By Jack Ford

Staff Writer

The Naval Air Station Jacksonville (NAS Jax) Multicultural Awareness Committee (MCAC) hosted their third annual pride event with more than 30 people in attendance June 13.

Numerous speakers spoke about local organizations for the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community and the Jacksonville Gay Chorus performed for the second year in a row. 

MCAC member Michelle Guerra of the NAS Jax Navy Exchange said, "Many different people from different parts of the DoD, civilians and military personnel, came together to put this event together. It took a lot of brainstorming and phone calls."

Attendees, guest speakers and chorus members were welcomed to the event by AMC(AW/SW) Joanna Madrid, MCAC coordinator. 

The chorus opened with a rendition of "Imagine" by John Lennon. 

Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network's (JASMYN) Director of Policy Dan Merkan appreciated the rendition and tied it into his speech about the tragedies that the LGBT community has faced and how JASMYN works to support the community.

The Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando last year was one tragedy he focused on. JASMYN has held two vigils for Pulse in the last two years where hundreds of people were in attendance.

JASMYN is the longest serving LGBT organization in the south; it has been in existence for 20 years. JASMYN has many services for the community, including weekly HIV and STD testing.

They also played a role in helping Jacksonville pass the city's new ordinance law, which added sexuality to the list of protection from discrimination. 

"JASMYN is a fun space to be who you are and the pride movement is trying to help you to be your authentic self," said Merkan.

The chorus stepped up to sing The Muppet's "Rainbow Connection" before the second guest speaker LGBT Advocate Keri Kidder spoke.

Kidder has been in Jacksonville since 2006. During her presentation she said, "I came out of the closet at 40 and I flew out."

Kidder describes her passion for activism as, "chain myself to a fence with a fist pump in the air, do something activist." 

She discussed her participation marching in Washington, D.C. and previous LGBT marches. She has been an activist for many years and has two friends who were activists for LGBT equality before the repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. 

She expressed a quote from the Department of Defense (DoD) Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Anthony Kurta who said, at the DoD pride event she attended, "Integrity and respect are fundamental equalities for our military and civilian cultures."

"Respect for your neighbor and respect for your fellow human beings is important in today's world," Kidder said.

Parents and Families of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) of Jacksonville Founder Frieda Saraga was the final guest speaker. She discussed her five children and how three of them were gay or lesbian. 

She said, "It was a little daunting at first." 

At the time when they came out to her, she said there was little to no help available for her support them. She had to ask herself, "Where do you go for support?" 

So Saraga started the PFLAG Jacksonville Chapter. This group stands for education, advocacy, and support of the LGBT community.

PFLAG provides multiple $2,000 scholarships for LGBT students throughout the year. The scholarships have been provided since 1996 and they are the only chapter in the state to do so.

Saraga also discussed billboards that read, "We love our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender children" and how much of a struggle her organization and the billboard company that made them had to go through to put them and keep them up. 

She stated, "Religion is our biggest barrier. No matter how much I am all for religion, religion that doesn't teach love, but teaches hate is not a true religion."

She finished with informing the audience of the hotline PFLAG of Jacksonville has for anyone who needs to talk to someone.

The Jacksonville Gay Chorus ended the event with Louis Armstrong's "What A Wonderful World." They also sang a medley of service songs to salute our LGBT service members. 

Numerous service members came out to the event to show their support.

"I enjoyed how welcoming the event was," said ABH3 Andrew Manpelt of NAS Jax. "I am from San Antonio and San Diego and the LGBT environment is completely different here from what I am used to. I enjoyed that they had prominent guest speakers, like Dan Merkan, because I have seen him on TV and that is really cool. I also love how there is a Sailor from NAS Jax in the chorus."

YN1 William Shiltz of Air Operations said he felt the positive messages from the speakers stating, "The event was great and very informative on how the climate in Jacksonville is getting better for the LGBT community in and out of service."