Iowa City Pride 2023 aims to foster community strength

This year’s pride festival will be underscored by an environment of solidarity and strength — and will be the biggest Iowa City Pride Festival to date. The performance lineup includes a variety of local and visiting musicians, as well as drag royalty.


Grace Smith

United Action for Youth, or UAY, walks during the Iowa City Pride Parade in Iowa City on Saturday, June 18, 2022. Over 900 people walked in the parade.

Parker Jones, Summer Editor

As one of the oldest pride festivals in the country, Iowa City Pride aims to promote an environment of inclusivity, acceptance, and community strength that persists year-round. This year’s pride festival is set to be the largest yet, both in the number of performances and vendors as well as in physical area.

Iowa City Pride 2023 will take place on June 17 from 12 p.m. to 10 p.m. This year’s festival theme is “Stronger Together.”

Iowa City Pride Board President Joe Reilly said one of the organization’s goals is to always keep the festival free for attendees, emphasizing the importance of creating an accessible and engaging environment for all.

“Not a lot of pride [festivals] get to say that, keeping the barrier low for people to get involved, be engaged,” Reilly said.

This year’s festival will offer a diverse range of activities. Attendees will be able to explore vendor booths offering a variety of goods and services, including social service entities and Johnson County Public Health resources. The festival stage — located at the intersection of South Linn Street and East Washington Street — will host live music performances and drag shows featuring talented drag kings, queens, and young drag performers known as “Draglings.”

Blake Shaw, local musician and events programmer for Iowa City Pride, emphasized the inclusivity and variety that defines the event and its programming, which includes both local performers and those from out of state.

Some notable performers will include drag queens Sasha Belle and Jade Jolie who have competed on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Additional acts include alt-rock opener mars hojilla, followed by The Quire, a local queer choir group, and a performance later from the Bawdy Bawdy Ha Ha Burlesque troupe.

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With its wide range of genres, featuring bands from hard-rock and folk to an original dance music debut by a local DJ, Shaw said Iowa City Pride Festival aims to cater to diverse interests. Shaw encouraged attendees to explore the festival’s calendar, available on the website and social media platforms, and choose the events that resonate with them the most.

“I really loved booking this festival. I’m on some other boards in Iowa City for Music Fest and stuff like that, but this is my favorite because it’s the most diverse,” Shaw said.

A highlight of the festival will be the parade, kicking off the event at 12 p.m. on Saturday. The parade will begin at Clinton and Jefferson Street, head east on Washington Street, north on Dubuque Street, east on Iowa Avenue, south on Linn Street, and end at College Street,  and will include a lineup of nonprofit and for-profit businesses and organizations. At the end of the parade, there will be a “Unity March” section allowing anyone unaffiliated with a specific group or organization to join in the parade.

The theme “Stronger Together” was chosen to underscore the importance of unity and support within the LGBTQ+ community. In light of recent challenges faced by the community, including the passage of state legislation on May 26 by Gov. Reynolds, who signed the wide-ranging bill Senate File 496 into law. The law prohibits the instruction of topics like gender identity or sexual orientation to students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

It also requires schools to notify parents if their child requests a gender-related accommodation, like using a new name or pronoun. The law also bans books from school libraries describing or depicting sex acts.

Reilly emphasized the significance of sharing experiences and supporting one another to foster a stronger, more resilient community.

“This all came out of hearing such horrible things in the news in our state, and it’s always best, in my opinion, to be positive and affirming,” Reilly said. “Lashing out, dunking on other people doesn’t get you anywhere.”

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While this legislation has raised concerns and feels targeted, Reilly said, he expressed confidence that the festival itself will remain largely unaffected as it will only take place in public spaces, and not in Iowa City schools.

“It does feel like [legislators] are only going to pursue things that we do here in the LGBTQ+ community. For instance, the ‘you have to state the student’s name as given on the roster;’ no name changes, no pronoun changes,” Reilly said.

Andy Owens is the Vice President of the Iowa City Pride Board and a professor of cinema at the University of Iowa. He noted that because the laws seem to target children as opposed to higher education institutions like the UI, there is an amplified amount of upset across the LGBTQ+ community.

“It really is a shame that it seems like the places where these laws have the most legs is actually for younger children. To be perfectly frank, at the university level they really aren’t gonna touch us,” Owens said. “When you’re targeting children, that’s the part that I think a lot of people, rightfully so, are upset about.”

He said while there may be political statements made at the festival, the legislation won’t affect much besides an increased potential for anti-LGBTQ+ protestors, and emphasized the importance of remaining peaceful and non-confrontational. By ignoring individuals seeking to provoke a reaction at the festival — which will be a family-friendly event, Owens said — attendees can ensure the festival remains focused on celebration and solidarity.

“We have always, in addition to making the festival free, tried to make the parade both a celebration of pride in the way that is normally understood — to have bright colors and drag queens and all that stuff — but also to make it somewhat of a political statement should people choose to go in that direction,” Owens said. “But I could see that being a real presence this year.”

Shaw echoed this sentiment, expressing hope that the legislation would encourage allies to step up and show their support.

“Having events like this is so important for people like us because we’re led to believe that we’re alone in this,” Shaw explained. “‘Stronger Together’ is just a message saying, ‘Hello, we are here, so come hang out with us. Everything’s going to be fine.’”

Owens also said that because much of the legislation passed around the country seems to target transgender individuals, this year’s Pride festival will also have an increased focus on trans representation and solidarity.

“This year in particular, it seemed pressing and timely to really highlight the voices of trans folks, especially given what’s happening all over the country. Also obviously in our own backyard, in our state,” Owens said. “So that was something that’s very much on the mind this year in terms of festival planning and events.”

Owens said Iowa City Pride is proud to partner with various organizations within the city to amplify diverse voices and provide a platform for transgender individuals. In collaboration with FilmScene, Iowa City Pride is promoting a film series called “Doing Gender,” curated specifically to highlight the lives of transgender individuals on screen. This effort aims to address pressing issues and promote awareness and understanding within the broader community, Owens said.

In addition to the main festival, a picnic will be held at Upper City Park on June 16. This pre-festival gathering will provide an opportunity for attendees to enjoy a grill-out sponsored by local businesses. Attendees will also be able to access free entry to the Upper City Park Pool.

Looking ahead to the festival, both Reilly and Owens expressed their excitement about the growing participation and support from the community. With an entire extra block taken up downtown and over 100 vendors and several more on a waitlist to partake in the festival, Iowa City Pride 2023 will be the largest in recent memory, Reilly said. He noted the consistent return of vendors and families year after year, underscoring the sense of community and commitment fostered by the festival.

“I’m just excited that it keeps building and growing and we have a strong knit of community fabric that holds everybody, and everyone’s welcome,” Reilly said.