Coming out to come together: One writer's evolving appreciation of Kalamazoo Pride

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

KALAMAZOO, MI — For me, 2024's Kalamazoo Pride can be summed up by various sounds: the click-clack of a 60-year-old typewriter, the patter of rain on pavement, the baying of bloodhound puppies, recurring laughter of attendees, cackle of drag queens, and the heavy beat from loudspeakers keeping dizzy time over the gilded heads of LGBTQIA+ folks and their allies occupying the downtown city block that is Arcadia Park.

Launched in 2008 by OutFront Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo Pride has transformed a fledgling event into a festival that welcomes almost 10,000 people annually. The two-day-long party brings people from all over Michigan, including dozens of vendors, nonprofits, and plentiful food trucks. Entertainment is provided by local performers, as well as by acts from outside of Michigan. 

Casey GrootenFrom noon to 2 p.m. on Pride Saturday, vendors set up their displays and tents. This year's Kalamazoo Pride (#Pride365) took place from June 8 to June 9, 2024, one of the city's biggest weekends of the year — the same weekend as the Kalamazoo Institute of the Arts Art Fair, Art on the Mall, and the Do Dah Parade. 

Full disclosure

In complete honesty, I have not always wanted to attend Pride. Queer folks partake in interpersonal politics and unpleasantness just like every community does — and in my younger years, it became uncomfortable to feel othered within a space that was supposed to be about freedom and love. 

So why did I attend this year? 

Casey GrootenThe Kalamazoo Poetry Festival created a group poem using a vintage typewriter. The Kalamazoo Poetry Festival drew me in. As the new Executive Director, I volunteered to work at our table. This was the Poetry Festival's first time present at Pride, and we were hoping to introduce KPF to the Pride community— to show that LGBTQIA+ people are a valued voice in our collective poetic space here in Kalamazoo.

Our presence felt especially important in light of recent discriminatory legislation. Last year, over 500 bills adversely impacting the queer community were enacted across the nation, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. As a nonbinary person, as a human being with a defined set of morals and ethics, and now as a leader in my community, I feel a renewed responsibility to set my insecurities aside and show up. 

What I discovered

Saturday's weather started at 60-something degrees and then warmed to a balmy 75 before later rain showers cooled everybody and everything down. Waiting in line for the vendor check-in area, I felt my apprehension rising as I looked around.

Would the other booths next to KPF be chill? I was concerned the rain would not hold off and wondered if people could find us in the back of this big tent. Would the gay house music be too loud? The worries started to outnumber the joys. 

Then the puppies came. 

The booth next to the Kalamazoo Poetry Festival turned out to be occupied by a dog rescue — with four bloodhound puppies in attendance, along with several middle-aged dogs of various breeds. Their playful yips and young howls helped me set aside my worries — and soon opened my heart to the smiles of a diverse crowd that had come out to Pride: bells on… and wings on… and horns… tutus, pup hoods, furry costumes, thongs, fishnets, and other items of clothing and accessories meant to peacock one's identity and to exercise rare public freedom for queer folks — 


Looking around me, I saw a kaleidoscope of color in all forms and fashions: jewel tones and pastels, deep blacks, and a thousand rainbows. 

Everywhere I glanced there was unbridled laughter and camaraderie  — mixed with the determined faces of people working hard to make the festival welcoming and successful. The volunteers and Outfront staff moved in and out of the crowd of attendees surging through the various temporary avenues of the park, bottlenecking at every corner.

On Saturday, most of my Pride experience was at the KPF booth. We invited the attendees who stopped by the table to play a poetic game of Exquisite Corpse. The participants used a vintage typewriter to add their own words to form a community poem, after reading a line or two composed by the previous writer. 

Casey GrootenThe Kalamazoo Poetry Festival created a group poem using a vintage typewriter. Every couple of minutes, Beth Bullmer, KPF board member and volunteer, would say to the curious people walking up, “Do you want to play a poetry game?” Or the big sell, “Do you want to type on a 60-year-old typewriter? 

By the time the first volunteer shift ended and we traded off armbands, I was full to the brim with dopamine and endorphins. The event was only half over and something was beginning to dawn on me.

I was having a good time. Beth and I had gotten to know each other better. She handed me a book of her poetry, and despite all the noise, I was able to read three poems, and they were beautiful. The trepidation I had of potentially seeing an ex was realized (came and went), and even ended in a hug for well wishes. Without realizing it, my insecurities about attending Pride this year had vanished.

I had a new take on Pride. Pride, I realized, is bigger than politics or personalities. Pride is about showing up and coming out with my community to demonstrate in person how love takes hard work. 

A little on my background

I grew up in a family where I was simultaneously told that I was loved and told that I was not allowed to be queer. When I was 18 years old, I was forced to leave home because I had come out. For years, I was not welcome to see my numerous nieces and nephews because of my “perversion.” At age 34, it is hard to see that those teachings were passed down from my parents to my siblings, and now to their children. Words matter. 

Casey GrootenMy experiences with family, however, are another reason why attending Kalamazoo Pride felt important. As I looked around, I saw so many families. Teens, tweens, and toddlers were running around enjoying the music and food. All ages of people were enjoying the moment — the music, food, dancing, and smiles. 

Their joy was contagious. Inside I felt a cautious happiness for those who seemed to have what I do not have in my family. But I was also reminded of a time when I was eight and attending a Baptist summer camp where a counselor told me I was a bitter person. I remember crying, something I didn’t do a lot of as an adult, and I remember feeling guilty, which in turn caused more of the feelings I was trying to escape.

Casey GrootenThe rain did not scare everyone away.Bitterness would serve no one, including myself. The world is a better place with parents and guardians who truly care for the safety and acceptance of their young ones. I am a better, less bitter person for experiencing Pride this year and was heartened to imagine these happy kids running around and growing up with proper support and care. 

Some of these young folks even came to our KPF table and contributed to the KPF Pride Community Poem. In fact, we often had a line of people waiting for their turn to write. By the end of the day, we had accumulated almost five pages of typed poetry. I slid the final page from the typewriter at 6 p.m. 

As the vendors packed up to leave, the rain began. The festival-goers flooded into the tents to escape being drenched. A couple of my close friends found their way over and we waited for my partner to graciously carry the heavy table and KPF materials to his truck. Even being pummeled with water or huddled in a tent, everyone still found a reason to smile and hug, and I was leaving Pride feeling grateful and proud.

Kalamazoo Poetry Festival Pride 2024 Exquisite Corpse Poem (a segment)

She towers above me in her glitter heels
A stiff breeze blows against her blonde bosom

A cold winter shivers down her spine,
grows bigger and more intense.

The softness of the poem will solve her problem, and
Its flow never stops like rivers like Seas, it
Marches unashamed of neighbors and strangers.

She fights the fear storm away, because
Everyone is worthy of at least the organ of a leaf, a plan,
Even though no plan is forever, and no plan sticks like glue- to her

To me.

I gave so much time to pizza and cookies, and peace
That now all I want is to be gay and loud.
I want to look around me and see others being gay and loud.

My pink eyes match the flowers inside her, and a cool breeze
Precedes the rain and fans the fire that grows between us.

Learn more about the history of Outfront and Kalamazoo Pride here.
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Read more articles by Casey Grooten.

Casey Grooten is a Kalamazoo native who lived in the Vine and Stuart neighborhoods for over a decade and graduated from WMU with a Bachelors in English. Casey lives in Kalamazoo and spends their free time making artwork and music. Casey is passionate about social justice and equity, transgender rights, community events, and the arts.