Wearing a large rainbow flag as a cape that billowed in the hot breeze, Geoffrey Hutchinson slipped through the crowd swarming Pennsylvania Avenue NW on Sunday. As he sipped lemonade amid the revelry of the Capital Pride festival, he felt liberated.
The openly gay Navy linguist, 23, was working a table at OutServe, an association for active-duty LGBT military personnel that promotes respect for sexual orientation and gender identity. Hutchinson has been in the Navy for five years, but this weekend was his first time marching in the annual parade and participating in the festival. In a post-“don’t ask, don’t tell” era, it was a significant moment in his life.
“I feel more free; I can be myself,” Hutchinson said. “I can be part of society and serve my country just like everyone else.”
Capital Pride welcomed thousands of visitors to its event a few blocks from Capitol Hill, more than 300 vendors waving rainbow flags while participants raised awareness for nonprofit organizations, gay rights and sexual health. The festival, one of the largest Pride Day gatherings in the United States, aims to celebrate and embrace being part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, and the scorching heat did not deter participants who moved among the booths and displays.
The festival comes after a tumultuous but triumphant few months for the LGBT community, including the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy being overturned , President Obama’s recent open support for same-sex marriage and Maryland’s passage of a law allowing same-sex marriage. But groups in Maryland have been collecting signatures to put a marriage referendum on November’s ballot, and North Carolina voters passed a constitutional amendment in May that defines marriage as solely between a man and a woman.
Marylanders for Marriage Equality were at the festival, asking passersby to sign their petition. Ilyssa Yousem, 20, a volunteer for the organization, said she was well received at the festival.
“Everyone wants to sign; everyone’s so supportive,” Yousem said. “It doesn’t hurt that the president is supportive, too.”
Heather Kerstetter, keeping cool with a Slurpee, spent her 23rd birthday visiting the festival booths. It was her first time attending Capital Pride, as she moved to the District in August. She said the festival was much bigger than one she attended in Orlando. Her favorite booth: the Human Rights Campaign’s.
“I want to work for them so badly,” Kerstetter said. “What they do is incredible. I love everything they stand for.”
Kerstetter, who came out at 14, said that in addition to marriage equality, she thinks transgender equality is the next big issue for the LGBT community to tackle. She hopes the public continues to work to understand the gay community. “D.C. is a great place for being gay, and I just want people to be happy and be themselves for a weekend,” she said.
Hutchinson said he thinks there are service members who remain hesitant to disclose their orientation. He predicts that it’s going to take some time before people are comfortable coming out. For him, the festival was a way to embrace freedom. “Everyone has their own time they feel comfortable with themselves,” he said. “It’s a personal process.”