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By Photo courtesy of Ask Alice
BY ASHLEY FISCHER Contributing writer
It was the no-show that stole the show. Nearly a decade ago, when organizers were planning the first Bakersfield Pride festival, they extended an invitation to Mayor Harvey Hall, who not only agreed to attend but announced that he would issue a proclamation in support of the day.
And then things got weird.
"The mayor was supposed to show up, and right-wing radio got ahold of it and he backed off and didn't come," said Whitney Weddell, organizer of the event. (Hall did not return a call for comment on this report.)
"He backed out and it hit the AP wires, and we got calls from the whole world."
So what Weddell had anticipated being a small affair turned into a spectacle that attracted the mayor of West Hollywood and a crowd of 500.
"It created tremendous visibility for our event," she said. "We didn't have a PR budget that first year or advertising. The fact that Harvey Hall backed out was a good thing."
Weddell is charitable enough to acknowledge the pressure Hall was under from conservative critics a decade ago. Yet the uproar itself speaks volumes about the times -- and how radically and quickly they've changed, she said.
Just this year, two Supreme Court rulings gave hope to gay marriage supporters. One of the decisions found flaws in California's Proposition 8, the 2008 measure that outlawed same-sex marriage. Though Weddell said it was painful to be "repudiated" by voters, the measure had a galvanizing effect on gay people, many of whom were sure the measure had no chance.
"Prop. 8 really made people stop and look at themselves," Weddell said. "(Gay rights icon) Harvey Milk said it best: 'Come out, come out wherever you are.' When people know who you are, it's harder for them to be against you. It forced us out of complacency."
But Saturday's Bakersfield Pride festival isn't about politics.
"It's about providing a space where people can come out in public and hold their lover's hand for a day. That's all some people get -- a day."
Music, food, vendors, a children's area -- and drag queens a little later -- add to the festive nature of the event, which Weddell expects to attract between 1,000 and 1,200 people.
"Every year we're a little bigger, and that's the kind of growth we look for," she said. "Every year we try to change it up while also maintaining the things we like the most. We're always trying to be new and improved."
Many favorite acts from years past are returning, including Ask Alice, Michelle Weingarden and Rainbow Voices, the Bakersfield LGBTQ community chorus.
"You can be sitting watching bands all day if you want to," Weddell said. "If you're walking around, there's always music kind off in the background; it's just the background soundtrack of the event."
No Bakersfield Pride would be complete without the glitzy, glittering grand finale performance by the Divas -- 11 drag queens who get gussied up and belt out classic tunes by icons such as Judy Garland, Bette Midler, Madonna and more.
All the money raised from the festival goes back to Bakersfield LGBTQ to help finance the group's mission of providing advocacy, education and support for members of Kern County's LGBTQ community, whose mission continues even though Bakersfield has shown signs over the years of being more accepting.
"The town's conservative reputation might not be as hard and fast as some people believe," Weddell said. We've never had a protester outside with a sign, ever -- not even the first year when right-wing radio was going crazy.
"I hope that sends a message to people coming out. Most people in Bakersfield are live-and-let-live."