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We can be free’: San Francisco Pride fosters sense of belonging

Oscar Navarro, center, and Matthew Rose, right, hug Laurel Van Tassell, left, at Pride in San Francisco on Saturday. Tassell is a member of the group Free Mom Hugs, which supports LGBTQ+ youth. | Justin Katigbak for The Standard

Shawn Porter and Amy Agle traveled to San Francisco from the Northern California town of Redding for their first Pride celebration in the city. But it was more than a simple weekend trip—it was a chance to let down their guard. 

“Coming here, it’s like we can be free and ourselves,” Porter said Saturday as she took in the festivities at Civic Center alongside thousands of others under partly sunny skies. “We don’t have to hide being in a town that is very conservative, anti-gay and anti-anything different.”

Crowds wearing brightly colored attire trickled into the windy plaza in front of City Hall for picnics and dancing. Tents along McAllister and Fulton streets offered food and beverages and other goods. Performers from AsiaSF put on a dance and lip-sync show, and a cheerleading squad performed routines.

As Porter and Agle selected some children’s books for their four grandchildren from a booth, they said that educating the next generation in tolerance and acceptance is crucial in combating ignorance.

“We talk to them about how love is love and about Pride,” said Porter. “And at 4 and 5 years old, they are aware that a man can date a man, or a woman can date a woman. It’s how you’re brought up.”  

People dance during Pride at the Civic Center in San Francisco on Saturday. | Justin Katigbak for The Standard

MORE: See photos from all of the Pride weekend events.

Steve Roby and Lee Baldwin came from even farther away. The couple flew into San Francisco from England on Thursday for this weekend’s celebration.

The symbols of Pride throughout San Francisco, from flags to rainbow-colored lasers and lights on buildings across the city, were a welcoming sight to the couple, who said such displays only happen in specific districts of their hometown, Brighton, even though they described it as the United Kingdom’s “unofficial gay capital.”

Roby said he is concerned that the rising anti-LGBTQ sentiment surfacing in the United States will eventually cross over the Atlantic.

“It sets a standard,” he said. “All of a sudden, all of the years of moving forward and making more equal spaces, these sentiments pull us back again.”  

Baldwin expressed sadness that in 2023, decades after the movement for LGBTQ rights began, equality is still under fire. Celebrations such as San Francisco’s Pride, he said, remain crucial.

“Unfortunately it's necessary because we see all over, even back in the U.K., the trans community under attack,” he said.

The San Francisco Cheer Squad performs a routine in front of the Pride sign near City Hall on Saturday. | Justin Katigbak for The Standard

Nicolle Bermejo and her partner, Lindsay Beckett, of San Francisco, have attended the city’s Pride events for over two decades. Although the festival remains an important safe space, the couple agreed with Roby and Baldwin that this year’s gathering had a certain pall hanging over it.

“I feel safe here in San Francisco, but I don’t think everybody feels safe outside of those respective communities where you’re allowed to just be,” Bermejo said.

“If we see one community being targeted we need to think about all the other communities being targeted after that and that’s what is scary,” she added.

Beckett said she was concerned that the nationwide backlash against LGBTQ people is only beginning, which makes San Francisco’s Pride celebration that much more significant.

“These are incredibly important spaces, and they are a necessity,” Beckett said.

Bay Area residents Carrie Castro and Taressa Chandra, who volunteer for Free Mom Hugs, said they came to Pride to show solidarity with queer youth who are not accepted by their families.

People attend San Francisco Pride 2023
Bay Area residents Carrie Castro, left, and Taressa Chandra, right, attend Pride activities at San Francisco's Civic Center on Friday. The two are volunteers with Free Mom Hugs, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting queer youth. | Garrett Leahy/The Standard

"It kills me that there are parents who don't love their children for who they are," Castro said.

"Pride is resistance," said Chandra, whose 18-year-old is gender-fluid. "If we show up in numbers, that's what gives us strength."

Tehani Lopez, a transgender woman from Salinas, said that coming to Pride and being surrounded by other trans people made her feel welcomed and included in a larger community.

Violetta Garcia-Lopez, left, Tehani Lopez, center, and Rosemary Lopez, right, attend Pride in San Francisco on Friday. They are from Salinas, California. | Garrett Leahy/The Standard

“Coming here, I just feel happy,” Lopez said. “Before I transitioned, I didn’t know what happiness was, and being here just amplifies it to the highest point.”

Attending with Lopez were her nonbinary sibling, Violetta Garcia-Lopez, and her mother, Rosemary Lopez, who is bisexual. 

“LGBTQ, drag, it is beautiful, and we should teach young people about it,” said Rosemary Lopez.

Sharon Eskenazi, who works as a sixth-grade teacher in Round Rock, Texas, near Austin, and sits on the board of directors for Round Rock Pride also said standing up for queer youth is important, particularly in states where there is less cultural acceptance of queer people and fewer legal rights.

“It’s easy to say ‘Oh, let’s abandon Texas,’ but the kids need support; they need a safe space,” Eskenazi said.

Sharon Eskenazi, left, and her transgender son Myles Deol, right, came from Austin to attend San Francisco Pride on Friday. | Garrett Leahy/The Standard

Eskenazi’s son, Myles Deol, who is transgender, said that coming to Pride and being in a safe space for queer people, including other trans Asian men, made him feel acknowledged.

“Seeing a group of trans Asian performers here at Pride, it made me feel seen,” Deol said.

Deol, who is a student at the University of Texas Austin and works in the school’s Gender and Sexuality Center, expressed concern about the hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills that have been introduced around the country, such as Senate Bill 14 in Texas, bans hormone therapies and puberty blockers for minors. It was signed by the governor this month.

“We need to bring this support to places that aren’t safe, like Texas or Florida,” Deol said. “I go back to Austin, and I have to wonder if there’s a space for me when the government there is trying to commit a genocide against my people.”

The Dyke March proceeds along Valencia Street on Saturday. | Garrett Leahy/The Standard

Jeff and Roberto Dumlao of San Francisco said Pride is more organized now than it was in the initial decades of the celebration, but with the recent attacks on trans rights and drag queens, there is a need to return to the mindset of activism that fueled the early days of the movement.

Roberto, who grew up in the Midwest, believes that the insulation of the Bay Area has created a laid-back feeling in a movement where solidarity with those in other parts of the country is critical.

"It is disgusting what is happening in the rest of the country and how people are politicizing the rights of human beings," he said. "That's why we need to go back to activism. Just because it’s safe for us here doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be fighting for our brothers and sisters across the country.”

Joel Umanzor can be reached at jumanzor@sfstandard.com
Garrett Leahy can be reached at garrett@sfstandard.com