Draped in a transgender flag, Cain Schleuning was overwhelmed with emotion as he looked out among the sea of revelers at Catalina Island’s first-ever Pride celebration on Saturday.
It was Schleuning’s first Pride celebration too.
Schleuning, 19, grew up in a conservative family on the island and worried that he might not be accepted in the small town of 4,000 people he calls home. But on Saturday, as he watched the community celebrate together, those fears fell away.
“All of this really shows that people care and they’ll accept me for me. It’s just lovely to see that I’m not alone,” Schleuning said.
The vibe in Avalon, which sees about a million visitors annually, was particularly joyous on Saturday as several hundred locals and day trippers gathered in the cobblestone courtyard in the town’s heart to celebrate LGBTQ people. Pop hits blasted over the speakers as attendees waved Pride flags and danced.
The island’s first Pride celebration comes at a challenging time for the LGBTQ community. Lawmakers across the country are debating whether transgender children can play in youth sports leagues, teachers have come under scrutiny — and even faced threats — for discussing same-sex relationships in the classroom, and cities across the country have seen a surge of right-wing hate targeted at LGBTQ people.
Earlier this month, police in Idaho arrested 31 members of the white supremacist group Patriot Front near a Pride event that authorities say they were planning to disrupt.
But the feeling among the crowd on Catalina Island was one of happiness, not fear.
Avalon City Councilman Michael Ponce, 66, said it wasn’t until Friday that he had any concerns about protesters possibly arriving alongside supporters. He quickly dismissed the idea.
“For me, it was more like, are they really willing to spend that kind of money to come over here and protest?” Ponce said. “There’s just nothing positive coming out of their message. They have every right to say what they want, but it’s hurtful and hateful.”
The crowd, which started with a handful of people listening to live music and comedy performances Saturday morning, had blossomed by noon for the Pride Walk. Roughly 200 people trekked about a mile along the island’s shore, from Wrigley Stage to the Catalina Casino and back. The crowd sang along to Diana Ross’ hit song “I’m Coming Out.”
I want the world to know. Got to let it show.
A man on a paddleboard flashed the “hang loose” sign as the crowd passed. Visitors on golf carts honked and shouted. A man wearing a Hawaiian shirt standing outside the yacht club gave high-fives and told attendees, “Thanks for being you.”
Lori Snell, 64, who for two decades has owned a home in Avalon with her partner, Kate, was overwhelmed by the turnout. The community, which she said is fairly conservative and religious, stepped up to make them feel welcome, she said.
Students at the high school recently formed a gay-straight alliance. Bullying on campus, particularly of LGBTQ youths, has prompted outreach from city officials.
“It is just so important to be inclusive for everyone, and this is a very inclusive community in general, but the gays are underrepresented,” Snell said. “For this to be such a big deal is just so appreciated.”
Snell and her partner met at the Los Angeles Pride celebration 34 years ago. In 2004, they were among several thousand couples who were illegally married in San Francisco in a political and legal challenge to California’s ban on same-sex marriage.
“I’ve never felt so old,” Snell said as she watched a group of teenagers pass by. “It’s a new generation of kids who are out and proud and comfortable. And it’s fabulous.”