Wilton Manors Stonewall Festival: 'We are not going to be intimidated'

Wilton Manors Stonewall Street Festival to pay tribute to #orlandoshooting victims.

After learning the news of last Sunday's mass shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub, Fort Lauderdale R&B singer Kat Riggins knew she had to adjust her playlist.

Riggins, who is scheduled to perform Saturday, June 18, at the annual Wilton Manors Stonewall Parade and Street Festival, thought inspirational songs such as "A Change Is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke and "Imagine" by John Lennon would resonate with the crowds.

"I had planned to keep the set mostly up-tempo until now, but I feel this is a necessary alteration," Riggins says. "It will provide an opportunity for the audience to connect with each other. While this is an incredibly disgusting nightmare come to life, I truly believe that music is a healing agent."

Healing and standing united will be dominant themes at this year's festival, which draws more than 20,000 gay people and their friends to celebrate love and equality.

The free event, which features a parade and entertainers on various stages, commemorates the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York, which became the catalyst for the modern gay-rights movement.

Festival organizers say last weekend's massacre underscores the importance of showing LGBTQ pride. To pay tribute to the 49 people who were killed in the Orlando mass shooting, a moment of silence will take place before the 6 p.m. parade, which starts at Northeast 20th Street and heads toward Five Points Plaza.

A group of 49 people will be dressed in white, each holding a placard with the name of one of the victims. Forty-nine white balloons will also be released into the air.

Festival attendees should expect increased security.

"They may notice a little more police presence, because safety is the No. 1 concern for this," says Jeffrey Sterling, executive director of the Wilton Manors Entertainment Group, a nonprofit organization that organizes the festival with the city of Wilton Manors.

He acknowledges that balancing the celebratory nature of Stonewall with the recent tragedy has been challenging.

"You've got the tragic side, where you want the quiet show of respect, the sadness," Sterling says. "But by the same token, you're a festival, which is supposed to be high spirits, not a bunch of people all upset. You want to show that we are not going to be intimidated, that this makes us stronger, that we are unified and give everyone support."

Chris Rudisill, executive director of Stonewall National Museum and Archives in Fort Lauderdale, agrees.

"Coming together now as a community honors all of the lives that were taken in the events of Sunday morning in Orlando and helps us remember that Stonewall happens every day," he says. "This is the largest mass shooting in American history, and we cannot let people forget that it was an attack on LGBTQ people.''

The Stonewall festival is one of the year's biggest in the South Florida LGBTQ community. Wilton Drive, the main drag in Wilton Manors, overflows with attendees sporting rainbow-hued shirts and shorts, beads, hats and tiaras. They carry flags to show their pride, which has long been associated with the colors of the rainbow.

Last year, former Major League Baseball outfielder and Miami resident Billy Bean served as the grand marshal. This year's event will focus on local leaders and entertainers. Wilton Manors Mayor Gary Resnick and all the city commissioners are the grand marshals.

The event begins at 11 a.m. at Hagen Park, 2020 Wilton Drive with a family-friendly village of bounce houses, face painting and other activities. Historical panels from the Stonewall National Museum AND Archives will be displayed at the park. Opera Fusion, a South Florida opera group, will perform there.

"We really want to focus on the cultural and educational: Where did we come from? What is Stonewall? What is it about gay rights?" Sterling says. "There are younger people coming who have no understanding of where this all came from. You've got to learn from your history to move forward."

Festivities will continue on Wilton Drive, where vendors and booths will line the thoroughfare between Northeast 20th and Northeast 26th streets.

Stages will feature musical acts such as Riggins and the cast of "Heathers: The Musical," a musical comedy currently running at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale.

Many of the bars along Wilton Drive will have their own indoor and outdoor stages with performers and DJs.

"The sheer awe of being around 20,000 plus people, it's just amazing," Sterling says. "To be able to participate in one [festival], even if it's just walking through it, is a moving experience."

For more information on the festival, call 954-357-2989 or go to WiltonManorsStonewall.com.

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