"Hello, Queens!" she hollered to her gay audience. "I am Cashetta from the Bronx, the world's only drag magician, and first I'm going to sing a few songs for all you honeys who came out today."Adjusting a puffy blonde wig, the long-legged diva then started in on numbers riddled with not-so-subtle sexual overtones.Such forthright expressions of sexual deviance and ambiguity could only find a big enough pulpit at the annual Gay Pride Parade and festival held Sunday in Jackson Heights. In other words, a normally outnumbered, at times outcast demographic was letting loose in droves."This was our longest and biggest one in years," said Stewart Kessler, head of the Queens Lesbian Gay Pride Committee, which has organized the parade for the past 13 years.Indeed, thousands upon thousands turned out in the cloudless 85-degree heat to march along 37th Avenue from 89th to 75th street - a tradition forged initially in reaction to the Jackson Heights murder of gay resident Julio Rivera in 1990.At the walk's end, paraders then merged onto 37th Road for the five-hour, five-block festival to peruse the rows of tables offering infant Bonsai Trees and glittery purses alongside body oils and free STD testing.Making the event a success, however, is never an easy task, said Daniel Dromm, the committee's founder. Soliciting sponsors to fork over the needed $40,000 and hiring performers to keep the party alive is a collaborative nine-month ordeal every year, he said.Kessler, who recently replaced Dromm as committee co-chairman, said a couple of new aspects instituted this year took some of the pressure off. One was contracting the city party-planning company Clearview Festival Productions to handle the vendors. Another was obtaining the help of a gay outreach group called Hotshots, which through a contract with the city's Department of Health hired a series of musicians and entertainers for the festival, including the drag magician, Cashetta, and popular recording artist Ari Gold.At their tent, volunteers wearing black Hotshot T-shirts handed out STD awareness brochures while Department of Health employees administered free HIV, gonorrhea and syphilis testing and hepatitis vaccinations."We want to make sure our gay and lesbian community is healthy this year," said Hotshot head, Aaron Tanner, from the festival stage.Though a strong emphasis was placed on disease protection, the overriding theme of this year's parade, according to Dromm, was "equal rights, no more no less.""A lot of people claim we want special rights. But that's not true. We just want the same rights as everyone else," Dromm said, adding that the current nationwide battle over gay marriage made the theme particularly poignant.As a teacher at Sunnyside's PS 199, Dromm is one of the few out-of-the-closet educators in the city. Being in such a position, he said, has encouraged him to bring homosexual tolerance into the classroom, which he attempted in 1992 when he founded the Children of Rainbow Curriculum."We only wanted to let kids know that lesbian and gay families exist and should be accepted," he said.The controversial initiative floundered before ever getting off the ground due to resistance from Dromm's District 24 School Board. Unphased, the activist shifted gears in 1993, taking his cause to the streets with the gay pride parade.After more than a decade, the festivity has become one of the most popular and publicized events in the borough, attracting along with almost the entire Queens gay community, more and more high-profile city politicians. This year's speakers included Democratic mayoral candidates Fernando Ferrer and U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Kew Gardens), as well as local Council members Hiram Monserrate (D-Corona) and Helen Sears (D-Jackson Heights)."We started this 13 years ago with a lot of fear because we didn't know what the reaction would be," Kessler said from back stage, wiping sweat from his brow. But unlike the gay pride parade Saturday in Staten Island, where a man was arrested for allegedly harassing participants and shouting homophobic slurs, Kessler saw no signs of friction, only celebration, at his Queens event."No one tried to convert me, not even the Christian rights people," he joked. "I'm gay and Jewish, I suppose they know I'm a lost cause."Reach reporter Zach Patberg by e-mail at news@times
©2005 Community News Group
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