(Emerald archives)

The COVID-19 pandemic meant another stage of evolution for Eugene’s Pride in the Park. After organizers canceled the 2020 event for safety reasons, 2021’s Pride in the Park focused on physical safety and inclusiveness.

The local pride celebration takes place in August each year to encourage celebrations beyond June, according to Eugene Weekly. Kicking off in the morning with a march downtown, Pride in the Park is smaller and more relaxed than events in larger cities like Portland. It hosts restaurants and food trucks, businesses offering discounts and free items, vendors selling pride merchandise and information booths from health organizations and community groups in the area. Drag queens, dance groups and chorus groups take the stage throughout the day, all to create a space for Eugene’s gay community to connect, Marlie Heberling, Eugene Pride’s marketing and social media coordinator, said.

After opting to cancel the celebration last year, the planning committee had time to reflect on its goals and operations, Heberling said. She said Eugene Pride hopes Pride at the Park is a safe space, and the COVID-19 pandemic meant rethinking physical and emotional safety.

“We do not want to become a super spreader event,” Heberling said. “We want people to come and have a really memorable and comfortable and welcoming time, so we became less about numbers, more about impact.”

Heberling said the committee chose to rent out twice the space it rented in 2019 to allow for physical distancing. Eugene Pride also encouraged vaccinations and wearing a mask.

HIV Alliance, a Eugene organization that provides information and testing for sexually transmitted infections, introduced the “COVID van” to its booth this year to offer COVID-19 vaccinations. It also shifted its on-site STI testing to avoid physical contact.

Jade Lazaris, the development coordinator for HIV Alliance, said the group’s volunteers hear stories from Pride attendees about how they’re impacted by barriers in healthcare. She said, while these barriers are especially notable for accessing HIV treatments, the HIV Alliance also hears about healthcare access issues more broadly. Through that lens, the COVID van reflects the organization’s mission.

“We come to Pride to offer our services so people know that we exist,” Lazaris said.

The Pride in the Park planning committee also focused on inclusiveness and accessibility, Heberling said. She said that this year, more parking spaces are compliant with the American Disabilities Act, and more booths are set up along paved paths rather than in the grass.

This was the first year the event brought in sign language interpreters for performances, as part of a broader push for diversity and inclusiveness, Heberling said. In addition to loud performances on a big stage, another tent hosted quieter and smaller-scale performances at the opposite end of the park.

Maddy Miller said she drove eight hours to experience the community connection in Eugene. Pride in the Park 2018 was the first Pride event she ever attended, and she said she still remembers the moment she nervously walked into the park. Her friend Alex grabbed her hand and held it in the air, and she felt her nerves replaced by pride and joy.

Miller said she was hesitant about coming to Pride this year, but felt safe — apart from the presence of homophobic protesters just outside the event. She said she thinks the protesters make it hard for first-time attendees to feel safe.

Attendee Paul Overman said he also felt the event was fun and inclusive apart from the protesters.

“A lot of times, people come here to be themselves, and the more people try to tell them that they can't be who they are, it will make them feel like they are secluded,” he said.

Pride in the Park implemented a “no signs'' rule to combat the presence of protesters. In 2019, protesters with homophobic signs walked through the event. The new rule helped keep them on the outskirts this year, Heberling said. She said she is unsure how to prevent protesters’ attendance entirely without making pride a paid event, which the organization intends to avoid. For now, Heberling said she hopes the positive connections attendees make outshine the protesters.

Drag queen Slutashia performed onstage at Pride in the Park 2021. She said her favorite part of Pride in the Park is connecting with a younger audience and showing them the importance of self love.

“You got to love who you are, and you can't apologize for who you are,” she said.