Under the glare of LED strobe lights, drag queens Kaija Adonis and Axel Andrews stepped onstage Saturday night. Normally, the two would be entertaining at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub as they’d done for years.
But the June 12 massacre changed all that, and now they were in Bloomington. A stretch of Kirkwood Avenue lay sectioned off beneath vendor tents and bright garland, and hundreds of attendees — mostly IU students — filled the main tent.
Earlier in the day, PRIDE Summerfest drew an estimated 10,000 people into the heart of downtown for a day of festivities honoring the local LGBT community. While food trucks and inflatable bounce houses hummed with activity, carnival games led parents into dialogue as they watched their children compete. From the street curb, students cheered on regional bands.
The crowd greeted Andrews with wild applause as he capped off the show at 11 p.m. with hit Fall Out Boy songs “Sugar, We’re Going Down” and “Thnks fr th Mmrs.”
Andrews, who survived the Orlando shooting, said performing has helped him get past the horrors he witnessed that night.
“The first week, I couldn’t leave my house,” Andrews said. “I didn’t know how to act around people. I didn’t know how to be. The feeling of being stuck somewhere still makes me uneasy. It’s something I can’t get past.”
When Andrews is performing, however, he said he still enjoys the movement, positivity and energy.
“I like the artistry behind it,” Andrews said. “You’re not a different person, but your personality’s elevated.”
Adonis, whose extremely close friend Eddie Sotomayor was killed in the massacre, said he hoped to bring some of the nightclub’s supportive atmosphere to Bloomington.
“You don’t realize how much performing can touch some people,” Adonis said. “I’ve had so many young people come up to me and say, ‘Tonight was the night I was thinking about suicide, and I saw your show and it lifted me out of that.’”
The back-to-school timing of Summerfest was no accident, according to campus Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Student Support Services Director Doug Bauder.
“(PRIDE) decided to do something to reach out to students and allies who were back, so they did it very early on in the semester,” Bauder said. “Of course there will be those who won’t come to this, but many will hear that it’s happened and feel better about our values here just by virtue of the fact.”
IU graduate student Omar Sosa, originally from Mexico, agreed. Sosa said although it’s gotten better, anti-gay slurs in his hometown are all too common.
“If you have very traditional Mexican parents like mine and teach your kids (homophobia), they’ll just react like that,” Sosa said. “But if you’re in a place like Bloomington and being LGBT is a normal thing for a large group of people, then kids are taught acceptance. At least to me, PRIDE says a lot about the town. If I could bring my parents here, they would be amazed.”
Li Wu, an IU senior from China, expressed gratitude at the large turnout.
“I’m gay, and it nearly moves me to tears to see all the love and energy here,” Wu said. “It’s a huge, huge success.”
Throughout the day, instructors from Bloomington’s Aeriälogy company performed circus acts on silks suspended high in the air. As a crowd looked on, Carolyn Osborne and Autumn Siney, IU students identifying as either bisexual or gay, ascended the fabric with ease.
Siney, suddenly airborne, used her feet to wrap the silks around herself in perfect symmetry.
“We like supporting our community and it’s a great way to do it,” Siney said. “We relate to everyone here. Communicating with freshmen is especially important that it’s OK to be out.”
Siney looked around.
“God, if this is what hell looks like, I’m excited,” she said.
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