People march in the 2018 Bangor Pride Parade. A Belfast pride parade was unlikely to happen this year, but a group of determined teenagers helped to make it possible. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

When no adults would revive the community Pride parade in Belfast, a group of motivated Belfast Area High School students stepped up to make sure that the event — which has been on a pandemic hiatus — happens this year.

Willa Bywater, 17-year-old president of the school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance, said it has been a lot of work to organize the parade — but it’s well worth it.

“I think that this is the Pride parade for Waldo County, and it feels really important,” she said. “After all these years of COVID, it’s important to remind ourselves that we’re all still here and still going.”

Willa Bywater, a Belfast Area High School junior, is helping to organize the city’s Pride parade, which will take place this year on Saturday, June 4. Credit: Courtesy of Arielle Greenberg

Lesbian , Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month is celebrated in June to honor the 1969 Stonewall riots in Manhattan, a tipping point for the gay civil rights movement in the United States. Although parades and festivals are often well-established in larger cities, including in Bangor and Portland, that is not always the case in smaller, rural communities.

In Belfast, the city’s first-ever Pride parade and festival took place in 2016, and became an annual tradition. But no adult organizers had come forward this year to keep the tradition going.

Enter Bywater and other members of the Gender and Sexuality Alliance, which formed at the high school eight years ago.

Bywater, a junior from Belfast, had attended organizing meetings for past Pride events with her mother and enjoyed going to the parades a lot.

“I remember feeling really energized and happy. I’ve always really loved a good parade and protest march,” the teen said. “I was sort of aware that it was a special thing to do in a small town.”

This year, just as the future of the Belfast Pride parade seemed in doubt, the Gender and Sexuality Alliance Club seemed in need of a mission to bring members together for a common cause, Bywater said. During the years of COVID, it seemed to her that the club had somewhat lost its footing after the graduation of core members.

“In my freshman and sophomore years, it was really mostly a club for the LGBTQ kids to have lunch together,” Bywater said. “That was nice. But we weren’t getting things done.”

Taking on the Pride parade has changed that. The 20 club members secured a permit from the city of Belfast, found sponsors, raised money for banners, flags and other expenses and grappled with the procuring of liability insurance.

“That was the one thing, the single point of failure,” Bywater said. “If we [couldn’t] get this, the whole thing’s a no-go.”

Ultimately, the high school agreed to cover the event under the school’s policy, a move that surprised and pleased the teens, according to Annie Gray, the club’s co-advisor.

“A lot of the time, they anticipate being outsiders. It’s really nice for them to get that affirmation,” Gray said. “I think for the kids, it really feels like they’re being seen at school and seen in the community. It really opens up a lot of excitement for them to feel included.”

That’s exactly what Pride events such as the parade can do for members of the LGBTQ community, according to Seth Thayer, a local businessman who was delighted that the high school students have taken the initiative to organize the event and that it will happen again this year. There’s something special about the way that rainbow flags fly from homes and businesses all over the city during Pride, he said.

“The thing I love about Pride is that the whole town is involved,” he said. “It’s such an isolating feeling, to have to hide yourself. And just to see that visual support from people that you don’t know, just seeing the Pride flag, it’s a powerful thing. I’m excited that it’s going to happen.”

Thayer said he was glad to make a financial contribution to the students, who have been canvassing for donations.

“I’m really happy that the high schoolers took it over,” he said. “I think they’ll do a good job. Kids always bring a new energy to things.”

So far, the students have raised around $1,500, Gray said. Their first donation came from the Belfast Co-op, which is serving as the de facto lead sponsor.

The teens will use the money to purchase a custom banner made locally, large rainbow flags, smaller flags to hand out to participants, t-shirts and party favors to distribute to the crowd. If there is money leftover, they want to use it as seed money for next year’s event.

At first, when the teens said they wanted to organize the Pride parade this year, Gray and co-advisor Ian Howard tried to scale down their expectations. But the students have exceeded what the adults thought they could do, Gray said.

“I’m so proud of what they accomplished. I’m kind of blown away by it,” she said. “I just hope that it is a joyful celebration for the whole community to experience together. And in particular for these kids to feel included and seen and celebrated.”  

Those interested in participating in the Belfast Pride parade are asked to meet at Belfast Area High School at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, June 4, and the parade will begin at 11 a.m. The parade will end just before the Public Landing and Heritage Park.