There was plenty of pride and also some protest Saturday at an event in Somerset that organizers said was the first LGBTQ+ pride event in southern Kentucky.
Hundreds of people attended the festival held in the plaza in front of the county judicial building downtown, which included art exhibits, yoga, dozens of vendors and several musical acts.
Kat Moses said she and others began working to organize the event after the city council voted down a proposal barring discrimination in housing and other areas based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Versailles recently adopted such a law, joining Lexington, Louisville and 11 other Kentucky cities that have what is called a fairness ordinance.
Moses, of Somerset, said many LGBTQ+ people don’t feel they can be open and don’t feel welcome in the community, where many people are religious conservatives.
As organizers met, the talk often turned to the isolation people felt, Moses said.
Chill Out and Proud 2019 was an effort to change that.
“This was an effort at unity and community,” said Moses. “We really just want to feel welcome in our community and feel like we’re welcomed by our neighbors.”
Heather Renee Alcorn, a Pulaski County woman who said she has been in a relationship with another woman for eight years and is engaged, said the event made her feel accepted in her own town.
“It warms my heart,” she said.
Catherine West, who spoke of having faced harassment, trouble getting a job and homelessness, felt the same.
“I feel like we’re all here for one another,” said West.
In the run-up to the event, people talked about it as a homecoming, Moses said, with many feeling like it was the first time they could be out and “just be who they are.”
People at the festival carried rainbow flags and some wore T-shirts that read “Some people are gay. Get over it.”
Across the street, members of several churches protested, singing Gospel songs and holding signs, including one that said “Homosexuality is a sin. Jesus saves.”
A few of the protesters walked through the crowd of people at the festival at times. At one point, a man with a megaphone shouted at a man in drag, “Don’t you have a fear of the Lord, sir?”
People attending the pride event turned their backs on the protesters and chanted “You are loved” loud enough to drown out the man with the bullhorn.
There were some minor confrontations. One happened when the protesters tried to march through the festival space and people attending the event blocked them, said Joe Beaudoin, who was attending the event.
Police quickly defused the situation and escorted the protesters out of the plaza, Beaudoin said.
He and others lauded the work police did to keep down problems and respect the rights of both sides.
There was a conspicuous police presence at the event, with officers from the Somerset Police Department, the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office and Kentucky State Police.
Somerset police Chief William Hunt said there hadn’t been any significant problems or arrests by mid-afternoon.
There were a handful of protesters wearing T-shirts from the Legion of Saint Ambrose, which the Anti-Defamation League says is a white supremacist group that wants to “rebuild America as a white Christian nation.”
One protester was wearing a black T-shirt that indicated he’d been at 2017 Unite the Right event in Charlottesville, Va., which turned deadly when a man associated with the white supremacists and neo-Nazis at the event rammed his car into a group of counter-protesters, injuring more than a dozen people and killing one.
However, most of those demonstrating against the Somerset event were from mainstream churches not affiliated with neo-Nazi or white supremacist groups.
A drag show that was not part of the festival line-up, but was scheduled to begin at a downtown craft brewery, Jarfly Brewing Company, immediately afterward, was a sore point for some protesters. One had a sign that said “Drag queens leave our kids alone.”
Monte Wells, pastor of Grace Missionary Baptist Church in Science Hill, said he and church members came to stand up for their beliefs, including that homosexuality is wrong.
“We see this as sin,” Wells said. “We want to keep our community holy as possible.”
Not all people of faith agreed with the protesters.
Members of Saint Patrick Episcopal Church in Somerset set up a booth at the pride event.
“We believe that God’s love is for all,” said David M. Eads, senior warden at the congregation. “We welcome all individuals, of every stripe.”
Kasandra McNeil, a church member, said there had been some powerful moments with people at the festival when they realized there was a local church that would welcome them.
Christina Briggs, who was at the event with a group called Free Mom Hugs that encourages people to affirm the LGBTQ+ community, hugged a protester carrying signs with Bible verses.
Briggs said the man asked if she believed in Jesus.
“I said, ‘I think we both do. We just see it differently,’ “ Briggs said.
Rachel Hendricks said there were chapters of the group in Lexington, Louisville and Frankfort, but that organizers set up a Somerset chapter for the event Saturday.
Organizers have also started a local chapter of PFLAG, an organization of LGBTQ+ people and their families and allies that provides support, education and advocacy.
Moses said she hoped Saturday’s event would demonstrate that LGBTQ+ people are not something to be scared of or shunned.
“I think this encourages folks to live out proudly,” Moses said.