One year after drag performances ignited uproar on the central Kenai Peninsula, members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community returned to Soldotna Creek Park on Saturday for a day of festivities to celebrate Pride Month.
Participants in Saturday’s Soldotna Pride in the Park event were a river of rainbows as they walked the 1.7 miles from the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex to the park.
Some donned tulle tutus in the hues of LGBTQIA+ flags while others walked dogs wrapped in vibrant bandanas, and all were united in the day’s mission to celebrate and uplift the central peninsula residents of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
The event was the sixth year Soldotna has held a Pride march and the third year there’s been a Pride festival.
Waiting at the park for the group, which announced its arrival with chants of “Love is Love!”, were food trucks, vendors and a lineup of performers that included comedy, drag and music.
The day’s performances kicked off with an acoustic guitar set by Will Johnson, who serenaded the crowd while kids ran around with snow cones and couples munched on egg waffles.
Artist Shannon Cefalu was selling epoxy casts with her sibling at Saturday’s event. Laying out a table of small epoxy pieces swirled with colors in different patterns, Cefalu said inspiration for the pieces is subject to the “whim of the artist.” She’s experimented with materials like fabric paint and nail polish, but said many pieces have Pride colors incorporated.
“I’m bi and asexual, so it’s really important for me to get involved, which is why I’ve been trying to include Pride stuff for a long time,” Cefalu said.
This year’s vendors didn’t just include local artists and creators, but also a trove of other resource-based organizations. Among the groups represented were Choosing Our Roots, which helps connect queer youth in Alaska with housing, and Identity Alaska, a nonprofit community center that provides services to Alaska’s LGBTQIA+ community.
Returning after a year of controversy
The theme of this year’s Soldotna Pride event was “Nobody Can Drag Us Down” — a reference to a drag performance held as part of last year’s Soldotna Pride in the Park event that sparked fierce backlash from some community members and prompted the implementation of new city policies about how park events are advertised.
Shortly after last year’s event, a short video of drag queen Brenden Badd doing backflips as part of a performance in Soldotna Creek Park circulated widely on social media.
Some dubbed the performance obscene because Brenden’s costume simulated nudity, while others said the dance is a form of expression protected under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
For months, in the Soldotna City Council chambers, critics calling for new city obscenity laws clashed with allies and members of the LGBTQIA+ community, who said they were being unfairly targeted.
Following months of work by the City of Soldotna — with input from the public — the Soldotna City Council earlier this year was presented with, and voted down, a package of legislation that would have adopted citywide and park-specific lewdness and lascivious behavior policies and would have made such behavior a fineable offense.
Former Soldotna City Manager Stephanie Queen described the group of legislation as the city’s “best effort” to address community concerns and said the policies were developed with input from the city’s attorney, Brooks Chandler.
In voting the legislation down, council members said much of the behavior the ordinances looked to prevent is already illegal in state law. They also noted that, had the ordinances been in place last year, the drag performance of concern would still have been allowed to occur.
Organizers Leslie Byrd, David Brighton and Tina Hamlin led this year’s Pride organization efforts. The day before Soldotna’s 2023 Pride event, they visited the Clarion to talk about what has and hasn’t changed over the last year. This year’s theme of “Nobody Can Drag Us Down,” they said, is a direct response to the last year.
“We’ve spent an entire year dealing with the backlash of some people that didn’t come to the event but saw some things online and became very angry and started trying to legislate our ability to have an event out of existence,” Brighton said. “It was frustrating to go to city council meeting after city council meeting and see them come up with language that would not have eliminated the event that we had last year.”
While many who voiced concerns about last year’s performance said their gripe was about perceived obscenity or lewdness and not with LGBTQIA+ individuals, others who testified before the city council espoused views that directly denigrated members of that community.
On Saturday, there was little sign of the controversy of the past year. A small group of protesters holding signs with phrases like “God bless traditional marriage” followed marchers to the park, but had largely disbursed by 11:45 a.m.
Staying true to Pride
Brighton said Pride organizers tried to be mindful this year of the input given over the last year.
This year’s drag performers, for example, signed contracts that clearly outlined what they could and could not do as part of their performances.
“We were very, very specific in this contract to them,” Hamlin said.
The event also included for the first time a 21-year-old-and-up “Pride After Dark” event held later that evening at the Bow Bar in Kenai, where drag performers were able to put on their regular show.
“We are cognizant of what’s happened in the community this past year and we are willing to make changes to try to have a family friendly event and not stir up controversy,” Brighton said. “ … What I’m not willing to do is I’m not willing to change what Pride is and what we’re doing in order to placate people that we will never make happy.”
Byrd said organizers talked to the Soldotna Police Department and to the Soldotna Parks and Recreation Department ahead of this year’s event to ensure preparation work had been completed. She thinks the event saw more support this year because of the backlash that came from last year’s performances, which she said targeted their group.
“I think people see how we have been targeted and how we’ve worked so hard to make this event happen,” Byrd said. “I think a lot of people respect that.”
This year’s performers included drag artists Athena Nuff, BeyQuance, Jasper Dragful and Sage Yuhseff, among others. From backflips in stilettos, to dance moves on the lawn, all of the artists brought high energy and passion to Soldotna.
Prior to the dances, which capped the day’s activities, Jasper also presented a brief history of drag as an art form — from men who dressed as women while performing the works of William Shakespeare to the general exclusion of women from Kabuki.
“Not only does this art form have a long-standing tradition, but the concept that, ‘We’re here and we’re queer,’ is a total through line for history,” Jasper said.
Changes to large events
Also waiting at the park for marchers were large sandwich board-style signs advertising upcoming large park events. The signs were new this year, and evidence of all the work that went into reviewing park policies after last year’s Pride event.
Incoming Soldotna Parks and Recreation Director Joel Todd said Monday that the department did not implement changes specific to Saturday’s Pride event, but rather has generally boosted notices of large events that happen at the park in response to community concerns.
“Over the past year, we did hear concerns from our community that it is hard to plan a trip to the playground without running into a large event or festival at the park,” Todd said.
The department has added large event calendars at Soldotna Creek Park and online, and will soon launch an online calendar that shows all events happening at parks and recreation facilities. Those facilities include the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, park pavilions and the park.
Mondays and Tuesdays are now also blackout days for the Soldotna Creek Park, meaning no large events will occur on those days. That policy means people won’t have to check a calendar to see if they’ll run into any large events at the park before deciding to visit on a Monday or Tuesday.
“We want this park to be enjoyable to all our community members, those who love big events, and those who enjoy it for a quiet lunch stop in the sunshine,” Todd said.