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Strong police security for thousands at Philly LGBT Pride Parade

A robust, uniformed police presence reassured participants at the city's annual PrideDay LGBT Pride Parade and Festival on Sunday as they celebrated their sexual identities, though stunned and saddened by the Orlando gay nightclub massacre.

Jerome Kurtenbach, of the Philadelphia Gay Chorus, performs for the judges on Market Street during the Gay Pride Parade on Sunday.
Jerome Kurtenbach, of the Philadelphia Gay Chorus, performs for the judges on Market Street during the Gay Pride Parade on Sunday.Read moreMichael Bryant / Staff Photographer

A robust, uniformed police presence reassured participants at the city's annual PrideDay LGBT Pride Parade and Festival on Sunday as they celebrated their sexual identities, though stunned and saddened by the Orlando gay nightclub massacre.

At Penn's Landing, two U.S. Coast Guard vessels plied the Delaware River behind the stage, bolstering an army of Philadelphia Police ringing the crowded festival site.

"It's quite obvious that what's occurred in Orlando is very much on [festival attendees'] minds," Philadelphia Chief Inspector Joe Sullivan said. He said police beefed up planned security "to show just a little bit more visible presence. . . . We really felt that it would probably be reassuring for the community to see police officers nearby."

Several participants said they had been fearful, but were comforted by seeing so many police.

"I'm scared," said Deann Cox, founder of Southern New Jersey LGBTQ Pride, who quickly added that she was heartened by "the extreme police presence."

Police issued a statement saying that although they had no information "regarding any direct threat to this city," they have increased their "awareness and presence."

Cox said that when she woke up Sunday morning, her girlfriend told her about the Orlando shootings, which killed 50 and injured 53.

"My first response was surprise it hadn't happened before," she said. "We are such an open, friendly community that we're very susceptible. I hope there isn't a stream of these attacks. I hope today is safe here."

After the Orlando killings, police departments around the country - including Los Angeles, Miami, Boston, and Baltimore - increased patrols near popular LGBT areas and for Gay Pride events.

In Santa Monica, Calif., authorities said they found possible explosives and assault rifles and ammunition in the car of an Indiana man who said he was in town for the L.A. Pride festival in West Hollywood. Officials said they were increasing security at the event there.

Gov. Wolf, who recently signed two executive orders expanding Pennsylvania protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, called the Orlando killings "a national tragedy."

"We must unite and work together to prevent these horrific acts of violence that are far too frequent in communities and places where residents should feel safe," he said.

Wolf ordered U.S. and Pennsylvania state flags to be flown at half-staff at public buildings in the state in honor of the Orlando victims.

A vigil is planned for 6:30 p.m. Monday on the northeast side of City Hall at the flagpoles.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput denounced the killings as "horrific," saying "innocent and precious lives were lost in a senseless and evil way" and "fill all of us with unspeakable sadness."

Police reported no incidents among the thousands of people who turned out for Philadelphia's parade and festival.

Deja Lynn Alvarez, director of the LGBTQ Home for Hope, which she described as Philadelphia's only LGBTQ-specific shelter and recovery home, said she was concerned that the killings would affect the day's turnout, but "I knew we would be heavily protected by the Philadelphia Police."

"After all the media attention to the hot battle over transgender bathrooms, it was only a matter of time before the LGBT community became a target. For some, it's not enough to deny us equality. Some literally want to kill us."

Alvarez said the Orlando killings will force her to be less open, less trusting at her LGBTQ Home for Hope in North Philadelphia. "I'll make sure the front door is locked at all times," she said.

Philadelphia Police Officer Jo Mason, president of the year-old Gay Officers Action League (GOAL), which serves LGBTQ law enforcement personnel in the city and suburbs, said the news from Orlando reminded him of 25 years ago, "when we were told to make sure we walked in pairs, never alone, and that we were always aware of the quickest way out."

He said that despite the advances since toward inclusion, equality, and openness, "that feeling from 25 years ago has always kind of been there."

One dramatic sign of LGBT inclusion and equality progress? The festival booth next door to GOAL was a Philadelphia Police recruiting station.

Thousands cheered the colorful pre-festival parade of marching bands, floats, beaded necklace-throwing, and street performances on Locust Street and then down Market Street to Penn's Landing - but the tragedy was heavy on their minds.

Before the Philadelphia Gay Men's Chorus thrilled crowds with its rendition of "We Are Family," Paul Grossman, 37, of Point Breeze, a member for 15 years, said: "You have to live your life; you can't live in fear. . . . Pride is about showing ourselves to the world."

Fellow chorus member, Steve Quinn, 51, of East Falls said, "Sad that in 2016, we're still getting attacked." But, he added: "We're not going anywhere. There's even more of a reason to come out."

Emily Lauck, 19, of Port Richmond, said she didn't come out as gay until she left high school, because "people don't like what's different." Her first time at Philly Pride impressed her - "Wow!" she said - even though, after the Pulse nightclub tragedy, "it's really scary. But I don't think anyone should stop being themselves. Coming here and being proud is a big step in the direction I personally want to be going in."

Shortly after the parade reached Penn's Landing, Mayor Kenney officiated the marriage of Virginia Gutierrez, 64, and Sherrie Cohen, 61, in an onstage ceremony as crowds cheered. Cohen said it was important to the Philadelphia couple, together for almost 13 years, that they share their marriage ceremony with their community. "This moment would not be possible for us were it not for the work of the LGBT movement," she explained.

After the couple exchanged rings, Gutierrez asked for a moment of silence for the Orlando victims. Kenney then said, "This is why we have to all continue coming out, being seen, and being proud of being out together."

Gutierrez said it was "heartbreaking" to wake up to the Orlando news Sunday morning.

"It brought tears to my eyes, but you know what? It's not going to dampen my spirits, it's not going to make me love any less. We just have to stand up to these haters, and not let them overtake our happiness."

Mark Jackson, 22, who recently moved to Philadelphia from South Jersey, said his mother was worried about him this morning after hearing the news from Orlando. He thought about not attending. "But I'm glad I came out - it's a great atmosphere so far."

Jackson came out as gay when he was in seventh grade. He said fear of violence is a big part of his memories of coming to terms with his sexuality in middle school. "I almost didn't come out, because you had people who would, you know, stalk my house. They would follow me home," he said.

Christine Thiffault, 52, of Flemington, N.J., said the shootings reminded her that, as a lesbian, she is no stranger to having an underlying fear for her own safety. "When I came out as gay several decades ago, you were always worried about police. Fear has always been a part of the older generation's experience," she said, recalling the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots, when police clashed with gays in Greenwich Village in New York.

On Sunday, police were a massive, reassuring presence during the parade and festival.

Philadelphia gay community leaders such as Malcolm Lazin said the Orlando tragedy is "a reminder that as much progress as the gay community has made, there's still an incredible amount of pushback and hate in America." Lazin is founder of the Equality Forum, an LGBT civil rights group based in Philadelphia.

State Rep. Brian Sims (D., Phila.), the first openly gay candidate elected to the legislature, said the Orlando attack made him "furious," because it appeared to be targeted and premeditated.

Helen "Nellie" Fitzpatrick, director of Philadelphia's Office of LGBT Affairs, said she was "absolutely devastated."

"I feel gutted and horrified and scared and at a loss for how to even begin to put all of the feelings into words that make any sense," Fitzpatrick said.

Mark Segal, publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, said the killings will not intimidate the gay community.

"You can no longer keep us in the closet; you can no longer think an act of violence will stop our march toward equality," he said. "The gunman, if he thought he was going to stop this community, was totally misguided.

Lazin echoed similar themes. "Whenever there's a mass shooting like this," he said, "I think we all recoil. Knowing that it was based on what appears to be hate, it makes the crime all the more odious."