Portraits of pride

Meet the East Texas organizers and residents who celebrated Pride Month with the first-of-its-kind event in downtown Tyler.

Though sometimes less seen in the larger culture, East Texas has a robust LGBTQ community, evidenced by about 400 rainbow-clad celebrants at Tyler’s Pride parade on the downtown square Sunday, June 13. Local activists Raynie Castaneda and Laya Washington organized the event.

Heading down South Broadway Ave., participants of the Pride walk shouted chants in support of LGBTQ acceptance and inclusion. The event hosted multiple vendors, live music and a tent where attendees could receive “Free Mom Hugs.” The gathering culminated in a talent show and drag performance, encouraged by a cheering audience.

The Tyler Loop interviewed organizer Raynie Castaneda and attendees to hear their perspectives on East Texas LGBTQ inclusion. 

Raynie Castaneda

“Somebody [was] asking if there was any local LGBTQ events or any drag shows [on social media], and they were met with intense homophobia. It was brought to my attention, and then I organized this in response. I want us to be more comfortable where we live. I want us to feel like this is our space too; not that we’re having to find safe spaces in an otherwise hostile environment.

“I want us to feel like we can exist here openly and safely and proudly. [There’s] discrimination not just in insidious ways, but also in open ways, just vitriol being spewed on us, as if we’re not just existing, proudly, like everybody else gets to do.

“So many people here are open and loving. The wonderful people of this community exist, and they make it a bearable place to live. They create safe spaces for the rest of us. Those people are what make it beautiful.”

Darrel Walls II and Sir Isaac Nelson

Sir Isaac: “I would love to see the East Texas LGBT community grow by creating more diverse and accessible programs for the LGBTQ+ community: programs that can help with Medicaid and insurance; safer sex practices; and that include diversity within the mix of the organization.

“I see our community facing a lack of acceptance, a lack of pushing the needle forward. I think that the needle is being pushed today at this march, but we need to continue to move it forward.

“I was born and raised here. I moved to New York briefly and now I’m back. And in that time I constantly had to suppress. I couldn’t be who I am and I couldn’t live and express the way I was.

“I will disclose I am a minister and I have sat under preachers who were like, ‘Homosexuality is wrong and you’re going to hell.’ They allowed me to continue to sit there as long as I was secretive and holding back of my truth. But when I came out, they no longer wanted anything to do with me.

“We have fore-fronted every movement from the Stonewall Riots with Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, which were Black and Latina, transgender people sick and tired of not being able to live.”

Nadia Allmon takes the offer to receive a hug from the “Free Mom Hugs” tent at Tyler’s Pride parade June 13, 2021.

Eyza Lashay Duvall

“I’ve watched a lot of shows, RuPaul’s one of them. I kind of just fell in love with the art form of it. I love to do makeup and all that. Growing up, I was very much hindered from expressing myself. This is just another way to step outside of that box and to show who I really am; to showcase my talents.

“I’m newer to this community, and I’ve never been to Pride before. This is just one step closer to everything being better for it.

“[A challenge is] the close-mindedness. Nobody out here is trying to hurt anybody else. It’s all just out of love. Nobody’s trying to showcase who they’re sleeping with. It’s more of just being able to be ourselves. Other people can express their opinions and feelings about certain things, whereas we’re not. That’s what we’re trying to do here, is just show that we love everybody.

“No matter what, we have each other’s back. We’re always there for each other.”

A drag performer called Eyza Lashay Duvall dances to a cheering crowd of hundreds at Tyler’s Pride at the downtown square.

Kaiya Bryson and Lila Knox

Kaiya: “I wish to see the East Texas LGBTQ community grow with more open churches and things like that. There’s a lot of rallies that are anti-gay, pro-Trump, all things like that.”

Lila: “Less of that and definitely more LGBT-pro activities would be huge for East Texas. Religion is definitely a huge [challenge in our community]. So many churches don’t accept LGBT.”

Kaiya: “I grew up in a very apostolic family. All skirts, all of that. Everything was anti-gay. It took me a really long time to like figure out who I actually was. And there was a lot of internal homophobia that I had to like get past. But now that I’m past it, it’s amazing. It’s like bliss, I love it.”

Lila: “Personally, I was fortunate enough to grow up in a church that was accepting. They preached to love everyone so fortunately, I never had to go through the trouble of dealing with the homophobic church.”

Chess and Michael Harrison, child and parent, showed up sporting signs of affirmation at downtown Tyler’s Pride parade.

Shomara Roberts and Tonnecia Miller

Tonnecia: “I want to see east Texas become more accepting, less conservative, of course.”

Shomara: “And then to have more things for LGBT people. Being Black and gay, just the common sense things of me going to a restroom and someone getting scared [have happened]. People still get nervous like, ‘You’re a lesbian, you shouldn’t be in here. We’re really scared. We don’t know what you’re doing.'”

Tonnecia: “She’s my first real official girlfriend. Going out, the stares and the looks — it makes people uncomfortable.”

Shomara: “[The anti-Pride protest last week] was really just out of spite at the end of the day, because we pass by Tyler square Monday or Sunday and haven’t seen churches out here talking about male and female supposed to be together. But out of all days, Pride Month and the LGBTQ march, you guys choose to be out here in the same location, same week?”

Tonnecia: “We are able to come together.”

Shomara: “Everybody knows Tyler. There hasn’t been ill will, people throwing hate around driving by us or anything extreme like that. That’s really great. And is this the first time? I can only imagine what it’d be five years from now.”

Chase Richardson

“I want us to be more accepting. I was raised in a small town called Brownsboro and I came out January 31st, 2018. I was called the f-slur every day. I got beat up and I feel like it’s just not okay.

“[There are] definitely a lot of ignorant people. People are getting killed just for loving who they want to love, and I just think that’s not right.

“[As for the anti-Pride protest the other day], it honestly does not matter to me. You can hate on me every day, but I’m still going to live my life the way I want to. There’s so much beauty and challenges that we go through every day. We’re strong.”

Jess Hale is a lifelong East Texan born in Nacogdoches and graduated from Waskom High School in 2016. She is also an alumnus of Kilgore College and currently a senior at The University of Texas at Tyler studying Mass Communication. In the past, Jess has been involved with community events such as Longview LGBT Pride Festival, UNSCENE Shreveport, and efforts to organize community involvement around pro-choice issues. Jess hopes to share reproductive health options and access to people in East Texas, as well as the importance of sex education.

Chris French is an independent photographer based in Tyler, TX, who takes all of his photos through vintage film lenses. He is also a local musician and barista. Chris loves to share in the nostalgic feeling provided by photos and aims to bring that joy to others. To see more of Chris’ work, you can follow him at @mrcoffeeswag.

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