Travel

The Greatest Pride Celebrations in America, According to Drag Queens

Published On 07/06/2016 Published On 07/06/2016

Never does New York City's annual Pride March fall shy of spectacular, but here's what the 2 million spectators who packed sidewalks, climbed light poles, and stood tip-toed atop garbage cans saw this year: some 30,000 marchers from a record-breaking 480 groups, pouring through the middle of Manhattan in a blitz of rainbow flags, bared skin, and joyous dance.

The spirit of Pride here, in America's oldest celebration, is one of radical inclusion. Anyone is welcome to come as they are -- or, for some, as they love to be. The doyens of this day are the drag queens, some of whom rue the lengths they go to. As a man in 6in heels told the New York Times: "I walked 40 blocks in heels. Feminism, man." He was changing into sandals.

Pride is often a gateway for first-time drag queens wanting to celebrate and "get in heels and lip sync to Britney," said Queens-based drag queen Sutton Lee Seymour.

Kyler Puckett, another New York City-based drag queen who performs with the name Heidi Haux, was forever changed by moving to New York at 18, on Pride Weekend. "I was still closeted," he said. "The overwhelming support and sheer quantity of pro-gay anything blew my mind."

It's not a shock that NYC Pride is generally regarded as America's most vibrant Pride event. "There's nowhere like New York, the gay rights movement started here," said New York City drag queen Candy Sterling. "It's so symbolic of our fight for acceptance and progress." Emblematic of that fight: this year, the Stonewall Inn, the Greenwich Village bar that largely launched America's modern LGBTQ rights movement when police tried to raid it in 1969, was designated a national monument.

But where, outside of New York, are the best places in America to join in a Pride celebration? We figured there would be no better experts than the drag queens who are synonymous with the festivals. One booker for drag queens told me the most sought-after among them might work five shows on a Pride weekend, and criss-cross the country for different events.

So we talked to well-traveled drag queens to find out which are the prides of Pride, nationwide.

Best Unexpected Festival: Sioux Falls

Your next Pride weekend may be best spent in South Dakota. This annual celebration has swelled in the past few years from a few hundred attendees to over 8,000, according to The Advocate. Drag queen Delighted Tobehere described it as a "very comfortable Pride festival, because everyone was so warm and welcoming." She also enjoyed seeing performers from Middle America: "They'd announce, the next up on stage is directly from Omaha, and it was so exciting." Tobehere also said the festival packed in straight allies, in an "incredible" show of support. "There was concern that folks wouldn't show up, but [the attack on Pulse, in Orlando] certainly didn't scare folks off," she said. "This Pride was a day that unified our community."

Seattle Pride | FLICKR/BRETT CURTISS

Most Inclusive: Seattle Pride

Seattle has one of the older Pride weeks in the country -- dating back to 1974 -- a fact that hasn't kept it from staying weird and cheerful. "Last year I was really blown away by Seattle Pride," said Jackie Beat. "The energy was off the charts and everyone was so welcoming and embracing." Seattle Pride doesn't get too flashy with only two main events, a parade, and a festival. And the atmosphere stays wholly positive. "I didn't feel any of that 'us vs. them' separatist energy," Beat said. "It was amazing!"

Buffalo Pride Festival | J. Carroci/Pride Center of WNY

Best in a Small City: Buffalo Pride Festival and Tulsa Pride

Beat doesn't like to play favorites with Pride -- likening them all to "one of my children" -- but has been blown away by a couple of the smaller celebrations: "The feeling of community in places like Buffalo or Tulsa is undeniable." These festivities aren't as corporate as New York or LA's massive celebrations, for better and for worse; there are fewer dollars, true, but also fewer sponsor logos to dim the warm vibes. Another perk to visiting a small town for Pride: shopping. As a "legendary rent-a-clown," Beat usually flies quickly in and out of town, but noted that "small towns are so much better than big cities when it comes to my bargain vintage witch-hunts!"

NYC Pride | Flickr/Bob Jagendorf

Best to Celebrate Queer History: NYC Pride

Acid Betty, a New York-based contestant on Season 8 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, votes New York as having the best Pride celebration, "because that's where it started." Her favorite part of the annual Pride March is reuniting with "brothers and sisters" in a struggle for equal rights that still continues, almost 50 years after Stonewall. "Pride kind of reminds us," she said, "that we’re not alone."

PrideFest Milwaukee | Courtesy of PrideFest Milwaukee

Best in the Midwest: PrideFest Milwaukee

Derrick Barry, a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 8, has done San Francisco Pride and this year performed at New York City’s Night of 1000 Queens. But her dark-horse favorite Pride experience? Milwaukee, where last year she performed a 30-minute Britney Spears set on closing night, on the outdoor stage at the fairgrounds that host the annual event. "There's something about doing outside club-type shows in a big outdoor area: it's so electric," Barry said. And unlike some bigger coastal cities, this truly is the weekend to cut loose: "It's what they look forward to all year. It's the big LGBT event." This year's lineup included Sarah Silverman, Blondie, and more.

San Diego LGBT Pride | Flickr/Nathan Rupert

Best for VIP Treatment: San Diego LGBT Pride

If you're considering performing at Pride, try San Diego Pride, a music festival-style celebration featuring various stages with different types of music. In 2014, Derrick Barry performed here alongside headliners including DJ Ruby Rose and other big names and recalled the star treatment as being one of the highlights. "I had my own trailer -- nobody has ever done that before," she said. The "big stage, big crowd" and more gave a cool California vibe to this festival, perfect for anyone who wants to feel "so VIP" or just celebrate in the sunshine at a rainbow-themed music festival.

Brooklyn Pride | Flickr/Todd Crusham

Most Experimental: Brooklyn Pride

Where to go when New York becomes too mainstream? Brooklyn, obviously. Candy Sterling said Brooklyn Pride, which usually occurs the second weekend of June, has a more "avant-garde, artistic vibe." This is partially due to the alternative nature of Brooklyn gay nightlife, which Sterling described as "a little more risk-taking, more wild." With fewer sponsorships and corporate events than its big sister, Brooklyn relies on more of an "organic," underground scene. Sterling added that "exciting things in drag and nightlife are happening in Brooklyn," where queens are more experimental than Manhattan's "more traditional, theater-inspired drag."

Kalamazoo Pride | Terry Johnston Photo

Most Improved Festival: Kalamazoo Pride

Kalamazoo, Michigan, which is home to exactly one gay bar, Metro, hosts a surprisingly good Pride celebration each June. Drag queens Thorgy Thor and Pearl performed at this year's Kalamazoo Pride, a vast improvement from when Sutton Lee Seymour attended the celebration as a college student. "Pride a decade ago was a barbecue," she recalled. "Maybe a hundred or so people would come and it was a great party, but now it has grown into something huge where they’re bringing Drag Race girls."

San Francisco Pride | Flickr/Matthew Roth

Best for Music and Politics: San Francisco Pride

Kyler Puckett calls San Francisco Pride "the gayest Bonnaroo on Earth," no affiliation with the jams in central Tennessee. This one begins with a parade down Market St where scores of people line the streets and observe from fire escapes above as the march winds to City Hall. There, at the main stage and several smaller stages, vendors and sprawling grass welcome hordes of LGBTQ people and allies out to celebrate. Puckett attended SF Pride after 2015's Supreme Court ruling on federal marriage equality. "That year was particularly special," he said. "The whole city seemed to be proud and celebrating love." SF Pride is also known to be particularly political; this year's theme was "For Racial and Economic Equality." Party on.

Salisbury Pride | Sarah Slusarick Photography

Best in a Red State: All of them

Delighted Tobehere, who grew up in South Carolina, advocates attending as many red-state Pride events as possible. "Go to all of them," she said, laughing. As someone who was kicked out of his house for being gay, Tobehere emphasizes the importance of smaller Prides to gain a deeper understanding of why the movement is so vital. "When you go to a smaller pride and you have folks coming out of the closet, coming from a town where everybody knows everybody," she said, "protestors may include their family members and there needs to be a lot more support for the folks that don't have the connections and the resources to surround themselves with other LGBT family members."

Smaller Pride festivals might be the only local touchpoint for essential services, such as education on HIV testing, or the opportunity to join a gay bowling league or even to meet someone and ask them out. To start, Tobehere recommends grassroots festivals such as Upstate Pride South Carolina, Outer Banks Pride, and Salisbury (North Carolina) Pride.

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Melissa Kravitz is a proud writer based in NYC. You can follow her on Twitter: @melissabethk.

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