About 3,000 people gathered in downtown Portland on Saturday for Southern Maine Pride Parade and Festival.
Many of the participants were dressed in red costumes to reflect the ruby – or 40th – anniversary of the founding of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movement in Maine. A 900-foot-long rainbow flag was carried along the parade route from Monument Square to Deering Oaks.
This being an election year, the event had a political edge. U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, the Democratic nominee for governor, was one of the parade’s grand marshals. Michaud would become the nation’s first openly gay candidate to be elected governor if he unseats Republican Gov. Paul LePage in November.
He walked briskly along the route, shaking hands with as many people as possible.
The parade, which has become an increasingly mainstream event, had a record number of corporate sponsors, including TD Bank and Bank of America.
Also this year, residents from Piper Shores, a retirement community in Scarborough, joined the march for the first time. Some of the seniors rode in the community’s shuttle bus, but a handful walked the 1½-mile length of the parade.
Betty Livingston, 94, who marched the entire route, was greeted by loud cheers from spectators all along the way.
“We’re here to support diversity and tolerance,” said Livingston, a retired social worker.
Michaud told The Associated Press it would be powerful for the gay community to have a seat at the table in discussions with governors across the country on equality issues.
“Maine has come a long ways and our nation has come a long ways, but there’s still a long way to go,” he said in an interview with the AP before he marched alongside a white convertible on the parade route.
Eliot Cutler, an independent running for governor, walked down the center of Congress Street while holding a rainbow flag high in the air. Shenna Bellows, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, also marched in the parade.
Each of the candidates was followed a by vocal contingent of supporters.
LePage was invited, but his office said he couldn’t fit the parade into his schedule, said Pride Portland Co-Chairwoman Jill Barkley.
Joining Michaud as grand marshals of the 28th annual parade were Sarah Holmes, assistant director of student life and diversity and the coordinator for the Center for Sexualities and Gender Diversity at the University of Southern Maine; and the family of Nicole Maines, a transgender student who won a discrimination lawsuit in the Maine Supreme Judicial Court after her Orono school refused to let her use the girls’ bathroom.
Barkley said she was pleased that several Portland-area companies, such as WEX and TD Bank, had large contingents of employees in the parade. She said companies have come to understand that supporting gay rights is good for business because there are lot of gay and lesbian customers in the region.
In addition, the support of retirement communities, such as Piper Shores, is important because many gay and lesbian people worry that they won’t be accepted by their peers when they are senior citizens, according to Barkley. Some of them “go into the closet” when they move into retirement homes, she said.
“We don’t want that,” Barkley said. “We want people to be themselves and be with their partners when they age.”