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At Boise's first Pridefest, people had to hide behind masks. Now thousands celebrate.

A rainbow beams through Downtown Boise with Pride

Supporters of LGBTQ and human rights rally on the steps of the Idaho Statehouse and parade through Downtown Boise during Boise Pride Fest.
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Supporters of LGBTQ and human rights rally on the steps of the Idaho Statehouse and parade through Downtown Boise during Boise Pride Fest.

The floats at the Boise Pride Festival have changed drastically over nearly three decades. Dallas Chase knows this well.

Chase, 71, attended the first festival in Boise, an informal gathering in 1989. She was part of the team that built the first "float." It consisted of a borrowed wagon from her neighbor decorated with painted cardboard.

"It was done in secret in my garage," Chase said.

In those days, Chase said festivalgoers wore masks to avoid having their identities revealed. Anti-gay protesters would line the streets, dressed in black and holding aggressive, defamatory signs, said Robert Franklin, who was also at the first Boise festival.

In 2018, the 29th edition of the event, Boise was awash with rainbows — and supporters. There were no protesters standing in intimidation; instead, there were allies, all enjoying a beautiful morning at Cecil Andrus Park near the Capitol.

That was a fitting setting, too. Despite much progress over the past three decades for the LGBTQ community, Idaho's Republican-dominated Legislature has refused to add the words "gender identity" and "sexual orientation" to the state's Human Rights Act to prevent gay, transgender and bisexual people from being discriminated against.

But the thousands of people in Downtown Boise on Saturday were not about to let that put a damper on Pridefest.

“I’ve been taking pictures. I can't believe the rainbow flag is all over town. I can't believe the rainbow flag is on City Hall.," Franklin said. “It’s changed so much.”

That wagon Chase built so long ago? It's no longer needed. KISS 103.5-FM sponsored a big rig for the parade, complete with sound systems and DJs. A massive rainbow flag draped the steps of the Capitol, while rainbow banners and signs reading #IamBoise have lined streets of the city for weeks.

This year's Boise Pride Festival began Friday. Between the two-day festivities at the park and Capitol, and a vibrant night scene Downtown, about 50,000 people were expected to attend in some capacity, Boise Pride Festival Board President Michael Dale said.

June is LGBT Pride Month; cities all around the country hold festivals throughout the month. In Boise, what was once a small gathering of scared attendees has turned into a party/celebration/family event that is more carnival than political statement.

Dale and Boise Pride Festival vice president Andrew Bunt said there has been a concerted effort over the years to make the festival more community-oriented.

“Our goal was to change it kind of from a two-day festival in a park and in the bars to a community event," Dale said. "Get families, kids, allies really embracing beyond the LGBTQ community, and find the support from those allies and businesses that support us, not only this weekend, but year-round.”

Bunt, 34, grew up in Boise. He remembers being a freshman at Borah High School and attending the festival; he would hold his jacket up by his face to hide, because he wasn't sure whether someone from school or the community might see him.

On Friday, Bunt said he walked by old classmates who congratulated him on putting on a great event.

“It’s almost like if you’re not here, it’s more surprising," Bunt said. “It’s changed so fast.”

Brand names such as Tito's Vodka, Coors, Wells Fargo and T-Mobile had tents with activities and free swag; Mad Mac and other food trucks lined the streets. Children and dogs wore rainbow bandannas, and thousands carried rainbow flags.

One of the new sponsors of the festival in 2018 was Albertsons. The Boise-born grocer had a booth with a prize wheel, gift certificates and free sunglasses.

“It's really important to reflect the changes in the community and changes in the Treasure Valley. And we want to support those, support our community," said Albertsons spokeswoman Kathy Holland. "I think coming to this event over the two days and seeing how diverse our community is and embracing that is very exciting — that we’re not that stereotype that other states think that we are.”

Of course, it wasn't just fun and games Saturday. Several speakers, including Mayor Dave Bieter, talked about the need for greater acceptance, love, equality and fairness. Some speakers shared harrowing stories of coming out, of being shunned by family, of internal conflict.

But there were no mobs of people dressed in black among the thousands lining the sidewalk and road on Jefferson Street. Instead, in near unison, the crowd chanted: "We are resilient. We are powerful. We are strong."

What a difference 29 years makes.

“We thought it was a real milestone when 1,000 people showed up," Chase said. “We were just talking to a 16-year-old who’s been here for five years. These youth aren’t afraid.”