HARRISONBURG — For the thousands of people attending the fifth annual Shenandoah Valley Pride Festival, it wasn’t only about having fun — it was also about being accepted in a safe environment.
For the last five years, the Shenandoah Valley Pride Alliance has been hosting a Pride Festival in Harrisonburg to celebrate the community through diversity. With this year’s festival the first to be held in September, downtown Harrisonburg saw its largest crowd yet.
The day was filled with performances from local drag queens, refreshments supporting local businesses and heart-shaped stickers resembling the pride flag on attendees’ clothes.
For Michele Sullivan, executive board member for the Shenandoah Valley Pride Alliance, the hours of planning and setting up were worth it.
“If I looked out in that crowd and saw one person who was their absolute self, it makes a difference,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said 5,000 people were out attending Saturday’s event, which makes it the biggest celebration to date.
“The whole idea was to make it a family-friendly event and to make it a safe place for people to come out and express themselves,” Sullivan said. “I am amazed at the amount of young people here because they really are our future.”
James Madison University students Samantha Dull, Caroline Fleury and Sadie Rosenfeld attend the Pride Festival to not only show support to the LGBTQ+ community, but also to celebrate their own identities.
“This is the first time I have accepted my LGBTQ+ lifestyle, and I couldn’t resist coming out and supporting others,” Dull said.
Saturday’s Pride Festival was Dull’s first pride event, saying the feeling she had while being there was like no other.
“I feel proud to be here…my chest has tingles,” Dull said.
The sense of pride, however, came later to Fleury as she said she was worried about attending the Pride Festival due to the possibility of gun violence.
‘I didn’t know Harrisonburg had a Pride Festival and when I found out, I was nervous to come,” Fleury said. “But I came to stand up for myself.”
Fleury attend the Pride Festival with her girlfriend, Rosenfeld, and the couple has been together for the last year and a half.
The two met through one of JMU’s organizations Alpha Phi Omega, a co-ed service fraternity founded on leadership, friendship and service.
Fleury and Rosenfeld have attended Washington D.C.’s annual Pride Festival as well as a Pride Festival held in Rosenfeld’s hometown of Frederick, Maryland.
Rosenfeld said she attends Pride Festivals to “show support and to be an ally.”
“It is about being who I am with people who support me,” Rosenfeld said.
Rosenfeld said having the festival in Harrisonburg makes her excited for the future.
“Harrisonburg is a rural area and to see people come out…it is a great feeling to be accepted from where you are living and exciting to be with who you love. It makes me emotional,” Rosenfeld said.
The sense of love and acceptance hovered over the Free Mom Hugs booth at the festival where mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters were giving out hugs to anyone who wanted one.
Free Mom Hugs was formed in 2014 by Sara Cunningham, an Oklahoma mother who had to choose between her faith and her child who had come out as gay, according to the organization’s website. To fight for her son, Cunningham left her church and started going to her local pride parade offering free hugs or high fives, which would later start a movement across the country.
The movement caught on to Shirley Carley, who traveled from Midlothian to attend Saturday’s Pride Festival.
Carley is the Virginia chapter president of Free Mom Hugs and attends pride events throughout the state.
On Saturday, the chapter traveled to Harrisonburg to continue the mission of giving hugs.
“My heart is so full today,” Carley said. “To share the love and be somewhere where people can be themselves, I can’t help but smile.”
Carley said giving out hugs was important because there are many young people get kicked out of their homes for being LGBTQ+ or may have not come out yet.
“We give hugs to those who don’t get them,” Carley said.
Carley said she started attending Richmond’s Pride Festival three years ago, sporting a Free Mom Hugs sticker on her walker. This year will be the first year Carley will attend the Richmond’s Pride Festival as an official Free Mom Hugs member.
“Love is love, and love is why we do this,” Carley said.