SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered community gathered Saturday in downtown Springfield to celebrate Pride Fest.
"Pride is itself is a positive stance against the violence and discrimination against gay, lesbian, and transgendered individuals," explained Charles Abernathy, board member of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of the Ozarks.
Roughly 2,000 people filled Park Central Square to listen to musical groups, poetry, and motivational speakers. Colorful flags waved in the wind while patrons visited merchandise tents.
Randy Gamel, a member of First Unitarian Universalist Church in Springfield, sat in the shade with literature aimed towards the GLBT community.
"We think everybody's loved and everybody's special so we're happy to be here," Gamel said. "We're not what you consider an old fashioned church; we've changed with the times. Everybody's welcome, come as you are no pretense. You don't have to pretend to be anything you're not. We love you just the same."
Steps away, volunteers advocating AIDS testing and awareness, passed out stickers and free water.
"I've been in Springfield three years and this is my first Pride!" exclaimed Tony Hines. "I would say this event is all about unity. Unity in the community. There we go. Because you have everyone here."
The festival comes at a heated time. Across Missouri, members of the gay community have little protections. In Springfield, someone could be kicked off a city bus, fired from their job, or denied a place to live because of their sexual orientation.
George Davis, chairman of the Mayor's Commission on Human Rights and Community Relations, hopes to change Springfield's status.
"People of gay, lesbian and transgendered lifestyles should have the right to do whatever they want to do. Just like me and you," Davis said.
He was the champion of an ordinance that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the city's discrimination ban. Currently, age, race, creed, color, disability, religion, sex, and nation origin are protected categories.
"It's an embarrassment and it's a disappointment. It's truly a sign of poor leadership. This is something that's been dealt with in the 70s. The fact that Springfield hasn't dealt with it today is inexcusable," Davis said firmly.
"We're just like everyday people. The only difference is we're loving the same sex. It's the only difference," agreed LaShaun, a transgender blonde in a flowing dress. "You know, sometimes I go shopping and stuff like that and being me, you know, you get the 'Oh that's a man, in a dress.' Whatever. Be who you are and go out and do what you do. It makes no sense to hide yourself for who you are."
The mantra for many was a phrase from a Lady Gaga hit song: Born this way. Flags with the words were held by same sex couples, buttons were passed out, and even baked treats had it written in frosting.
"To say they are 'Born that way,' it's just not true. It's just something just like anything else; they need to make the decision to act on it or not to act on it," said Brad St. Clair, evangelist with Repent and Turn. "The bible says that homosexuality is a sin. As well as adultery and fornication and lying and hatred and murder. So it's just that, that's just one sin that the bible says that those who do so will go to hell."
St. Clair held a wooded cross for most of the festival and would get all sorts of reactions for his viewpoints.
"People have come out and told us, 'Thank you, it takes a lot of boldness to stand up and be a witness to Christ.' And other people, of course they're angry," St. Clair said smiling. "Sometimes people just want to live how they want to live and they don't want to have to answer to God. I just want everyone to know that God loves them and he sent Jesus to die on the cross for their sins, so they can go to heaven."
Festival organizers were prepared for unwelcome interruptions or protesters. Springfield Police lined the square, some in uniform and others in plain clothes.
"You are going to have protesters anyways, but you know, this is a public event and we also want to welcome that too," detailed Abernathy. "We want to kind of put a face on discrimination and really make that visible. But this is a day about love, not hate."