Henry Palma’s large pride flag waved fiercely through the wind Saturday evening as he stood against a metal gate separating spectators from the parade yet to start.
For Palma, who drove to downtown Houston from Conroe for the 45th-annual Houston Pride Parade, the celebration was a special occasion. It’s been two years since Palma began fully accepting himself as bisexual — and attending the festivities was a goal of his.
“I always knew about the Pride Parade, but I never got to come down here to enjoy it,” Palma said. “For me, this means a lot. I’m the only one of the family that’s out. … It’s taking me time to adjust, to be where I’m at, and today I decided to come and just say, ‘I don’t need to be kind hiding from people.’”
Palma’s first reaction as he set up to wait for the parade was that this “just feels like home,” he said, adding that the people and environment made him feel “like you are not alone.”
Palma was indeed not alone, as people crowded downtown for the annual main event and culmination of the city’s Pride celebration of the LGBTQ+ community.
As in years past, the crowd played music and danced, inviting anyone willing to join in the joyful celebration. Vendors and attendees lined the sidewalks, some with tents and chairs. Others set up tables to play beer pong.
The celebration followed a bruising Texas legislative session this spring for the state’s LGBTQ+ community, which opposed several bills passed by the Republican-led legislature that restricted their rights.
“It’s mainly about visibility,” said Jose Alfredo Martinez, who traveled from Oklahoma to attend the parade. “Coming to this makes me feel seen and like I don’t have to just put my head down when somebody bullies me.”
But Saturday’s Pride festivities were more subdued than years past.
Pride Houston 365, which organizes the events, limited daytime activities after excessive heat marred events in 2022. Some attendees said they noticed a smaller crowd this year after an estimated 850,000 people attended last year.
Last year, cooling buses were full within two hours of afternoon festivities starting and the city’s downtown library had to be opened for overheated attendees. About 100 people sought medical help, with 12 transported to area hospitals.
Temperatures approached 100 degrees in the afternoon Saturday before dipping into the low 90s when the parade started.
Organizers chose this year to spread the festivities throughout June, capping them with the parade and an official afterparty. The pre-parade events included a “Welcome to Wakanda”-themed fashion show on Thursday and the Eden All Girl+ Party on Friday.
Pride Houston 365 organizers are also dealing with rising security, marketing, insurance and other costs, which totaled nearly $675,000 for last year’s celebration. They noted that some expenses more than tripled between 2019 and 2022. (The festivities were canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic.)
In turn, organizers are considering options for moving the parade’s location in 2024, a change that couldn’t have been pulled off this year.
“As a collective, it was decided after last year’s debacle — and ‘debacle’ because people got injured — it is in the best interest of our community to move the festival,” Pride Houston 365 spokesperson Tiffany Scales said. “Again, it’s a 44-year-old celebration and tradition. It takes more than a few days.”
Some attendees said they want the parade and celebration to return to Houston’s Montrose neighborhood, which hosted the event for its first 36 years. Organizers have already described that prospect as nearly impossible because it would require shutting down the entire area, but the wishful thinking of those who remember that era remained.
“It was a lot of fun in Montrose and it was close to the bars,” said Sandy Jordan, a Houston-area local who has attended about 15 Houston Pride Parades. “I remember when The B-52s came down for the Pride Parade and we were on top of the Mary’s (Bar) and floats came down Westheimer and it was The B-52s playing ‘Love Shack.’”
Still, many attendees said the downtown location’s ample parking and proximity to neighborhoods like Montrose made such celebrations accessible and visible to all.
“Montrose was a little wild … but it was a good time,” said Melissa Hodges, who returned to the Pride Parade on Saturday after a multiyear absence, this time with two of her children who came out as nonbinary.
“Now, as a mom, and this being the first one (for them), it’s just really nice for them to get to see that there’s a community out there for them, and get to see like minded people, not feel so alone.”
Safety and security concerns linked to heat, hateful political rhetoric and ongoing attacks against the LGBTQ+ community are also affecting the number of volunteers, staff and sponsors.
Scales said the number of volunteers drastically dropped for the second straight year. Organizers said they had 90 percent fewer volunteer and staff commitments in 2022 when compared to 2019. An official number of volunteers and staff was not made available before the event.
This year, however, Scales said the “can-do” attitude of those involved kept the celebration moving in a positive direction.
“To me, my favorite part is to see the people, everybody celebrating,” said Kevin Johnson, who estimated that he’s attended 10 Houston Pride Parades. “Tonight, I was touched by the mothers that stood up for their children … That’s what it’s about. Just being proud and getting to celebrate that moment.”
Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story listed an incorrect start time in prior years for the Houston Pride Parade.