A distance of more than 10 miles separates the University of Southern Maine’s Gorham campus from the festival grounds for the annual LGBTQ+ Pride celebration in Portland. Students who wanted to experience the fun and community spirit always had to hitch a ride from their dorms. Always, that is, until now.
Gorham hosted its first community-wide Pride celebration on Saturday, June 24. Getting there from campus took only a short walk down South Street to the Gorham Municipal Center. No car required.
As a member of the event’s planning committee, strengthening the bond between students and their neighbors was a goal for Bryan Spaulding. Spaulding is a Theatre major heading into his senior year at USM. Campus has been a friendly environment for him to showcase his talent as a drag performer. He was eager to extend that sense of belonging to others.
“Just listening and seeing the crowd, I’m very emotional. I’m trying not to cry so I don’t have to fix my makeup,” Spaulding said in the midst of the celebration. “It’s just above and beyond, seeing such a proud community come together for Gorham’s first ever, hopefully annual, Pride.”
As master of ceremonies, Spaulding welcomed upwards of 300 visitors. He’d return to the microphone to introduce each new act, including the Lavender Choir and the Maine Marimba Ensemble.
Spaulding pulled double duty during the midday drag show as both the announcer and a performer. A rainbow-colored gown and towering blonde wig completed his transformation into Queen Letta. His lip syncing to songs by Idina Menzel and Lady Gaga drew a shower of dollar bills from the appreciative audience.
A second swell of applause greeted Lady D, who wowed the crowd by singing Carrie Underwood’s hit “Before He Cheats.” A few flubbed lyrics didn’t detract from the enjoyment. The cheers only grew louder as a few fans chimed in to help the star get back on track. Like Queen Letta, Lady D is also a USM student in another life.
Kip Foster listened from the far side of the room. He was part of the team keeping watch over a table covered with information about the University. As a member of the Queer Straight Alliance, Foster was able to answer questions about the club, along with his studies as a Social and Behavioral Sciences major.
“I live here all year round, so I think it’s really nice to have something that bridges the USM community with the community that we have around,” said Foster in praise of Gorham Pride.
Visitors to the USM table could also pick up a brochure about the University’s LGBTQ+ Collection of historical documents and artifacts. And anyone who made a donation to support LGBTQ+ programs on campus received a t-shirt with the slogan “#USMHasPride.” Among the visitors was University President Jacqueline Edmondson.
“The atmosphere was full of love and joy and celebration,” Edmondson said. “I am pleased to know our university is in a community where Pride matters and belonging is a priority.”
The other tables that dotted the floor of the gymnasium-turned-exhibition-hall represented a cross-section of the Gorham community. Businesses and craftspeople sold everything from clothing to jewelry, pottery to pet accessories, and more.
The clientele was just as varied. People of all ages came in couples or groups of friends. Some came alone or with their entire family. Some of the youngest visitors could be found in a quiet side room away from the main floor where drag performers read from picture books.
To get to those activities, visitors first had to walk past an anti-LGBTQ+ demonstration. About a dozen protesters gathered at the entrance to the parking lot, waving signs and urging passing cars to honk in agreement. Several Pride volunteers stood their ground beside the protesters so visitors would see a friendly face and feel safe to enter.
“I think if people came in and saw what it really is, they would understand a little bit more,” Foster said. “I’m just trying to look on the positive side and see what we have here rather than what’s happening outside.”
The mood lightened a few steps beyond the protest as the main doorway came into view. Colored balloons and streamers lined the threshold. Even the air around it shimmered with bubbles blown by a nearby fan. Foster added to the atmosphere by greeting visitors to his table with a smile and a simple message.
“Choose love,” he said.