PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Thousands of people are expected to flock to Providence this weekend as the city gets ready to host its 46th Annual PrideFest.
It’s a night where the colors of the rainbow flood the capital city as Rhode Islanders celebrate the LGBTQ+ community.
It’s also a sight that 46 years ago seemed unimaginable for Billy Mencer Ackerly.
“I feel like the hourglass is emptying out,” he said. “I want people to remember the history. It’s so very, very important. It came with struggle … it was a sad time.”
In 1976, Mencer Ackerly was one of several gay Rhode Islanders who fought to participate in the city’s bicentennial celebration.
The Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union brought the city to court after the Bicentennial Commission turned down the Metropolitan Community Church’s request to hold a Gay Pride parade.
Rhode Island Superior Court Judge Stephen Fortunato (ret.), the attorney who represented them, recounted the legal battle back in 2016.
Fortunato said then-Providence Police Chief Walter McQueeney “vigorously opposed any such parade taking place.”
“[McQueeney] said in so many words that gay people, by definition, engaged in criminal activity and that the parade would therefore be a forum for the advocacy of criminal behavior,” Fortunato wrote. “He may as well have branded the parade as an exercise in sedition.”
The judge ruled that gay Rhode Islanders were allowed to celebrate, and on June 26, 1976, the first Rhode Island Gay Pride Parade took place “with much fanfare and no difficulties,” according to Fortunato.
But it was a different time, and Mencer Ackerly said a number of the roughly 75 parade participants feared for their lives.
Mencer Ackerly, who was 25 at the time, tells 12 News it was the person with him that day who gave him the courage to march: his mother.
Originally from Massachusetts, Ackerly left home at the age of 16 and moved to Rhode Island.
“I just wanted to be myself, but it was really scary,” he said.
While he and his mother didn’t always see eye to eye, Mencer Ackerly said she loved him unconditionally.
“On each side of [her] car was a sign that read ‘I’m proud to say, my child is gay,'” he recalled. “It brought tears to my eyes, you know? My mother and I didn’t always agree, but that was my proudest moment of my mother … that she thought enough of me to be there.”
Mencer Ackley said it’s important that people remember the moment the city opened its doors to the gay community.
Now 71 years old, Mencer Ackerly plans to participate in this year’s celebration with his husband. While he has since moved to Worcester, the 76er makes it a point to travel to the Ocean State and march the same streets he did more than four decades ago.
Mencer Ackerly hopes that, by participating in the festivities, he will boost the confidence of younger Rhode Islanders who may be struggling with their identity.
“If we can touch somebody’s life on the sidelines, it might be their very first time of coming out,” he said. “If they see me, an older person, maybe they’ll be like ‘Hey, he’s still around. He’s not in a rocking chair someplace. He’s out there trying to celebrate who he is.'”
Ryan Welch contributed to this report.