Gay Greetings from Asbury Park

Asbury Park’s Convention Hall welcomes New Jersey Pride’s 26th annual celebration in the city. | MICHAEL LUONGO

The sky looked menacing, but there was no rain on this parade. The New Jersey LGBT Pride Celebration was held June 4 for the 26th time in Asbury Park on the fabled Jersey Shore.

According to Laura Pople, president of Jersey Pride, “this was by far our biggest event, in every way. The parade was so big that it literally bisected the town. We were still in the formation area on Main Street while the lead marchers reached the festival grounds at the ocean. And thousands lined the parade route to watch it go by. More vendors, more politicians, tens of thousands in attendance, and more of a sense of community and mission among attendees.”

Jersey Pride president Laura Pople with Asbury Park Police Lieutenant John Crescio. | MICHAEL LUONGO

The parade route begins on Asbury Park’s Main Street at its Municipal Complex, heading along Cookman Avenue before winding its way to Bradley Park in front of the 1920s Convention Hall, a symbol of the city, sporting a rainbow flag for the occasion. The area is now overlooked by the new Asbury Hotel, fashioned out of a former Salvation Army building and opened during the 2016 Pride season.

Springsteen’s stomping ground, a longtime LGBTQ beacon, celebrates its 26th Jersey Pride

In its early years, the parade had passed along the Asbury Park Boardwalk, but has grown too large. Today, the faces and the buildings along the parade route reflect a changing Asbury Park. The city still remains ethnically and economically diverse but is increasingly gentrified, with many restored Victorians and new construction on the blocks closest to the ocean, where many LGBTQ folks and others are purchasing homes.

Ms. And Mr. NJ Leather ride in the parade. | MICHAEL LUONGO

Pople said the parade has always had a strong political component and was a major reason New Jersey advanced ahead of many other states in LGBTQ protections in the 1990s. She added, however, that the recent political climate has re-energized the movement.

“Our community is prepared to fight to retain our rights,” Pople said. “We are united, resolved, and a force to be reckoned with. We won’t go back in the closet, or live our lives in fear. Time and again you heard that sentiment from our Pride attendees.”

Asbury Park Mayor John Moor. | MICHAEL LUONGO

Asbury Park Mayor John Moor said that hosting the annual parade is “a tremendous thrill every year,” adding, “The way it has gotten so large over the years is just unbelievable. The way it does so much for the city, the county, the state, it brings everybody together, and we’re so happy to host it.”

The city is the home of the famous rock venue the Stone Pony, closely associated with Bruce Springsteen who was launched to fame with his first album, “Greetings from Asbury Park.” Springsteen would go on to win an Oscar for “Streets of Philadelphia,” the theme song for the groundbreaking movie AIDS movie “Philadelphia,” marking his open support of queer issues.

West Point graduate Sue Fulton, a leader in the fight to end Don’t Ask, Don’t tell. | MICHAEL LUONGO

While to many outsiders, Asbury Park’s much touted embrace of the LGBTQ community is thought to be of recent vintage, the city has long been known as a gay-friendly destination, including as a favored retreat of “Hollywood Squares” icon and Samantha’s Uncle Arthur on “Betwitched” Paul Lynde in the mid-20th century.

Moor, a Jersey Shore native and longtime Asbury Park resident, said the city’s LGBTQ community “goes back many years, and again that was before people actually came out. But I think it was always friendly to the gays going back to the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, and there were always gay contingents and gay bars, so we have a real history with the gay community.”

The festival was a mix of music and politics, with community leaders and politicians taking the stage, including Sue Fulton, a major force behind the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and US Congressmember Frank Pallone, Jr.

Festival headliner Ultra Naté. | MICHAEL LUONGO

Singer Ultra Naté was the stage’s headliner, ending her appearance with her signature song, “Free,” a club anthem that debuted, she recalled, 20 years ago during Pride season.

As the crowd repeated lines from the song and danced in Bradley Park, the singer remarked on how the song has more meaning than ever as civil rights for LGBTQ Americans and many others in the US and throughout the world are under increasing attack.

Vicky Leone celebrates with daughter Heather. | MICHAEL LUONGO

An affectionate moment at the beach. | MICHAEL LUONGO

This reveler spared no shade in showing her pride. | MICHAEL LUONGO

Congressmember Frank Pallone. | MICHAEL LUONGO

You can see it in her face. | MICHAEL LUONGO

This marcher covered himself in the flag. | MICHAEL LUONGO

A dancer at the Empress Hotel. | MICHAEL LUONGO