SCOTTSBLUFF — Friends, families and strangers gathered together on Saturday, Aug. 18, in Frank Park to celebrate life, friendship and community.

The fourth annual Panhandle Equality Panhandle Pride continues to grow each year, with more people coming together to support the LGBTQ+ community. Though the community has always had a lot of support, the picnic-style event celebrates the Panhandle’s diversity with a picnic open to all.

As the event continues to grow, organizers looked at ways to make the day bigger and better. They added a talent show, performances from Omaha’s River’s Edge and a drag performance by Inga, the 37th Empress of the Imperial Court of Nebraska.

“Inga wanted to do more outreach on this end of the state and asked us if she could be a part of it,” said Ladessa Heimbouch, board vice chair for Panhandle Equality.

River’s Edge heard about Panhandle Pride through the grapevine from people who know Jeff Leanna, Panhandle Equality chair, and said they also wanted to participate and raise awareness to Panhandle Equality’s work in western Nebraska.

While Inga sang to the crowd and danced her heart out, her husband Scott Miller boasted of her achievements.

Inga originally heard about Panhandle Pride at a Voices for Equality banquet in Lincoln. When she was named Empress, she stepped away from River’s Edge for a year to concentrate work on her new duties with the court. The Imperial Court of Nebraska is a nonprofit that raises money for other nonprofits and Inga has raised over $90,000 this year. They also donate to the pantry at the Metropolitan Community Church in Omaha, a food bank with the Nebraska AIDS Project and donate to organizations that raise awareness to things such as Alzheimer’s and breast cancer.

River’s Edge plans to make a return trip to Scottsbluff with the full choir in 2019.

Thirty sponsors participated this year while the number of community booths doubled to 15. Every booth member said the same thing — their organization is open to everyone. Community support meant a lot to several people who attended Pride; they felt it showed the more welcoming nature of western Nebraska.

The event is also a way to raise money so they can continue their outreach in the Panhandle. This year, they have been focusing on suicide prevention. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the LGBTQ+ community is at a higher risk of suicide than heterosexuals.

“It’s huge in our community,” Heimbouch said. “It’s really important to stop.”

The LGBTQ+ community has lost at least three people in the last year.

“But, look around and see the support here,” she said. “You don’t ever have to feel alone.”

Irene North is a staff reporter at the Star-Herald. Contact her at 308-632-9041 or by email at irene.north@starherald.com.

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