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PrideFest unites community to honor Orlando victims

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PrideFest unites community to honor Orlando victims

Matt Hawley | Staff Photographer

Matt Hawley | Staff Photographer

Matt Hawley | Staff Photographer

Matt Hawley | Staff Photographer

By Alexa Bakalarski / News Editor

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Silence preluded a day of hugging, dancing and glitter-coated streets.

Several thousand people stood quietly, holding rainbow flags or wearing them as capes. The 50 seconds of silence represented the 50 victims of the mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, early Sunday morning. With 50 deaths and 53 injuries, the incident was the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.

“How is this stuff still happening?” South Hills resident Meghan McGinley said about the Orlando shooting. “It’s 2016.”

Celebration and grief mixed Sunday during Pittsburgh’s 2016 Equality March and PrideFest, as attendees cheered for the parade, watched live performances at the two stages bookending PrideFest and perused more than 150 tables set up along Liberty Avenue Downtown. Candlelight vigils for the victims of the Orlando mass shooting capped off the weekend with a somber tone.

“Let’s do our part to make this city a place where people can live with differences,” Candi Castleberry Singleton, the CEO of Dignity & Respect, said before the moment of silence.

After the silence ended, attendees quickly kicked off the festivities. In total, members of more than 100 organizations marched in the parade or tabled at PrideFest, including those from the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, Persad Center, Pittsburgh’s ScareHouse and American Eagle. Also present were members of the Animal Rescue League, the Community College of Allegheny County and Planned Parenthood.

Christine Bryan, director of marketing and development for Pittsburgh LGBTQ+ organization the Delta Foundation, said Pittsburgh PrideFest averages about 100,000 attendees and grows every year. According to Bryan, the large attendance amounts to a political statement, not just a popular event.

“People often think that gay pride is just a party. But this is a statement of people who support each other, support their friends, support their families, their brothers, their sisters, their aunts and uncles that may be part of the community,” Bryan said. “And this changes hearts and minds.”

Jennifer Sikora, the chairperson for the western Pennsylvania chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said the atmosphere of the chapter’s first PrideFest was “super polite,” “warm” and “accepting.”

“It has been so busy, we have run out of supplies,” Sikora said. “I’m glad to see it hasn’t been affected by the events in Orlando.”

To those grieving, the PrideFest environment provided an emotional boost. Sarah Grey, a Swissvale resident who had never attended PrideFest before, and South Hills resident Allison Shafer both thought the event was a source of strength.

“We like it a lot,” Grey said. “[It is a] unifying experience. I’ve been crying all day.”

After the Pride festivities officially ended, more than 20 people gathered to walk from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center to Point State Park for a candlelight vigil honoring the Orlando victims. Homestead resident Michael David Battle, who organized the Sunday night vigil with poet Joy KMT, said he received the news of the Orlando mass shooting about noon.

“It’s nice to feel community and really honor their lives,” Battle said about the vigil. “We’ve been here about two hours, and [the victims of the Orlando mass shooting] deserve that time.”

The Pittsburgh Clergy Consortium organized a larger, citywide candlelight vigil outside the City-County Building Monday night. According to Bryan, about 2,000 people attended the Monday vigil.

“Tonight we will stand in solidarity together and call for unity against all forms of hate against all people — but especially for those in the [LGBTQ+] community who simply want to be who they want to be and love who they want to love,” Reverend Shanea Leonard of the Judah Fellowship Christian Church said in a press release.

City police blocked off Grant Street in front of the City-County Building for the Monday vigil. Several people held a large rainbow flag over a sea of Pittsburghers with lit candles, and Mayor Bill Peduto spoke after an opening prayer by Rabbi Sharyn Henry of Rodef Shalom Congregation.

“There’s times when there are no words to describe how we may feel,” Peduto said. “This is one of those times.”

During his speech, Peduto also quoted Martin Luther King Jr. to highlight the importance of solidarity: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

“We’ll never be able to extinguish all the hate in this world, but everyone has the opportunity to express love,” Peduto said.

Marcus Robinson, president of Pitt’s Rainbow Alliance, is from Orlando and attended the vigil Monday night.

“It was strange, seeing my hometown at the top of the news,” Robinson said. “[Pulse] is a place me and my friends have talked about.”

Following the shooting, political reactions focused heavily on the shooter’s Muslim faith. Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump reiterated his plan to ban Muslims from traveling to the United States and received significant criticism from both Democratic and Republican party members. Trump also received backlash after tweeting that he was “right on radical Islamic terrorism” shortly after the shooting.

Members of the Islamic community have pushed back against insinuations that their religion would excuse attacks on the LGBTQ+ community. The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh recently released a statement offering condolences to the families of the victims.

“The Muslim community joins our fellow Americans in repudiating anyone or any group that would claim to justify or excuse such a senseless act of violence,” ICP administration said in the statement. “The [LGTBQ+] community has stood side by side with the American Muslim community in the struggle against bigotry, in its varied forms. Our unity affirms that hatred, violence and the demonization of entire communities has no place in American society.”

North Side resident Sara Fazli heard about the shooting while getting ready to attend PrideFest. She was “on the fence” about going after a late night at Kesha’s Pride in the Street concert but decided to go to “pay [her] respects for the families and victims.”

“I’m actually Iranian,” Fazli said. “I just know there’s going to be a lot of people bashing my people.”

Lyndsey Sickler, chair of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Pittsburgh, said the center is directing donations to local organizations in Orlando. The center has also set up a memorial outside its window at 210 Grant St.

“Though we are far away from the pain and sorrow from this loss, [it] affects us all. Regardless of the distance, we feel the hurt just as much as if we were there,” Sickler said. “Going forward, the GLCC is even more committed to our outreach and educational efforts to help [non-LGBTQ+] people understand, respect and love the differences between us and ultimately create a stronger world together.”

Fazli said there needs to be “more love and less labeling.”

“I think we all just need to be humans. We’re all people,” Fazli said. “That’s what I think we should be categorized as.”

Brooke Rountree contributed reporting.

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PrideFest unites community to honor Orlando victims