“We’re just waiting for Louisiana to say yes,” Mary Ellen Vincent says of her plans to marry longtime partner Kimberly Vincent, who had her last name legally changed in advance of a day the Lafayette couple hopes will soon come. “It’s such a mess being married in other states and not being married here.”
Gay couples can legally wed in 37 states and the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Supreme Court could settle the matter for backwaters like Louisiana this year. But the Vincents — Kimberly, 33, is a teacher at Lafayette High; 34-year-old Mary Ellen is a Morgan Stanley financial adviser — haven’t waited to become a family: Seven months ago Kimberly gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Hadley, via artificial insemination. They own a home built on family property in south Lafayette. They are, by every reasonable measure, a family.
“We are a family just like every other typical family in Lafayette,” Kimberly says. “We might look a little different but we all live our life the same way.”
The Vincent family will be one of many celebrating South Louisiana’s embrace of diversity during the second annual Acadiana PRIDE Festival, held in Downtown Lafayette the last weekend of March. (PRIDE is an acronym for People Representing Individual Diversity and Experiences.) For Ted Richard, the festival’s board president, it’s much more than a “gay pride” festival.
“One of the reasons we felt that it’s so important is Lafayette is very, very, very culturally diverse, as well as the whole entire Acadiana area,” says Richard, a Scott native. “Although we tend to vote as a red state, which I understand, I think that Lafayette and Acadiana do not get credit for the diversity of our community, and I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s so important to have this festival — to let everybody see that families come in all shapes and sizes and colors and everything else, and I think that Lafayette and the Acadiana area understand that. It’s something to celebrate.”
That celebration of diversity is reflected in PRIDE’s programming. Sure there will be plenty of beer, food and live music from top acts at Parc International — country, pop, Cajun, R’n’B — but there will also be the premiere of a musical, a documentary screening and book signing all related to the infamous 1973 arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans’ French Quarter that killed 32 people and remains the worst single act of violence against gay people in U.S. history.
My how things have changed. “I teach high school, and for those kids [sexual orientation is] a non-issue,” says Kimberly Vincent. “It’s not an issue for them at all. I just think that within the last few years things have just changed so quickly. And I think that Lafayette, surprisingly, has kept up with that change.”
“We’ve been together for 15 years — since high school. And we, for the first probably six years or longer than that kind of hid it — kind of just kept it between ourselves because we didn’t think anyone would accept us,” Mary Ellen Vincent recalls. “And we finally did say, ‘OK, it’s time. We need to be who we are. We need to be happy. We need to move on with our lives,’ and it was astonishing at how quickly people were so accepting.”
There’s your gay agenda, folks: being happy like everyone else. “It’s not special rights — it’s equal rights. I think people are coming around to understand that,” says Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis via telephone from Southern California where he shares a home and a life with husband Johnny Chaillot, a Crowley native.
Louganis and Chaillot are this year’s PRIDE Fest grand marshals, a role Louganis embraces. Since coming out more than 20 years ago and revealing his HIV-positive status in the 1995 best-seller, Breaking the Surface, Louganis has been an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights. It’s a role that has brought him around the world for Olympic-style LGBT athletic events, notably to Moscow, Russia, following the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
But Louganis persists in raising awareness — in making familiar and yawningly boring what for many just a few decades ago was foreign, threatening.
“I still hear ‘lifestyle’ tossed around. What’s a gay lifestyle?” he asks. “My lifestyle is getting in the gym, working out, playing with my dog, taking care of my husband, cleaning house. That’s my lifestyle. That’s the reality. A date night with my husband is we’re sitting in bed streaming a movie or having dinner. That’s our lifestyle.”
Richard agrees: “I would like to see a time when we don’t need to have a festival to celebrate the accomplishments of gay people and LGBTQ.”
We wondered how Louganis, the quintessential So-Cal guy whose upbringing was about as culturally far removed from Louisiana as you can get, came to be named co-grand marshal of Acadiana PRIDE. Louganis is quick with a chuckle and a response: “I married a Cajun!”