‘Gay Day’ at the State Fair of Texas may be all but forgotten, but you’ll still find plenty of queer attractions at this year’s event, which starts Friday
Longtime lesbian activist Susan Gore recalls trying to make the LGBT community visible at the State Fair of Texas when the thought of a gay-themed day was still scandalous.
While planning the first Gay Day at the State Fair in 1994, Gore said she had to jump through a lot of hoops before fair officials finally allowed it under multicultural events.
“They came around,” Gore said. “It’s [the fair is] an event for the city and for the state, and we’re citizens like everybody else.”
Gay Day wasn’t a sanctioned event like Czech Day. It was more along the lines of a company picnic, and the second outing in 1995 included a barbecue and celebrity speakers Candace Gingrich and Chastity Bono, now Chaz Bono. It was held on the Sunday before National Coming Out Day.
“We decided that as a large part of the Dallas population we wanted to be visible,” Gore said.
In 1996, fair officials ended all ethnic days and multicultural days. Some in the LGBT community have suggested that the fair did away with ethnic days to get rid of Gay Day, but Gore said she feels it was a business decision because ethnic days were losing money.
“We were visible, we were celebrating, we were being a part of the community in Dallas, and I believe it was very successful for those two years,” Gore said.
Gregory Pynes, co-coordinator of the Gay Day events, said he and Gore worked with the local Human Rights Campaign steering committee to bring about the first two Gay Days.
But fair officials would not place Gay Day on the calendar, Pynes said, because they didn’t consider it on the same scale as multicultural days. And even setting up at the Hall of State brought controversy, so the group moved venues throughout the fairgrounds.
Even after the days were cancelled, Pynes said organizers continued informal Gay Days until 1999. There would be speakers and city council members would read resolutions declaring it State Fair Gay Day. Eventually the planning and finding speakers became a lot of work, and the days stopped.
Haltom City resident Mike Weaver is trying to bring back the State Fair Gay Day this year. He’s created a “Gay Day State Fair of Texas” event on Facebook for National Coming Out Day on Thursday, Oct. 11.
Weaver created a State Fair Gay Day in 2010 and said he liked seeing same-sex parents bring children and wear T-shirts celebrating their identity. The day was on a Saturday, but this year he picked a weekday to avoid large crowds.
“I just wanted to do it and have the community have a great time together without being political,” Weaver said.
Gore said the end of ethnic days coincided with the beginning of Gay Day at Six Flags Over Texas, causing the annual theme park event to grow in popularity. She said she’s glad to see the informal Gay Day at the State Fair return and encouraged people to attend.
“We still are here and are still part of the community,” she said. “There are different ways of being visible.”
But even without a formal Gay Day, there’s still plenty that’s queer about the State Fair of Texas.
In fact, some might argue that the LGBT community no longer needs a Gay Day because, well, every day is Gay Day at the fair — and we’re everywhere!
Here are just five examples from this year’s fair:
1. You don’t know Jack?
Jack Bunning has served as executive director of the Dallas Historical Society for the last three years, overseeing special events and the exhibit that runs throughout the fair at the
Hall of State at the fairgrounds.
Bunning worked as the director of marketing and development for the Sixth Floor Museum before moving to Austin to take the same position at the Long Center for the Performing Arts.
While he lived in Austin for a time before returning to Dallas three years ago, Bunning said he’s always called Dallas home. He said he loves his current position because he helps preserve a large portion of Dallas’ history — one of the three large collections in Dallas along with items at the Dallas Public Library and Southern Methodist University.
But the DHS is the only collection that exhibits the history of its collection, he said. Bunning, who’s gay, helps select the exhibit that runs throughout the fair. This year’s exhibit is commemorating 100 years of the Girl Scouts, entitled “The 100th Girl Scout Experience.”
He said the exhibit was scheduled to run in the Women’s Museum, but after the building closed, it was submitted as an idea for the State Fair exhibit. He said he keeps “the big list” of exhibit ideas for State Fair ideas because eventually the timing, funding and theme work out.
Last year, he said the featured fair exhibit showcased the 175-year history of Texas. The previous year displayed personal items of Tom Landry.
Items from a life-size cookie box to memorabilia from the Girl Scouts’ founder will be displayed, and those who attend can even join a virtual troop for the duration of their visit.
For more info, visit StateFairGirlScouts.com.
2. The momma of the Main Stage
Lesbian blues singer Ruthie Foster grew up in Gause, Texas, but hasn’t attended the State Fair since college. This year she’ll return to headline a performance on Oct. 6, bringing her powerhouse vocals and mixture of blues, jazz and gospel to the fair’s Main Stage.
The Grammy-nominated singer released her eighth album, Let It Burn, in January. Foster wrote several of the songs herself and also lends her vocals to a few songs by other artists like The Black Keys and Adele.
“It’s really just a compilation of tunes that I have admired and a couple tunes I had been sitting on,” Foster told Dallas Voice.
Foster plays the guitar and piano, but she didn’t play any instruments on her newest album, deciding instead to focus on singing, a change she welcomed.
“It gave me a chance to showcase my ability to be just a singer. I had a chance to just sing and that was a nice plus and something different,” she said. “It really opened me up to be able to interpret these songs vocally the way they probably never would have been interpreted had I been playing.”
Foster lives in South Austin with her partner of six years and their 16-month-old daughter. Although Foster is in her late 40s and had given up on the idea of a family, she said her partner wanted kids, so the timing was perfect.
“She wanted to have a family,” Foster said, adding that the experience over the last year has been one of growth. “You get to that point where your capacity to love is expanded like tenfold when you have a child. It’s just so beautiful.”
Foster’s last album, The Truth According to Ruthie Foster, explored her life’s journey from the start of her music career — singing in church at 14 — to her time in the U.S. Navy and coming out. Her next album will likely explore motherhood.
She doesn’t expect another album out before at least a year and a half, but even without the time or the sleep to write while being on tour and raising a family, Foster said being a mother has already inspired her creatively.
“It’s definitely starting to inspire my drive to create more,” she said.
Foster takes the Main Stage Oct. 6 at the State Fair and she’ll be back in Dallas to perform at The Kessler Theater Dec. 21.
3. Rockin’ the float
By day Brad Pritchett does marketing for the Dallas Theater Center.
By night the gay 32-year-old singer, dancer and actor does a little of everything — from hosting Halloween and Christmas shows at Six Flags to providing between-innings entertainment for the Frisco RoughRiders baseball team.
Last year at this time Pritchett had just wrapped up the RoughRiders season — an outdoor gig that spanned the hottest summer on record in North Texas.
So he was a little reluctant when his longtime associates at gay-owned Eclipse Entertainment — which has a contract with the State Fair of Texas — asked him to emcee a float in the nightly parade.
But who could turn down the State Fair, right?
“I didn’t even know there was a parade,” Pritchett recalls. “It was super-successful, and they called me again this year to come back. It’s a super-easy gig. I’m in and out of there in an hour.”
Armed with a headset microphone and a live video camera, Pritchett straps himself in to the float at 7 p.m. all 24 days of the fair.
He fires up the crowd while panning the camera back and forth along the route — from the bandshell, past Big Tex and around the Cotton Bowl, to Gateway Plaza.
“They think they’re on TV when they’re actually just on the jumbotron that’s attached to my float, so they go crazy,” Pritchett says.
While he enjoys the camaraderie among performers in the parade — including several others who are gay — Pritchett admits that by the end of the State Fair, the routine starts to get a little old.
But, he adds, there’s nothing that a beer and a corny dog before the parade won’t cure.
4. A couple of caricatures
Brian Nelson-Cruz and his husband Jeremy give the common fairgoer trend of caricatures a digital twist. Instead of a hand-drawn sketch, the couple takes a photo of their subjects and uses Photoshop to digitally distort the image.
They use different filters on the software to give the caricatures a “cartoon feeling,” Brian Nelson-Cruz said, and “nudge and push things around” on screen until the final picture is created. He says the process “works like magic.”
The idea came to them a few years ago, but Nelson-Cruz said he can’t draw, something that bothered him because he’s a graphic designer. He was envious of people who could draw, so he took his computer skills and made an image that looked like it was drawn. He and his husband began creating the pictures for friends and family.
They teamed up this year with Friends of Fair Park to offer the caricatures to fairgoers and help raise money for the nonprofit. Gay former Dallas City Councilman Craig Holcomb is the executive director of Friends of Fair Park. The digital caricatures will each have a Fair Pair logo and the fairgrounds in the background.
Nelson-Cruz said he hopes fairgoers will look forward to getting their digital caricatures made over time and will remind them of the good times they had at the State Fair. “It’s more of a keepsake memory,” he said.
The picture from photo to Photoshop to print takes about 10 minutes and costs $20 for up to two people. The cost includes a digital emailed copy and a color print. Each additional person in the photo or extra print is $5.
5. ‘The Addams Family’ is family
A tradition as respected as the Fletcher’s Corny Dog, the Texas-OU game or Big Tex himself is the State Fair Musical.
For more than 65 years, the Dallas Summer Musicals has been a staple at Fair Park, and October is when they usually settle in with a long-running show for the family. Only this year, the family is on the strange side.
In addition to starring openly gay actor Douglas Sills (see story on Page 22), The Addams Family: A Musical boasts one of the queerer offerings for the State Fair musical — and that says a lot. First, there’s the macabre source material (lots of jokes about death and ghoulishness). The original Broadway version was a vehicle for gay actor Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth. And the author and composer is Andrew Lippa — also gay.
His previous credits include an adaptation of the Jazz Age poem “The Wild Party,” which involves orgies and murder. That’s a far cry from previous State Fair musicals like The Lion King, Wicked and Mary Poppins. Oh, wait … evil jungle cats … mystical nannies … green-skinned witches who are Friends of Dorothy. Maybe The Addams Family isn’t so out-of-place after all.
Senior editor John Wright and Life+Style editor Arnold Wayne Jones contributed to this report.
State Fair of Texas
The State Fair of Texas runs Sept. 28 through Oct. 21. Exhibit buildings are open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily and until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. For more, visit BigTex.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 29, 2012.