Rain showers blurred the ink on posters and smudged the mascara on drag queens at yesterday's Capital Pride Parade, but it did not stop the crowd from chanting, dancing and marching.

Once the skies cleared, paradegoers looked to the heavens for that powerful symbol of gay pride--the rainbow.

"Thank God for Dermablend," Blair Michaels, a drag queen who is Miss Capital Pride 1999, said of his unblotched makeup as he emerged from the shelter of an awning once the rain had thinned to a cool drizzle.

He took inventory: Wig dry, makeup impeccable, sequined dress spotless. He was ready to perch in the back of the hunter-green Jaguar convertible that would take him through Dupont Circle on a route ending on Pennsylvania Avenue, two blocks from the Capitol. There, the gay, bisexual and transgendered marchers mixed into the crowd for a street fair featuring live music and about 300 booths offering everything from condoms to advice books.

"Today, everybody can let their closets come open and be who they are," Michaels said. "Pride means being able to express who you are."

The right to that expression has been hard-won, and there are still miles to go, said gay activists preparing floats for the parade. Still, this was a day for celebration, which meant something different to each of the 85 entrants in the 24th annual parade, which ended more than a week of gay pride activities.

A blond woman sported a big smile and a T-shirt with the slogan "No one knows I'm a lesbian." The drag queens, though damp, still tried to out-diva one another with extravagant costumes and wigs and were rewarded with catcalls and applause from the onlookers lining the streets. Marchers representing Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays quietly waved and tossed candy to members of the crowd, who shouted, "We love you!" and, "Thank you!" Members of a gay rodeo association two-stepped on the back of a flatbed truck, twirling their partners under a rainbow-colored sign that read "Budweiser."

The beer company was one of an increasing number of corporate sponsors to support the parade. Corporate donations this year totaled $247,000, up from $80,000 last year, said Vince Micone, Capital Pride co-chairman and vice president of the Whitman-Walker Clinic's board of directors. The clinic, along with the advocacy group One in Ten, organizes Capital Pride events each year.

This was the first Capital Pride parade for Whitman-Walker's new executive director, Elliot Johnson, who recently arrived from Los Angeles to replace Jim Graham, a Democrat who was elected to the D.C. Council from Ward 1. Johnson said one of his primary goals is to forge a connection between the gay community and religious groups.

"I'm going to sit down and listen to everyone," he said. "If there's one message for today, it's, 'Talk to me.' "

Some people are already working on Johnson's dream of tolerance through religion. Just before the event's noon kickoff, 30 men and women gathered in front of the Church of the Pilgrims at 22nd and P streets to bless the parade and to pray for strength in a world that is not always welcoming to them.

"I will make of the outcasts a strong nation," they pledged again and again. "I will make of the outcasts a strong nation."

CAPTION: Above, Travis Delawder lifts Kristie Davis as they perform a swing dance at the Capital Pride Parade through downtown Washington. Below, brothers Justin Marco, left, and Michael Marco bring along an albino python.