Madison attorney Leslie Shear went to gay pride rallies in her youth, and today she speaks out at events about the effects a proposed state constitutional amendment would have on gay and lesbian families like hers.

Although she's looking to go to the Madison Pride event being held next weekend, Shear said she's more reluctant about her and her partner taking their twin 8-year-olds.

"To the extent that I've been at pride events in the past, there is more sexual suggestion than I want to introduce them to," said Shear, 46, who considers herself a little "old-school" when it comes to parenting.

The organizers of this year's two-day pride event are out to change the mind of parents like Shear. With a statewide vote on a civil union and gay marriage ban set for November, they're putting a greater emphasis on gay and lesbian couples and their children. And to draw more families of all kinds, organizers have attracted their first big corporate sponsors, made Sunday activities at the two-day festival free and added events such as dance performances aimed at young visitors.

The event gives a glimpse at the key role children and families are likely to play in the campaign over the ban.

Leading the parade

When the annual parade starts Sunday, at the head will be gay and lesbian parents and their children, said Nikki Baumblatt, the event's co-president.

"The focus is on families without question. In light of the (proposed) amendment, we want to make sure that people see the diversity of families and that our families are as important and valuable as anybody else's families and they have the same rights and responsibilities," she said.

Baumblatt said her group hopes the new focus will increase attendance over the weekend. But the move didn't impress Julaine Appling, head of the pro-amendment group the Coalition for Traditional Marriage.

"I think it's sad that children become the kind of trophies that they want to show off as it relates to trying to convince people that their families are as mainstream as the traditional heterosexual family," Appling said.

Baumblatt bristled at the suggestion, saying gay couples have as much right as straight couples to celebrate their children without being accused of playing politics.

Appling's group is pushing for the proposed amendment, which would reinforce existing state law by constitutionally limiting marriage to a man and a woman and prohibiting civil unions or other legal relationships that are "substantially similar to marriage" for unmarried couples.

At the heart of the issue, both sides say, are children whose families could be affected by the amendment.

Shear said what matters are that the twin boy and girl she raises with her partner of 15 years, Laurel Holgerson, can grow up in a family with two loving parents. Appling said that a family with a mother and father is the "premium and optimum environment for children."

For Lynette Margulies, 54, the pride event itself is a good environment for children. The Madison singer has a 6-year-old son with her partner of 10 years, Patti Thompson, 37, and said they'll all be there together marching Sunday as they have in years past.

"I think it's more important than ever to show up," she said.

Movement matures

Gay pride parades got their start in the early 1970s and spread through cities around the country, said Anne Enke, a UW-Madison historian. But it's been over the last 10 or 15 years that marriage and related issues such as health care and the custody of children have become more central to the gay-rights movement, she said.

"The movement as a whole had really mixed feelings about whether gay and lesbian people should put (marriage) at the forefront of an agenda," Enke said.

That's changed as the issue moved onto the nation's agenda and people have been pressed to take stands, she said.

Tim O'Brien of the gay advocacy group Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C., said that family has always been a part of the Madison Pride event, going back to its beginnings in the late 1980s. In front of the media cameras, families just didn't always compete well with the feather boas and flamboyancy, he said. Another factor, he said, is probably a growing number of gay and lesbian parents.

"It's a maturation of the movement as a whole," O'Brien said. "As we become more involved in the broader political spectrum ... that's just reflected in everything that's going on."

The city's pride events are much smaller than Milwaukee's PrideFest, which organizers said drew some 23,000 attendees in June and which got more attention from Fair Wisconsin, the coalition opposing the proposed amendment.

Madison Pride co-president Scott Toomey said last year's events drew at least 2,500 people, and he hopes this year's festival will draw more. The event this year, which will cost up to $40,000 to put on, is getting some first-time help from donations from big Madison companies American Family Insurance Group and Famous Footwear, he said.

If there's a little less focus on the parade's outrageous aspects this year, Shawn Wiese won't mind. The 33-year-old Madison man, who has performed in drag as a jazz-balladeer named Karma wearing an outfit of pink balloons, said other drag performers are also behind this year's focus.

"I know quite a few of the queens still, and I've never heard any (negative) feelings being harbored," said Wiese, who's on the board of the pride celebration and who helped organize the last gay-friendly Pink Party on New Year's Eve.

And the outrageous isn't likely to be absent either next weekend. There's the drag show on Saturday, rock and pop acts, and an expectation among organizers for all kinds of participants in the parade Sunday.

For his part, Wiese said that as he's gotten a little older, he's fallen off on his drag performing.

"I like to go home and play with my dogs and watch "Golden Girls" and go to sleep. I'm not the partier I used to be," he said, adding that for a man who has capered in a black velour catsuit, "being boring is the last frontier."

What the ban says

Text of the proposed constitutional amendment: "Only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in this state. A legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized in this state."

What's next: If it passes a statewide vote in November, the amendment becomes part of the state constitution. It has already passed the state Legislature twice.

If you go

What: Madison Pride

When: From noon to 6 p.m. Saturday, July 8, and Sunday, July 9.

Where: Brittingham Park

Cost: $5 on Saturday, free on Sunday

For more information, go to www.madisonpride.org or contact Outreach at 608-255-8582

Parade: The gay pride parade will start at noon Sunday and go from Proudfit Street to Brittingham Park. A map of the route is available on the Web site.

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