Love Shines at OC Pride Fest

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Marchers carry a rainbow-colored Pride banner celebrating the LGBTQ+ community.

By MADDY VITALE

The importance of tolerance, acceptance and love were highlighted Saturday on the Ocean City Boardwalk when OC Pride Fest kicked off its second annual Pride Walk in celebration of the LGBTQ+ community.

“Tolerance, acceptance and love are family values and are also at the foundation of American values and that is what Pride Month is all about,” featured speaker Michael Hartman told a crowd during the opening ceremony at 6th Street and the Boardwalk.

“It’s about our duty to stand up for each other,” Hartman added.

Hartman, who grew up in Ocean City, is the founding artistic director for the Greater Ocean City Theatre Company, a nonprofit organization. He is currently the chief of staff for Pennsylvania State Sen. Carolyn T. Comitta.

Featured speaker Michael Hartman holds up a rainbow pillow.

“We Belong Cape May County” created OC Pride Fest last year and hosted the event again this year. We Belong Cape May County is a nonprofit organization made up of parents, teachers and other community members throughout the county, in support of the LGBTQ+ community.

Hartman spoke of the significance of the organization, We Belong.

“If anyone here or elsewhere in our community is struggling, doesn’t feel comfortable or safe with who you are, you are not alone. People are here for you,” he said. “Reach out. Talk to someone. You belong. Just like the title of this organization, We Belong.”

Hartman said it is important to teach children about the beauty of diversity.

“For all the parents and parent-figures here today, thank you for embracing unconditional love, and I hope your kids take a moment to thank you,” Hartman said.

To that, he gave a shout-out to his parents, James and Janice Hartman, of Ocean City, who attended the Pride Walk, and to his husband, Jon Kreamer, who also attended.

Hundreds of participants came from all over the Tri-State area to show love and pride.

Maddie Greaser, of Ocean City, and Mandi Mattox, of Orlando, Fla., were on hand to show their support for the LGBTQ+ community.

“It’s cool,” Greaser said of Ocean City being a location for the walk in honor of Pride Month. “I grew up in Ocean City. It’s nice to have this.”

Mattox initially came to New Jersey to celebrate Greaser’s 27th birthday with her friend. Then they learned of the Pride Walk.

“It was a last-minute thing,” Mattox said. “But we are happy to be here.”

Friends Maddie Greaser, right, and Mandi Mattox enjoy the Pride Walk.

In addition to Hartman, other members of We Belong were a part of the ceremony.

Nate Ginet, an Ocean City High School graduate, and founder of the OCHS Prism Club, which celebrates the LGBTQ+ community, sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” to open the ceremony.

Bob Merkh, of We Belong, was the emcee.

“We Belong has done a lot of good things,” Merkh, whose wife, Stacy, is also part of the nonprofit organization, said. “We’ve seen some positive changes in this community and I am proud to be out here for a second year.”

Jenna Smith of “We Belong Cape May County” folds “We Belong” T-Shirts.

Jenna Smith, of We Belong, and Christine Stanford, founder of We Belong, were each integral parts of the event, since they helped create it.

“This is definitely an even stronger start than we had last year,” Smith said just prior to the start of the ceremony. “The weather is beautiful and we couldn’t ask for a nicer day or a better crowd to celebrate our LGBTQ+ community.”

Smith and Stanford, both of whom live in Upper Township, are teachers. They stayed busy at the Ocean City Sports & Civic Center, where attendees browsed tables that had items for sale and also informational pamphlets.

After the march, attendees were all invited back to the Civic Center to enjoy a host of activities.

Family fun included face painting, a special appearance by Miss Hammonton Pride 2023 Dallas DuBois, caricature drawings, a DIY recycled jewelry bar, jewelry, photography and more.

Over 30 community organizations were represented at OC Pride Fest 2024 to provide support and information. These included ACQA (Atlantic County Queer Alliance), Queer Headed, OCHS Prism Club, CARA, Ocean City Theatre Company, Cape Assist, Free Mom Hugs, Equality Cape May, Peyton Heart Project, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, and many others.

Emcee Bob Merkh of “We Belong” and featured speaker Michael Hartman share a laugh.
Marchers display a banner with poignant words.
Nate Ginet sings “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Marchers show their pride.
Marchers left from 6th Street.
Crowds gather to listen to the opening ceremony.