Jubilant thousands flowed into Hermann Square, trailing rainbow streamers, embracing girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands, wives and strangers, grins cracking almost every face.
Love, the reverberations of yesterday’s wedding bells and the anticipation of tomorrow’s, permeated the sweltering Pride Festival on Saturday. It brimmed with so much joy, so much awareness of history in the making, that not even a June Houston sun could muster enough to oppress these masses.
Hundreds took to the reflection pool, dancing, laughing and tossing an enormous beach ball outside a 76-year-old City Hall that once stood in the way of everything being celebrated.
The festival’s move downtown this year triggered some criticism for yanking it from its birthplace in Montrose, considered one of the most accepting communities for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people in the South. As acceptance rises nationwide, the gay rights movement faces the dilution of neighborhoods and gathering places.
But the downtown move also lent the festival a new degree of permanence and symbolism that LGBT communities are as much the essence and core of Houston as any of its diverse components. It landed in the center of the city in the same year that a ground-breaking equal rights ordinance survived a court challenge and barely more than 24 hours after the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage nationwide.
Some couples spread across the crowd were already making plans, or at least prodding one another about their new freedom.
“No pressure,” Vazquez told De Los Santos.
Vazquez wore a veil so he could get his photo taken in front of City Hall.
“I’m prouder of Houston,” he said, noting the positive response the landmark decision received from many residents.
Hence, the veil didn’t feel like a silly costume, but a symbol.
“It feels more proper now,” Vazquez said.
The consensus of many pride attendees, especially those under 40, was the court decision was a historic step that they expected.
The only question was when.
“The majority of people who want rights or respect rights knew this was coming,” said Daryl Young, 24. “In the long run it was going to happen.”
But it posed new questions, some troubling.
Shy Bolton, 33, and her partner, Elsa Martinez, said it is going to take more time – and more legal maneuvering – to answer them.
“Right now it’s like, yay we’re married, but now what?,” said Martinez, who turned 32 on Saturday, making it a double-celebration for the couple.
“There is so much to talk about,” Bolton said. “What does this mean for us? What does this mean for our health care or can my wife get my Social Security if I die? This is all a little icing on the cake.”
How will it change health insurance costs, she wondered? What does it mean if they want to buy a house or adopt a child?
Bolton said she was little disappointed to see the rush to marry by some couples in the hours after the court’s decision was announced. Taking nothing away from their love, she said, she worried “some rushed to do it because it was cool.”
And there were darker reservations amid the festivities.
Older revelers remember the bigotries of an era that is not wholly extinguished. In May 1973, when a group of Houston gay rights proponents requested an end to police harassment, a police liaison and a declaration of Gay Pride Week, then-Mayor Louie Welch walked out of the meeting while Councilman Frank Mann shouted, “You’re abnormal! You need to see a psychiatrist instead of City Council!”
Four years later, in June 1977, thousands gathered to protest an appearance by anti-gay singer and beauty queen Anita Bryant in an impromptu demonstration that galvanized Houston’s gay rights movement. The event was likened to the Stonewall Riots, the New York unrest credited with setting off the national movement in 1969 – also in June.
Discrimination does not end with the stroke of Justice Anthony Kennedy‘s pen, and some of the weekend’s joy was muted by conflicts it creates both for religious people steadfastly opposed to gay marriage and for committed couples that see it as a major step but not the end of the fight for equal status in America.
“Is it going to be more of a celebration today? Sure,” said Paul Cruz, 77, clasping the hand of his boyfriend Rudy Marcos. “For someone like me, it’s something I didn’t think I’d see in my lifetime. … But it doesn’t mean I’m done, that we’re done. That (gay rights) is done.”
The specter of backlash remains constant, said Christopher Duncan, 26. He said he wondered if the ruling will make some rabid opponents violent, hate crime still fresh in the national psyche as Confederate flags were torn down and dirges sung for nine victims of the Charleston church shootings in the week’s other watershed events.
“There are people who feel threatened by this,” Duncan said, scanning the crowd, a mass of energy, sweat, glee and costumes (some leaving more skin uncovered than others).
Outside the fenced-in area dedicated to the celebration, about 20 protesters settled into a small pen set up to allow them space. Though vocally engaging the crowd, the gathering was civil and a noticeable police presence kept both sides at bay. Some people walked through the fenced-in festival grounds clutching or reading from bibles, but they had to compete with blaring music and joyful masses: A group of men wore colorful balloons as a kind of plumage. One troupe of partiers dressed themselves as the yellow, bunny-like cartoon character Pikachu. A fence was festooned with neon posterboard cutouts of hearts, decked in flowers and bearing the names of gay couples who took their fights to court. Sweaty sparkles flashed everywhere. Even police cars flew the pride flag.
In the pen, armed with signs warning of hell and damnation, protesters railed about supposed societal ills emanating from the LGBT movement.
But in this place at this moment, they were irrelevant.
Vanessa Morrison, 17, said people simply laughed at the group before continuing with the festivities. The conversations she heard centered instead on the decision.
“I literally woke up with new rights,” she said. “I thought it would be state-by-state and I thought for sure Texas would be last.”
Terrance DeLong glanced at the protesters and pulled his rainbow flag cape tighter around his shoulders.
“Who cares?” he quipped. “We won.”