SAN FRANCISCO – Tens of thousands of people wearing elaborate costumes and waving banners rattled noise makers, blew whistles and cheered as participants marched in this city's 36th annual Gay Pride parade.
There was a serious side to this year's parade, too, with national corporations conspicuously present and the national debate over issues such as gay marriage looming large.
Thousands of people in multi-colored wigs and face paint lined Market Street dowtown as marching bands, dancers and floats bearing corporate logos streamed by.
"They're gay," said Michael Crowe, 63, as a marching band playing "ABC" by the Jackson 5 filed past during Sunday's parade. "How do they march straight?"
Crowe, a resident of nearby Newark, Calif., said he's attended the parade for years. One of the most striking differences this year, he said, was the high-profile presence of corporations such as Delta Airlines, Wells Fargo and Kaiser Permanente. The companies sponsored floats with corporate logos emblazoned on them. Delta's float was a mock jetliner.
"There's much greater acceptance in corporate America," he said.
Other organizations that marched included the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Rocket Dog Rescue, a volunteer group that helps abandoned dogs find homes. One marcher with the latter group walked with pit bull that was dressed in a rainbow tutu.
Rocky Angel, a 40-year-old artist from Oakland, attended wearing green and black face paint and a black bandanna bearing the skull and cross bones.
"Black is a traditional Sunday color for me," said Angel, who was also decked out with a sturdy chain around his neck, medallions of a dragon, a sword and a pentagram. Although he said he had been hearing about the parade for years, it was the first time he had attended.
"It's maybe not quite as flamboyant as I pictured it," he said.
That's not to say there weren't plenty of sights.
One float carried a bearded man wearing a white lace mini skirt and fish net stockings who sang Madonna's "Like a Virgin" as a band backed him. A half-dozen men dressed in underwear and top hats danced behind him.
Another float carried members of the Barbary Coast Cloggers, a men's group dedicated to the traditional dance form. The rowdy performers wore red checkered shirts, straw cowboy hats, blue jeans and heavy boots, as they stomped in time to country music.
"It's true street theater," said Dan Jepson, 68, as he watched.
But many of the parade-goers, striking a more serious tone, came bearing political slogans concerning gay marriage, the AIDS epidemic and discrimination.
"It's to have a good time, but also to remember the issues out there," Jane Woodman, 26, said of the gathering. "There's still a lot of work to be done," she said, noting the national debate raging over whether gays and lesbians should have a legal right to marry.
"It's kind of a make-or-break time," Woodman said.
Michael Bailey, 38, said he marched for years in parade, but that more recently, as he's grown more comfortable with his orientation, he has opted to stand in the crowd.
"Coming out isn't easy," he said. "If you're 17 or 25 you need to be cheered at."