In 1994, a group of Boise LGBTQ folks decided to beat the heat and took to the Boise River on what they had dubbed the "Fruit Float"—a name they'd mockingly derived from a homophobic slur.
"We were floating down the river, and people were shooting at us," said Evie Smith, a longtime Boise resident and activist.
It was a harsh year for the Idaho LGBTQ community: Proposition 1, a measure aiming to deny homosexuals minority status in the Gem State, appeared on the ballot that November. It was also a turning point for civil rights in Idaho, and despite a two-year effort to put the proposition before voters, it was defeated at the ballot box. Prop. 1 is now a 25-year-old memory, but the legacy of the Fruit Float will continue at the 2019 Pride Parade, at the head of which will be a cohort of people who braved bigotry, hardship and violence to participate in early Pride events—Smith among them.
Joining her will be activist, nurse, President of the Interfaith Alliance of Idaho and Deacon of the Liberating Spirit Metropolitan Community Church Judie Cross, who spoke to the nexus of faith, health and society during the AIDS crisis and the first years of Pride, when religious communities were rent between their ideals and a wave of homophobia. Smith said she left her previous church after it charged her husband with open homosexuality in 1983, ordering their house arrangement "mapped" and psychological evaluations for their children.
"The pastor actually came to us and said he could get the charges dropped if we'd just get a divorce," she said.
The first gatherings and marches were "revolutionary" for helping pull homosexuality from the margins of Boise life, said John Hummel, who helped organize the first parade in Boise in 1990 along with his partner Brian Bergquist and the activist group Your Family, Friends, and Neighbors. The event was attended by approximately 175 people and included speeches at the Idaho State Capitol, a march to Julia Davis Park and a concert; but the city provided an obscure parade route haunted by hecklers, several of whom became notorious: Patrick Connor regularly showed up with his dog and a chained-up closet he'd built himself; another man came dressed as the Grim Reaper.
"People were nervous that first year," Hummel said. "There were people who watched the parade with paper bags over their heads because they were afraid of being publicly identified."
This year, Pride organizers expect tens of thousands of people to attend the festivities. At an event of that scale, the most blatant homophobia would likely be drowned out by music blasting from the PA or the main stage, or the chants of marchers at the Pride Parade. Hummel said the most vitriolic anti-gay demonstrators thinned out after the failure of Prop. 1, and by 1998, they were practically gone.
"That was the first year that we noted that there were no anti-gay protesters," he said. "That was the day that Brian died. ... Looking back, Brian, if he had the opportunity to do so, would look back with pride, pardon the pun, at what he'd accomplished."
The river of LGBTQ issues in Idaho has shifted in its bed since then. For those early Pride activists, few of those changes has had more of an impact than when Judge Candy Dale overturned the state's voter-approved same-sex marriage ban in 2014.
"My partner and I decided we weren't going to get married until it was legal in Idaho," said Doug Flanders, an early Pride board member. "I was so ingrained in the activism here that I didn't feel right until I could get married in our home city. When the court ruled, we were down there the next day at the courthouse. It was a huge crowd, very happy and emotional, and we were probably seventh in line to get our license that day."
Flanders said the presence of LGBTQ people in the media and other touchpoints form a bridge between the defiant tone of past Prides and the Saturnalian feel of Pride today, but he and others said work remains to be done, particularly when it comes to "adding the words." For the better part of two decades, advocates have fought to have "gender identity" and "sexual orientation" included in the Gem State's human rights law, which would create protections against workplace, public accommodations and employment discrimination, and in 2015, hundreds of people packed a legislative hearing room as the House State Affairs Committee heard testimony on a bill that would do just that. It was an historic first, but in the end, the committee voted not to advance it to the full House.
"When you're talking about equal protections, you can't offer them to someone and say that you can have some protections, but they're not quite the same protections that everyone else has," said Sen. Maryanne Jordan (D-Boise), who helped Boise pass its nondiscrimination ordinance as a member of the Boise City Council, and has lately been a staunch supporter of LGBTQ rights in the Statehouse. She said while most of what she does in the legislature entails compromise, "Every once in a while, there's that 100% issue."
A queer person born the day of the first Freedom Day Parade in Idaho would be 30 in 2019, and only remember the tail end of the the AIDS crisis. The most hateful anti-gay Pride counterdemonstrators would be a distant memory, but Flanders said he hopes young people learn about the effort and grit it took to throw the first gatherings and marches as they celebrate this year, and remember that there are still mountains to climb before they're granted full civil rights.
"It gets emotional," he said, reflecting on the past. "I've been in this community over 35 years. I've been pushing stuff like this from the very beginning, and looking back, it was pretty revolutionary for Boise to do something like that at the time."