by robert stewart
Advocate staff writer
June 25, 2012
Alexandria Barbier felt comfortable at Baton Rouge Pride Fest on Saturday.
Barbier, a 24-year-old Baton Rouge native, said she came out of the closet three years ago. She said her family and friends supported her when she came out publicly, but acceptance of the gay community is still growing slowly in the city.
She said that's why she was glad to see so many people at Pride Fest, an annual celebration of the city's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, community.
"Gay people don't feel like you're accepting of them wherever you go," Barbier said. "I think it's important to have stuff like this more than once a year."
Barbier and thousands of others gathered in the Royal Cotillion Ballroom in LSU's Student Union for the sixth annual incarnation of the festival, which included music, dancing and plenty of celebration.
"These are my people," Barbier said. "They get me."
The LGBT community and its supporters gather together to build "pride with a purpose" and a sense of unity, said Tom Merrill, the event's chairman.
The event grows each year, Merrill said.
"We started out with 300 people when we began, and last year we had 3,500," Merrill said.
Dozens of couples had their relationships blessed by a local minister, and the music that filled the air throughout the day kept the party going.
Michigan Avenue, a local acoustic cover band, serenaded the crowd with its own versions of Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" and "Hold On" by Wilson Phillips.
Later on, Pocket Aces Brass Band members caught everyone's attention when they marched into the back corner of the ballroom and launched into a rendition of the Eurythmics hit, "Sweet Dreams."
Drag queens dressed in their best outfits - some wore tiaras, some wore necklaces, all of them wore high heels.
Rami Alkadi, better known by his performance name, "Alexa Milano," donned a short dress to go along with his short, black wig and makeup.
Alkadi said he has been dressing in drag for about three years and was attending his third Pride Fest.
Alkadi said he enjoys meeting new people at the festival, especially children with gay or lesbian parents.
"Teaching kids not to judge is the best thing ever," Alkadi said.
More than 50 organizations set up shop in the ballroom to either show their support for the LGBT community or let them know about the pro-LGBT groups in the city.
The organizations ranged from nonprofit LGBT support groups to businesses and a few churches.
Pride Fest also offered free HIV testing and basic health screenings for those who needed them.
A group of Southeastern Louisiana University nursing students performed health tests such as blood pressure checks and body mass index readings.
Rachel Lazar, one of the nursing students behind the booth, said homosexuals have their own health problems to deal with, including finding health organizations that are "LGBT-friendly."
"It helps to have those resources at their fingertips," Lazar said.
Capital City Alliance, a Baton Rouge LGBT advocacy group, hosted an equality march to the State Capitol on Saturday before Pride Fest began.
About 300 people attended the march, Merrill said.
Matthias Scott, 37, and Curtis Wahl, 26, both of Baton Rouge, were among the marchers.
The two said they were happy to see so many people downtown, along with so many others at Pride Fest.
"What kind of community is it if you don't support it?" Wahl said.
Scott also said he was happy to see free HIV testing available for everyone.
"Once you get to know about it, you can do something about it," Scott said.