Peaches LaVerne, everyone swore, looked like Barbara Bush. She was one of the tri-state’s most well-known “female illusionists,” as she liked to be called. She heard the comparison so often, she once wrote to the former First Lady and said, “They say I look like you.”
“Barbara sent her a nice note back,” Michael Chanak remembers.
Chanak, who attended his first Cincinnati Pride parade in 1985 and served as the event’s emcee in the ’90s and early 2000s, says getting to know Peaches was one of his favorite memories of Pride.
“We met in 1978, and I knew her until she passed in late ’04,” says Chanak, who lives in Mt. Healthy. “I tried hard in my tenure to make sure that people whose shoulders we stood on got some credit.”
2021 marks Cincinnati Pride’s 48th year. It hasn’t been continuous—there’ve been some starts and stops over the years—but the city’s Pride event dates back to 1973, a mere four years after the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village.
“In our city, as well as many others across the country, [the riots] invigorated people in the LGBTQ community to jumpstart their own protests and their own celebrations,” says Benjamin Morano, a Cincinnati Pride board member and the festival and parade planning chairperson. “[Cincinnati Pride] started with a handful of people at Fountain Square and has grown every year since then.”
Today, Morano says, Cincinnati Pride draws more than 100,000 people to the parade, the city’s largest celebration on the month-long calendar of events. The 2020 parade was cancelled due to COVID, and this year’s celebration will be scaled down, but the celebration still includes smaller events, including a film series at the Esquire Theatre in Clifton, the Transgender/Non-Binary Community Town Hall on Zoom, and a Drag Brunch at The Summit Hotel in Madisonville.
Early Pride Memories
When Chanak first attended Cincinnati Pride in the mid-80s, he kept to the back of the crowd. At that point, the event drew maybe a few hundred people. Attendance was small, and people often didn’t know one another, but Chanak would see families, allies, churches—entire buses full of people—and think, “Oh, this is the little group of people I read about in the news.”
Kersha Deibel attended her first Cincinnati Pride event in 2005, when she was a freshman at the University of Cincinnati. She grew up in New Philadelphia, a small city about 50 miles south of Akron, and remembers her first Cincinnati Pride as a bit of a culture shock—she saw drag queens for the first time in her life.
“This was a time when I was starting to see people who looked like me as a Black, queer, young person,” says Deibel, who lives in Northside and today serves as president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio. “I felt like people were being the full, authentic version of themselves.”
While those early events were much smaller than those on today’s Pride calendar, Deibel says, they were also organic and driven by the community.
When Chanak thinks of Cincinnati Pride in its early days, he remembers that its leaders weren’t particularly organized. That isn’t to say they didn’t have a plan—but they volunteered out of passion and belief, before the advent of social media, when volunteerism can get lost in the likes. Posting, he says, don’t make someone a leader.
“In our day, if you participated, you paid a price,” Chanak says. “Loss of job, loss of family ties, relationships. I don’t think people today understand those of us who went before [dealt with]—the amount of harassment, deaths, suicide, the mess with AIDS.”
Pride-ful Hopes for Today and the Future
To keep those memories alive, Chanak hopes to see Cincinnati Pride focus more on the history of the movement.
“We don’t teach this stuff in public schools,” he says. “Where do people learn about this?”
As Pride events have taken off and corporate sponsorships have become the norm, Deibel hopes for a future in which companies that support Pride are also prioritizing inclusive policies internally. Otherwise, she points out, that support can feel performative. Deibel was a panelist at Cincinnati Black Pride’s town hall, State of Black LGBTQ+ Cincinnati, which explored ideas around policy, benefits and compensation.
“My hope is, over the next five years, those conversations are fruitful and action-oriented that allow the leaders to move from status quo to this vision becoming a reality,” she says. “Places and cities need diverse thought, diverse leaders, and diverse people. Those are the best teams. Those are the best communities—when it’s not homogenous.”
Meanwhile, Morano says he’d like Cincinnati Pride to become more of a resource for the city’s LGBTQ community. And the organization is already making strides toward that goal: In the last year, Morano says, Pride developed a community resources page on its website. The list of nonprofit organizations offers key services addressing everything from gender identity to medical care.
Looking into the more immediate future, Morano sees Cincinnati Pride’s 50th anniversary waving from 2023.
“We’re going to go balls-to-the-walls crazy and just really celebrate our 50th anniversary,” Morano says. “That’s a huge milestone for an organization.”
Though she died nearly 17 years ago, Chanak considers how Peaches might have celebrated the growth of Cincinnati Pride and its upcoming golden anniversary:
For Pride, Peaches would have put on one of her finest gowns with lots of sparkles. She wore her own hair, always nicely done. One of us would have no doubt picked her up and delivered her to Pride, where her admirers would present her bouquets of flowers.
She always loved greeting the crowds, which is why she was known as Cincinnati’s first hostess. I bet you she would been delighted, blessed the crowds, and then went to one of the local watering holes for an adult refreshment.
I never worried about her getting home. One of her many friends would see that she got [home safely].
Peaches would look at how Pride has grown and had a twinkle in her eye.