The Lively Experiment: Providence, Rhode Island

by Jeff Heilman

Great things are available day and night in this walkable, safe, and accessible city. Providence’s diverse neighborhoods invite, and reward, exploration at every turn.

Stirring symbols include Independence Man, the golden statue crowning the impressive dome of the Rhode Island State House. Originally intended to honor Williams, the muscular loinclothed figure, with spear and anchor, marks the essence of Ocean State life.

“That mission to allow people to be themselves is woven into the city’s fabric,” said Thomas Riel, vice president of sales & services for the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB). “Providence offers a very comfortable living and visitor environment for all. My husband Richard and I feel that we fit in and belong here—there’s no looking over your shoulder in Providence.”

Growing up gay in Providence, Graham Carter affirms the city’s strong sense of community. “Providence has always been an open, tolerant town,” said Carter, who worked at Mirabar, Rhode Island’s oldest gay bar, and with the influential Rhode Island International Film Festival before heading off for undergraduate and film school studies at USC. “Renowned for its short films, the festival is an Academy Award qualifier. Incorporating the Providence LGBTQ Film Festival, it’s a big international draw.”

PrideFest 2018 - Providence, RI

PrideFest 2018
Photo: Anthony Ricci

Another major magnet is PrideFest. In 1976, a local gay rights group filed suit after being denied permission to convene for a forum on gay issues and to hold a Pride march. Following a favorable federal First Amendment ruling, some 75 participants inaugurated Providence’s first Pride in downtown’s Kennedy Plaza that year. Since then, the month-long event has only grown “louder and prouder.” That was the theme in 2018, when National Geographic named PrideFest one of the world’s top seven Pride events. Running from May through June, the festival includes the Illuminated Night Parade. New
England’s only nighttime Pride parade, and among the few in the U.S., this electrifying event alone attracts some 50,000 revelers.

“What we deliver is bringing people from all walks of life together for a true celebration of fun, love, and diversity,” said Joe Lazzerini, president of the Executive Board of Rhode Island (RI) Pride. “Larger than most Prides I’ve experienced, it’s special and meaningful beyond words.”

Lazzerini joined RI Pride in 2012, when he was named Mr. Gay Rhode Island in the organization’s annual pageant. This ambassadorial “titleholder” role preceded his appointment as President in 2017. With RI Pride recently adopting
“LGBTQIA+” for all events and outreach efforts, Lazzerini, who also serves as director of the Mayor’s Center for City Services, keeps driving forward.

“We always look for opportunities to improve,” he said. “We’ve made great progress over the years, but there is still work to do on inclusion and acceptance.”

According to Thomas Riel: “We recently asked 40 LGBTQ locals how they thought we should market our gay-friendly destination. They emphatically rejected having an LGBTQ page on our website. They want to be part of the big picture, not a special category. And that’s how we talk about Providence as a destination.”

In 2018, GayCities.com named Providence the nation’s gayest state capital. “We also elect gay officials,” said Riel. “Now in Congress, our former two-term mayor David Cicilline, who also served in the Rhode Island House of Representatives, was America’s first openly gay mayor.”

Tourism has become the most persuasive talking point. True to Rhode Island’s current “Fun-Sized” marketing campaign, great things are available day and night in this walkable, safe, and accessible city. Providence’s diverse neighborhoods invite, and reward, exploration at every turn.

Known as the “Superman Building” for its likeness to the fictional Daily Planet, the 1927 Industrial Trust Company tower crowns a landmark-rich architectural landscape ranging from colonial to modern. The Downtown Providence Historic District is among dozens of locales and buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Footed by RISD and home to Ivy League Brown University, College Hill, the city’s original 17th-century settlement, is a National Historic Landmark District. Meanwhile, graduates from Johnson & Wales University give Providence world-class culinary flavor.

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