A jubilant crowd marched through downtown D.C. Saturday to celebrate the return of Pride, flooding into Freedom Plaza shoulder to shoulder and mostly unmasked to mark a moment that felt to many like a milestone in the coronavirus pandemic.

Pride’s organizers hadn’t thought such a march would be possible, but about a week ago, the opportunity presented itself as the District loosened its coronavirus restrictions, and they hurried to pull it together.

As people filtered into Dupont Circle around noon, Finn Gantz, 20, stood close to its center watching the crowd massing. He had felt the excitement growing as he took the Metro into Washington on Saturday. It was his first Pride.

“I just wanted to come feel all the love and acceptance,” he said.

As the march began, 32-year-old Qween Amor climbed onto a police car and started dancing, but for the most part, the
two-mile walk was fairly casual as it went along P Street NW and down 13th Street. People carried or wore as capes the rainbow flags that are the most recognized symbol of Pride, but many hoisted the blue, pink and white stripes that celebrate transgender people.

After a year of pandemic restrictions and sharply limited social lives, veterans of Pride and newcomers alike said they were glad to be there.

“It’s more old school,” said Kelly Tejada, 50.

She hadn’t planned on joining the march, but as she prepared to set off, Tejada said being there had filled her soul.

“I love the scale,” she said. “It feels local. Intimate.”

Joe Schiavone, 58, walked hand in hand with his partner, Cory Varner, 61. They met during the pandemic and are planning to get married this year.

The crowds were bigger than Schiavone anticipated, and he said the freedom to show up, be who he is and not wear a mask was exciting.

“It truly feels like a milestone,” he said. “It’s huge.”

At one point, Vice President Harris and her husband, second gentleman Doug Emhoff, briefly joined the crowds. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser was there, too.

Tashi Cowen, 50, had traveled from Austin to join the festivities, part of a year-long birthday celebration she’s been throwing herself.

“Look at all of us out here without masks on,” she said. “Our smiles are so beautiful.”

As 13th Street sloped downhill, Cowen looked ahead.

“Oh my God, look at all the people,” she said.

Saturday marked the biggest day in the city’s month-long celebration of Pride. The traditional parade was replaced with a car caravan organizers called a Pridemobile Parade that was set to wend its way through the city for three hours.

Last year, organizers of Pride events around the country scrambled to set up virtual events as the coronavirus pandemic raged. In Washington, the festivities this year remain slimmed-down versions of themselves from before the pandemic. Moves to reopen the District and lift pandemic restrictions as people have been vaccinated against the coronavirus came too late to overhaul plans.

Ashley Smith, president of the Capital Pride Alliance board, said organizing the march on such short notice was “stressful and exciting at the same time.”

Organizers said they wanted to create a safe atmosphere that respects people’s still varying levels of comfort, and there were some signs of the ongoing pandemic. At one point, someone announced over a sound system that coronavirus vaccinations were on offer, and a cheer went up from the crowd. Some people did wear masks, but many more left them off. Those who were vaccinated said they were comfortable in a crowd without one.

In Freedom Plaza, Barbara Michaelman, 55, held up a sign offering “free mom hugs.” She said she’d probably embraced 75 people in the space of a few hours and joked that she was putting the efficacy of her inoculation to the test.

“This is why I got vaccinated,” she said.

For all that the mood was celebratory, Pride continues to serve as a way to build awareness and acceptance of communities that face marginalization and mistreatment. That was why Michaelman wanted to show up, she said.

“You would not believe the things I’ve heard from kids,” she said. “We’ve got kids right here whose parents don’t accept them.”

Amor, who had been dancing on a police car, sat off to the side of the plaza. She said transgender people in particular are still fighting for recognition. As the Biden administration seeks to protect transgender rights, many conservatives are seeking to limit them, picking girls’ high school sports as their battleground.

Amor is from New Orleans and plans to travel to pride events across the country, something she said isn’t without risk for her.

“I survive through my community,” she said.

On Pennsylvania Avenue, cars, SUVs and even a utility truck lined up ready for the parade, decked out in rainbows. A few people lined up to watch them depart, but a dance party brewing in the plaza held more appeal for most.

As the afternoon wore on, the crowds thinned some, but those who remained were more energetic as they jumped and danced along to music.

Later, the clubs would begin to open, newly freed of capacity limits. Preston Solla, 20, and his friends were looking forward to it: “Once it’s nighttime, this is going to get big.”