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Grand Rapids Pride Center Creates Belonging

By Allison Arnold | photos courtesy of the Grand Rapid Pride Center

It was 1987, and after returning from the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, a group of West Michigan advocates decided to continue the momentum in our Midwest city. In 1988, the Lesbian and Gay Community Network of West Michigan was formed.

That June, The Network’s first pride festival, A Celebration of Life, was held at the Monroe Amphitheater, which is now Rosa Parks Circle. The 2018 festival had more than 11,000 attendees, and even more are expected at this year’s festival on June 15 at Calder Plaza. Attendees can expect a wide assortment of games and activities, drag shows and headlining and local entertainment, all in a welcoming, family-friendly environment. 

In 2016, The Network rebranded to the Grand Rapids Pride Center to encompasses the diverse community the organization serves. Since its inception, the Pride Center has been dedicated to creating a space that fosters support for members of the LGBTQ+ community. 

The youth social and support group is one out of ten free support groups the center offers and has been around since 1989. It is the largest group at the center, serving about 50 kids every week. 

Eve Gardner has been a volunteer facilitator for the youth group for about a year.

“It’s been awesome to see youth in front of our eyes process who they are as people, and they know themselves more than I think I know myself sometimes,”

Gardner commented. Being a facilitator for the youth group has not only allowed Gardner to witness beautiful transformations among her students, but to experience growth within herself.

“I wish other people would do it because it’s so amazing to watch each child’s face light up the minute they walk through the door,” she said. “They get to drop everything.”

Inclusivity and diversity within the LGBTQ+ community are also vital in this space. 

“[We want to] create a space for queer young adults of color to come together because they are facing obstacles that a lot of other demographics and community people aren’t facing.”

— Thomas Pierce, Executive Director at the Grand Rapids Pride Center 

“It’s important to understand at-risk populations because of dual or multiple identities,” Beau VanSolkema, a transgender man who has been involved in the Grand Rapids Pride Center, said. 

VanSolkema calls attention to the multiple identities that can be layered on top of being LGBTQ+. These could include being a person of color, transgender, a woman, a formerly incarcerated individual and a person living with HIV. The more identities one has, the more challenging it can be to find spaces that are truly inclusive. 

In efforts to tackle race, gender and sexual identity, the P.O.C young adult group was formed in partnership with Grand Rapids HQ, a drop-in center for youth ages 14-24 who are experiencing unsafe or unstable housing. 

“[We want to] create a space for queer young adults of color to come together because they are facing obstacles that a lot of other demographics and community people aren’t facing,” Thomas Pierce, Executive Director at the Grand Rapids Pride Center, expressed. “We wanted to create a safe space for them to come in and talk about those kind of things.”

Other social and support groups the center offers are geared toward young adults, men, women, cross-dressers, parents of LGBTQ youth, families, and transgender, non-binary and gender questioning individuals.

Despite changes and many ups and downs since 1988, the Pride Center continues to be dedicated to creating a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community, educating citizens on what being an ally truly means, and building a sense of community, belonging and pride.

For more information on the Grand Rapids Pride Center and the programs and services it provides or to purchase tickets to Grand Rapids Pride Festival, please visit grpride.org.

What: Grand Rapids Pride Festival 
When: June 15, Noon — 10 p.m.
Where: Calder Plaza, 300 Monroe Ave NW
Cost: $8/General Admission; $50/V.I.P. Lounge

Youth Group at the GR Pride Center

Allison Arnold is a freelance writer and avid adventurer who loves hiking, traveling and trying new foods. She loves writing about food and culture on her blog, For the Love of Tacos.

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