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SALT LAKE CITY — The return of the Utah Pride Center's annual festival, parade and march was met with a warm welcome by 70,000 participants this weekend.
The typical festivities had been adapted during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the usual parade and festival canceled due to social distancing concerns. This year, crowds returned in the thousands to enjoy more events, festival space, food vendors, an extended parade route and the sense of community some said they craved during the festival's absence.
"After the pandemic, I just really wanted to come back out again. I used to walk in the parade most years," said attendee Eris Sinclair. "I guess distance makes the heart grow weary."
Sunday's extended parade route allowed for additional social distancing and more access points for thousands of attendees to enter. The Utah Pride Festival says it is the largest pride celebration in the West per capita, a fact that was evident as the streets were filled with color and music.
The waving flags and celebrations signaled an entire community showing up for one another.
"I was fortunate enough to have a family that has supported me from day one. I've been married to my wife now for three years and we've been together for 11 years," said Erica Brown. "But for me, personally, it's nice to be cruising around my neighborhood and seeing Pride flags. It's just nice to see that support."
Another attendee, Azia Lookei, added that visual support and community are especially important for Utah's youth.
"A lot of times when suicides happen and a lot of mental health happens it's ... because families don't accept their kids for the people that they love or the people that they are," Lookei said. "Having a community like this shows you're accepted and even if the people that are directly related to you don't accept you for who you are, there are other people who are going to love you and will accept you."
Suicide was the leading cause of death for Utahns ages 10 to 17 and 18 to 24 in 2020, according to data from the Utah Department of Health. It is the second-leading cause of death for ages 25 to 44 and the fifth-leading cause of death for ages 45 to 64. Suicide is the eighth-leading cause of death for Utahns.
While suicide is a prevalent issue for many Utahns, especially youths, those who identify as part of the LGBTQ community are more at risk. Rates for suicide attempts are three to four times higher for individuals who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual, according to the Trevor Project. Those who identify as transgender experience rates eight to 10 times higher.
The suicide rates of transgender youths were among the reasons cited by Gov. Spencer Cox when he vetoed HB111, which banned transgender girls from participating in girls high school sports.
"I must admit, I am not an expert on transgenderism. I struggle to understand so much of it and the science is conflicting. When in doubt, however, I always try to err on the side of kindness, mercy and compassion. I also try to get proximate and I am learning so much from our transgender community. They are great kids who face enormous struggles," he wrote. "I don't understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. But I want them to live. And all the research shows that even a little acceptance and connection can reduce suicidality significantly."
Cox's veto was later overriden by the Utah Legislature.
The bill was among the topics during the Rainbow Rally and Glow March held during the week of events. The Utah Pride Center called for attendees to unite and rally to fight what they described as LGBTQ book banning, 'Don't Say Gay' laws, trans athletes rights, gay and bisexual women's issues, the erasure of LGBTQ history and the denial of transgender health care coverage.
To Halle Hansen, pride festivities present an opportunity to protest such growing issues.
"Pride is all about inclusivity and with that, you have to be more aware of women's rights and overall rights for everyone, no matter what gender you are," Hansen said.
Brown encouraged the removal of politics.
"With all politics, no matter what side you're on, it's all subjective, right? Just be a good person, just be open-minded and at the end of the day, come together. We're all human," said Brown.