When it became clear that the threat of COVID-19 was not going to disappear in just a matter of weeks, the South Texas Equality Project board knew their annual Pride in the Park event would not be able to proceed as planned — with thousands of attendees flowing in and out of the McAllen Convention Center in support of the LGBTQ community.
Compelled to adjust to a COVID-19 world, those at STEP decided to instead hold virtual Pride events throughout the entire month of June.
“Even if we postpone it for, let’s just say November, is it still going to be safe to hold mass amounts of people — people within the thousands — in one location?” asked Steven James Cano, the community mobilization coordinator with the Valley AIDS Council. “The McAllen Convention Center is really big, but at the same time, was it going to be wise to even continue that? So we did decide that we just were not going to have an in-person event.”
As the community mobilization coordinator with VAC, which is the fiscal sponsor of STEP, Cano said it was his job to figure out what they were going to do.
“Immediately, I just thought, let’s take things virtual,” Cano said. “Let’s do virtual workshops in the same format that we host our in-person workshops.”
And that is exactly what they plan to do during June, which is also known as Pride month.
On the social media pages for STEP and for Pride in the Park, such as Facebook, Instagram and Youtube, they will have workshops that will also be accessible via Zoom, which will highlight vendors and they will have performances by various artists.
“We have multiple talents that grace our live, in-person stage,” Cano said. “We’re taking those things virtually, whether it be a pre-recording and we’re highlighting the performer, or we do actual live-streaming events of local singers, local bands, (or) drag queens — everyone loves a good drag queen performance.”
An event that has almost become a staple of Pride in the Park is an exhibit on LGBTQ history in the Rio Grande Valley.
Gabriel Sanchez, STEP board president, started the history exhibit in 2017 which he described as a “museum that seeks to educate people about the history of the LGBTQIA+ movement for civil rights and about people that have been involved in it and people who have helped shape the community with a focus on the Valley’s LGBTQIA+ community.”
The history of the movement, Sanchez said, dates back hundreds of years, but what he has collected so far is documentation of the movement stretching back to the 1950s and 60s.
He said he’s been able to piece together some of their history through interviews with people but also through newspaper archives and from the archives of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
“Getting photos from people has been really helpful,” he said. “I’ve also found there was a group in the late 80s or early 90s in the Rio Grande Valley called Valley Voice which is sort of the Valley’s first LGBTQ+ advocacy group and they were formed in response to the AIDS crisis.”
Two women who were involved in that organization turned over materials related to the group, such as old newsletters, t-shirts, information they would publish, and information on support group meetings they would hold.
Through photos, Sanchez and some of his friends were able to create historical items, like old drag outfits and old pride flags.
“I just thought it was really, really important to highlight the history that our community has here in the Valley,” Sanchez said.
Growing up in a place like the Rio Grande Valley as an LGBTQ individual, he said, it’s easy to feel like you’re the only person.
“A lot of people feel like they can’t be openly queer in the Valley. They feel like they have to go to Austin or go to San Antonio or that they can’t ever live a full life as out queer person,” he said. “I thought it was really important to show our community that we have a long historical presence dating back decades, and even further, really; that we’ve always been a part of the Valley and that we have been fighting in ways, big and small, and through different avenues.”
This year, Sanchez will be doing an online, lecture-style presentation on LGBTQ history in the Valley, which is something he has already been doing for the past two or three years.
But he will also be doing a live LGBTQ history exhibit towards the end of the month, likely on Zoom, where he will walk people through the exhibit which he will host in drag.
A benefit of holding their Pride events virtually, Cano said, is that since they will be posted and saved online, attendees who might have missed it because of a scheduling conflict can revisit the event on their own time.
Among those events are the workshops that cover topics like coming out to family. There are also workshops for parents on how to speak to their tansgender child or how to be more accepting of their LGBTQ child.
Through a partnership with Teach for America, there is also a group of educators who host workshops focusing on LGBTQ kids in public schools by discussing how to deal with community and school pushback, and what educators can learn.
They also discuss how to start a GSA club, or Genders & Sexualities Alliance Network club. Those are student-led organizations that “unite LGBTQ+ and allied youth to build community and organize around issues impacting them in their schools and communities,” according to the GSA Network.
For those virtual workshops, Cano said staff will be monitoring the online chats and requesting that people refrain from posting derogatory remarks. If someone violates those requests, they will be removed.
“Even though it’s virtual and you may be watching the workshop from the comfort of your own home, we still want for our virtual attendees to feel safe in that virtual environment in the same way as an in-person event,” he said.
Another adjustment with going virtual was figuring out how to ensure the vendors and exhibitors who participate in Pride in the Park could still be involved this year.
It turned out, the answer was simple.
“We highlight a set amount of vendors and a set amount of exhibitors everyday or every other day, ”Cano said.
He added Pride was an event where those vendors or exhibitors could make really good sales, engage people by registering them to vote, or educate attendees on a specific scholastic program.
Typically, those participating vendors would have to pay a registration fee, but this year, STEP will highlight them free of charge.
“With things being where you can’t necessarily go out in public, so to speak, even though Texas is reopening, it’s still kind of scary,” he said. “So we just decided we will offer this for free, no charge.”
Cano said Pride was all about resilience and liberation of who you are and, in spite of a global pandemic, he said they wanted to show the world that it was still alive and thriving.
“Still, to this day, I can’t even describe the feeling of seeing a party bus full of young, queer kids — probably 13 to 15, 16-year-olds — coming in,” Cano said of a prior experience attending Pride in the Park. “But then the parents coming off of that party bus — I was wanting to cry.”
Witnessing that — seeing parents dressed head-to-toe in rainbow attire in full support of their LGBTQ children — reminded him what Pride was all about.
“This is amazing,” he recalled thinking. “This is why we do this event, right? To just continue to cultivate a community that is going to be so much more accepting.”