PHOENIX — June is LGBTQ+ Pride Month across the U.S., and 2021 is a big year for Phoenix Pride.
Forty years ago, the first Phoenix Pride event, a march from Downtown Phoenix to the state capitol, was held to help advocate for equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community here in Arizona.
Ernie Mendoza, a former chair of Phoenix Pride, was among the dozens of marchers in 1981, but he didn't set out to be.
"I didn't come out of the box loud and proud," he explains with a smile on his face. "Nobody can judge another person's journey because it's all different."
Newspaper clippings captured that moment in Arizona history, but Mendoza doesn't need a history lesson. He was there.
"Sometimes you have to step out of the shadows to be seen...I knew the march was happening, so I decided to go down there and watch. But I couldn't stay on the sidelines. I just couldn't."
Something inside Mendoza that day made him want to march, even though he wasn't out yet to his family and risked them finding out.
"I contemplated, watching all these other people and I just decided I needed to walk with them and that started my long journey."
And it wasn't just a physical journey. In fact, walking was the easy part.
"We all make our own prisons sometimes. And the only ones that can open that door are ourselves...I was terrified. I was so afraid that family and friends would see it. This is how I come out to my family. I just thought I had to do it for me."
Out in the open, Mendoza marched to the capitol with the several dozen others who had joined in. It was a far cry from the 14,000 people who attended the last Phoenix Pride Parade in 2019, but Mendoza says the numbers didn't matter. It was all about one thing: being seen.
"Visibility is a funny thing. People can know you're there but not actually acknowledge that you're there. And I think that is what the march did. It made people acknowledge that the LGBT community was here and we were ready to start standing up for ourselves."
And 40 years later, he hopes the steps they took on the streets of Downtown Phoenix will encourage the next generation to know that they're OK just the way they are.
"I think that's the whole purpose of Pride. To inspire people. To make them know that they are not alone. Because you could be surrounded by people and still think you're alone. It's a common thing for anybody. Doesn't matter if you're gay, straight, black, or white. It doesn't matter."
Phoenix Pride says more than 250,000 people here in Arizona identify as LGBTQ+.
To date, the Phoenix Pride Community Foundation has contributed more than $1 million in scholarships and other charitable endeavors.
Phoenix Pride will be held on Nov. 6 and 7 this year. For more information, visit their website.