LGBT festival returns to suburban Chesco

Bill Davidson, a former LGBT pride festival organizer, talks with Rachel Stevenson, president of LGBTea Dances, as they ready raffle items for the Chester County Pride festival in Phoenixville this weekend, the first since 2005.

Rachel Stevenson knew well that the encounter could have gone either way.

A man had stopped her on the street. He wanted to know: Are you the one organizing an LGBT pride festival? Yes, she said. She thought of the fliers that disappear from her Phoenixville neighborhood every day. She waited.

Then the man smiled. He was looking forward to going.

After 11 years, Chester County once again will have its own celebration for members of the LGBT community.

"They're excited to have something for them in the suburbs, as opposed to having to go into the city or Reading," said Stevenson, who last year founded LGBTea Dances, the nonprofit hosting Chester County Pride Weekend on Saturday and Sunday in the borough.

Philadelphia hosts its 28th annual LGBT Pride Day Parade and Festival the following weekend.

Traditionally, such events were the provinces of urban centers, such as Reading, Harrisburg and Allentown.

The Chester County event - as well as the annual festival in New Hope and Lambertville, N.J., and Sunday's pride festival in Asbury Park, N.J. and elsewhere - target other areas that members of the LGBT community say don't offer much for them.

"People in the suburbs have different experiences and needs that sometimes aren't entirely met by Philadelphia organizations," said Malcom Lazin, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Equality Forum, an LGBT advocacy group.

The rebirth of Chester County's festival coincides with last year's Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriages.

Chester County's previous pride festivals ended with the death of an organizer in 2005. Frank Jeffrey's in downtown Phoenixville, believed to be the county's only gay bar, closed a few years later.

A lack of LGBT resources in the county spurred Stevenson, a 35-year-old motivational speaker and author, with purple accenting the front of her cropped brown hair, to start the nonprofit LGBTea Dances. The name is derived from "tea dances," social events used for decades in the gay community. The group raises money for programs and scholarships, and hosts social events.

Stevenson wants to help LGBT children thrive in their communities, saying, "They don't have to move to New York or move to the city for them to be themselves."

A decade ago, members of the LGBT community found a haven and hangout in Frank Jeffrey's.

Jeffrey Ruud and Frank Viera, partners and the bar's co-owners, worked with a few area residents in the early 2000s to help expand a small pride festival in West Chester into a larger event.

In 2005, Ruud died at age 40, and the festival ended.

Bill Davidson, one of the organizers of the previous festival, said that the LGBT population has become integrated into larger communities - and more dispersed.

"These events have become really crucial for people to meet other people within the community," Davidson, 55, said. "There's this pent-up demand for these type of get-togethers."

Organizers say the festival's resurrection honors the lives of Ruud and Viera, who died of cancer at 68 in December.

"It's bringing the history of what was with the new," said Stevenson, who met her wife, Fay, at Frank Jeffrey's.

Eleven years after the most recent festival, corporate sponsorships are easier to get, organizers said. The Dow Chemical Co. and Pfizer Inc. are among the donors that have given $1,500 or more. Gift baskets and rainbow flags have taken over a small Schuylkill Township office that Creative Capital Wealth Management Group donated. Virtual Farm Creative, just outside the borough, created festival logos and designs free.

Organizers expect more people to come this year because of increased public support for the LGBT community. They hope for 1,500.

Saturday's festival in Reeves Park, which starts at noon, welcomes families and will include food, music, and vendors. A fund-raiser gala will be at noon Sunday at the nearby Spring Hollow Golf Club.

mbond@philly.com

610-313-8207@MichaelleBond