There was plenty of the usual music, art exhibits, food and good cheer at the sixth annual Orange County Gay & Lesbian Pride Celebration at UC Irvine on Saturday, but festival-goers and organizers also had serious subjects on their minds.
For the first time, the festival featured a series of issue awareness seminars to recognize the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which launched the country's gay rights movement in 1969.
There also were talks about hate crimes against gays, media coverage of gay issues, spirituality and self-esteem.
"A gay child is often raised in the enemy camp," said San Clemente artist John Breitweiser, who spoke of how gays need to "learn to love ourselves."
"Our journey to self-acceptance and self-love is often littered with the experiences of self-destructive behaviors and self-loathing," he said.
The event drew about 2,000 people to Aldrich Park. It continues today and will be highlighted by a parade around campus at noon.
On Saturday, the topic of homosexuality and religion dominated much of the afternoon's seminars.
"We have felt alienated from our religion," said 29-year-old speaker John Good. "But we don't want to be on the outside looking in. There is a spiritual side of us that needs to be filled."
Good, who represented Koinonia (Greek for community), a Catholic outreach group for gays and lesbians in Orange County, said he was encouraged by the dozen booths on the festival grounds representing various churches and religious organizations.
"More and more religious groups are becoming involved in these festivals, which I think is an interesting phenomenon," he said. "For so many years, we've had to work so hard in the political realm, and we've done a fantastic job of that. But, I think a lot of energy has been taken away from the spiritual side of us."
Jerry Lail, former assistant press secretary for U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, gave a seminar on "proactive religion" and said: "Churches are realizing that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was all about inclusion."
In addition to the seminars, the festival features an Art Expo that displays the work of Breitweiser and other artists. Several singers, bands and comedians were also on hand to provide entertainment.
In addition, there are more than 140 booths set up on the festival grounds representing various causes such as AIDS awareness; and vendors selling T-shirts, compact discs, cellular telephones and jewelry.
Despite oppressive heat, many of those in attendance said they relished the opportunity to walk around the festival grounds at Aldrich Park and just be themselves.
"Usually, if you try and hold hands in a public place, you would have fear of retaliation or a drive-by shooting," said 32-year-old Lisa Marks, who strolled holding a beer in one hand and her girlfriend's hand in the other.
"I think straight people take for granted how wonderful it is to be able to be able to hold hands in public," Marks said. "I'm not so much afraid of offending people--I don't do it because it's not safe."
Steve Plesa, 43, said, "It's comfortable being here. It seems so peaceful and everyone is so friendly."
Festival spokeswoman Kimberly Syre said this year's event has been a refreshing contrast to the celebration's early years when the event was marred by protesters.
"I think people appreciate that we can have our celebration in peace," Syre said. "I think the gay community has come a long way and at the same time, I think the straight community has come a long way in letting us have this event without picketing the gates."
Today, the festival will run from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. For the first time, participants will leave the festival grounds at noon and march around the perimeter of the campus. The parade begins at Berkeley Avenue, turns left on Campus Drive and continues to Bridge Road.
The cost is $10. Entry fees will be half price today for those who also attended the festival on Saturday.