing
To contact Senior Editor Ty Rushing for tips or story ideas, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on social media @Rushthewriter.
Iowa Starting Line is part of an independent news network and focuses on how state and national decisions impact Iowans’ daily lives. We rely on your financial support to keep our stories free for all to read. You can contribute to us here. Also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.