An LGBT group in St. Joseph, Mich., that plans to enter a float in the town's biggest parade of the year is being threatened for trying to take part in the festivities. The Out and Affirmations Center, based out of the Berrien County YWCA, has come under scrutiny by area residents after the local newspaper, the Herald-Palladium, ran a front-page story April 27 about the first gay float in the Blossomtime Festival Parade, scheduled for this weekend. Shortly thereafter, readers began to send in angry letters.
"What is next year going to bring," one reader wrote, "a float about abortion rights, with a beauty queen holding a dead fetus?"
Some readers said they had canceled their plans to bring out-of-town friends and family to the 101-year-old festival, which has become a standard annual celebration for Michigan residents. Some called the Blossomtime parade committee to argue that the float will raise questions from children, forcing parents to explain what being gay means.
The float in question is covered by a large, waving American flag. The end of the flag wraps around a blossoming fruit tree, from which a few rainbow-colored ribbons dangle.
Float creators Brad Gorman and Cullen Kemp, who are also a couple, say that the display contains nothing too off-putting or overtly gay.
Kemp, who grew up in Orange County, Calif., said that his love of building floats came from six years' experience of helping at the Rose Parade in Pasadena. But his involvement with building the Out and Affirmations Center's parade float has worried him. "Me and my boyfriend are walking next to the float," he said in a phone interview. "So I'm a little nervous. The parade rules allow only two people to accompany each float as well as a driver, and we can't stand on the float."
Gorman, who grew up in St. Joseph, returned after spending several years away. Now he says St. Joseph needs to be more aware of what he describes as a "close-knit, vibrant" gay population.
After several years that saw local gays think about sponsoring a float, he put in the legwork to make it happen. Three months ago Gorman met with parade organizers, who were skeptical at first about putting a gay float in a politically and socially neutral parade. But after an hour of conversation, he was able to persuade the organizers to let the Out and Affirmations Center enter its float.
"I turned to Cullen yesterday and I said, 'I think we're about five years too early with this float, and he said, 'No, I think we're 10 years too late,'" said Gorman.
Blossomtime officials could not be reached for comment at press time, but Gorman said the committee has continued to be helpful in keeping the Out and Affirmations Center involved in the parade.
The program coordinator for the Out and Affirmations center, Stephen Jukuri, said the group isn't used to controversy but that some people have publicly expressed support for the organization.
"Now that it's been three or four days [since the feature first ran in the Herald-Palladium], the more thoughtful people are stepping up and showing their support," Jukuri told TheAdvocate. "We're feeling very good at this point. Certainly our float will be in the Blossomtime parade, and it is keeping with the patriotic theme. There's nothing in-your-face about the float at all."
Jukuri also says that, given the local outcry, the outreach by the YWCA was doubly important.
"The YWCA a while back decided that this was an issue that was needed improvement in this community," he said, "so that's how the Out and Affirmations Center was created."
Jukuri, Kemp, and Gorman agree that the float was the group's way of showing pride in their community, country, and, subtly, their sexual orientation.
"This float was just an earnest attempt that has opened up opportunities for real dialogue in the community," Jukuri said. (Michelle Garcia, The Advocate)