The marching band stopped playing, and a voice came over the loudspeaker.
“Nina,” the voice said. “She’s here.”
Cheers and roars filled the air near the intersection of North High Street and Goodale Avenue as West, the nationally known Columbus drag queen serving as the grand marshal of the 38th annual Columbus Pride Parade, made her entrance as the parade prepared to step off Saturday morning.
West, wearing a floor-length, two-toned pink dress with a rainbow sash across her shoulders, walked through the crowd toward her float. People snapped photos and waved as she passed. The buzz was contagious.
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Soon, the parade — which was expected to draw 500,000 people, including roughly 13,000 marchers — began on an overcast Saturday. It lasted more than three hours.
Crowds lined High Street along the entire route, which began near Poplar Street in the Short North and ran through Downtown to Rich Street. In some areas, such as near the Greater Columbus Convention Center and around Capitol Square, people were packed 10 rows deep.
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Rainbows, of course, were everywhere — on shirts, on buttons, on beards, on wigs, on flags.
“You don’t have to worry about feeling awkward,” said Chante Rutherford, 20, of Gahanna. “It’s relieving, refreshing and therapeutic in a way.”
Rutherford, attending her second Pride Parade with Jackie Lineberry, 18 of the Northeast Side, waited to see West pass by early in the parade before starting to head north on High Street.
For Lineberry, Pride is overwhelming in a good way. Because she is around people like her, she said she can be carefree.
“I can’t fully be myself at home,” she said.
Tyler Jackson, 23, and William Goheen, 19, were at their fourth Pride Parade, and like Lineberry, the Marion residents said it offers them a place where they can feel comfortable and supported.
Jackson said every year the parade seems to grow in size and, indeed, organizers from Stonewall Columbus expected Saturday’s event to be the largest in its history. The 13,000 marchers were about 5,000 more than in the 2018 parade.
Columbus’ first Pride Parade, in 1981, drew about 200 people.
Columbus Community Pride, an alternative event now in its second year that emphasizes queer, transgender and people of color, also took place Saturday
In recent years, the most heartening change at the Pride Parade has been the growing number of kids and families in attendance, said Mike Pyles, 37, of Lewis Center.
“We’ve got a long ways to go, but it gives us hope,” said Pyles, a Pride attendee for nearly a decade who wore a gray shirt with the word “mate” in rainbow letters. His husband, Jason Farnsworth, 45, wore a blue counterpart shirt that said “soul.”
“Whether it’s rain or sun, it’s always a happy time, a beautiful place to be,” Pyles said.
Like Pyles, Stefanie Scott, 35, of West Liberty, has been going to Pride for years, but Saturday took on a special meaning. While she usually goes with her wife, Brittany, Scott spent the day celebrating with her 15-year-old son, Gage, who wore a shirt reading “Two Moms are Better Than One.”
“I’m here to support my mom,” Gage said.
Scott said Pride is a way to show Gage that “there’s a lot more positivity” toward the LGBTQ community than there is negativity.
There was a tiny contingent of anti-LGBTQ protesters Saturday. But Virginia West, Nina’s drag mother, was unbothered in the lead-up to the parade. While performing the uplifting anthem “This is Me” from “The Greatest Showman,” as some in the crowd sang and clapped to the rhythm, Virginia West confidently marched right up to the protesters, dancing and lip synching the final chorus just feet from them on the sidewalk.
The crowd gathered near the intersection of Goodale and High erupted in applause and, for some, laughter.
When the song ended, Virginia West said, “Love always, always conquers hate.”
Minutes later, the parade began.