TOMS RIVER – Mother Nature added her own touch to the Toms River Pride Festival when a rainbow appeared after a short afternoon spring shower.
Rainbows are seen as significant to the LGBTQ+ community as a symbol of gay pride. Historians credit the late Gilbert Baker with designing the first rainbow flag. He saw the “natural flag of the sky” as a universal expression of hope.
The Toms River Fire Department displayed the American flag atop its aerial ladder with the rainbow flag secured beneath it. Toms River Township officials held their Pride flag-raising ceremony in front of Town Hall earlier and plan to fly the flag during the entire month of June.
Dozens of vendors lined up on both sides of Washington Street between Main Street and Hooper Avenue. Thousands of people dressed in an array of colors and fashions seemingly displayed a message of acceptance and alliance.
Christ Episcopal Church of Toms River had a booth next to a community group that holds meetings at their church. Congregation members shared a brochure that brought a different message to LGBTQ+ community members who often feel ostracized by Christian churches.
“God loves you. No exceptions,” reads the brochure. “All are welcome, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, gender expression, and sexual orientation.”
Among other things, the brochure emphasizes that worship services focus on God. As part of its Ministry and Outreach program, the Christ Episcopal Church also advocates for a more inclusive and just society. This includes the LGBT community through Lgbtconnectionatchristchurch.com.
“We believe that God made us all in God’s image,” said Phyllis Long, a church member. “And so, we’re all alike. There are no differences between us.”
Long explained that the church community’s beliefs come not only from scripture but also from common sense and tradition. She said that the world has changed, and God would want everyone to be accepting of all people.
Congressman Andy Kim (D-3rd), who currently represents parts of Ocean County, served as a keynote speaker for the event. He appeared on stage with his two young sons.
“People who have lived in Toms River and Ocean County for decades remind us how special it is that we can have a Pride event right here in the downtown area,” Kim said. “It signifies the progress made in our community, across the state, and the country.”
Kim said that the progress included the passing of the Equality Act, with people fighting for equality and fighting for the ability for people to be themselves. However, he cautioned that progress should not be taken for granted and that there was more to be accomplished.
“What we are experiencing now is because of the hard work of advocates and activists over the course of decades,” Kim said. “…We stand on their shoulders and celebrate what they’ve accomplished. But now it’s on us…we live in a moment that is going to determine the course of our country and what it means to equality.
“I can tell you that when my kids grow up and ask me what I did in this historic moment – during these tumultuous years,” Kim said. “I want to tell them that I did everything I humanly can, as a person, to fight for what’s right, to fight for justice, to fight for equality in our country.”
As the crowd broke out into resounding cheers, two men carrying signs shouted out to express their feelings that the gay community would not be accepted in the Kingdom of God. The man carrying a cross saying that Jesus Saves refused to give his name.
“We want to see people come to Jesus,” said the man. “We want to see them with Jesus.”
Carl Conrad wore a shirt saying “All Souls Matter” and carried a sign quoting a biblical passage. He had his own reasons for speaking out during Kim’s presentation.
“God loves all men, and created all men,” Conrad shared. “However, he loves them to walk in the right way. It doesn’t matter if you’re homosexual, whether you’re a liar, whether you’re an idolatrous brother, or if you worship other gods, no church should support what’s sending people in sin to hell. The Bible says that the wages of sin is death.”
As onlookers attempted to camouflage Conrad’s sign with placards that read “Love is Love,” he engaged in a private conversation with Kim. Local police moved close to the scene with no signs of altercation requiring intervention.
From all appearances, the two men were the only ones who had issues with the gay pride festivities. Children took advantage of a giant slide at one end of the venue, while adults took out their frustrations with some targeted axe-throwing exercises.
The Exit 82 Theater Company set up a complete line-up of events throughout the day that started with Rainbow Pride Family Storytime at the library, a couple of drag shows, a lip-synch competition, and various other special performances. The day’s events also featured a number of Pride Advocacy Awards.
Attendees not only came for the food and drink. Many brought their pets and enjoyed an afternoon of dressing up for the event. Some identified as allies and supporters.
Among them was Sarah Jeffers, who said she came out to celebrate pride with her daughter, Juliana.
“I’m here to celebrate myself as pan-sexual,” shared Juliana. “I don’t like people for their gender; I focus more on their personality when I go to date somebody.”
A tall dark-haired man piped in at the end of the conversation with Juliana. He said he also came along to support Juliana and was her boyfriend.
The focus of the day’s events brought smiles to the faces of many – with a true focus on acceptance, love, and an overall fun time together.