Roy Vestal, Andy Hemr, Juan Hernandez and Brandon Lujan
Four Denver-area musicians marched into history on January 20 in Washington, D.C., when they joined GLBT marching band members from around the country to participate in the Inaugural Day Parade. Brandon Lujan (mellophone), Andy Hemr (trombone), Juan Hernandez (flute) and Roy Vestal (trombone) of Denver's Mile High Freedom Band were lucky enough to secure parade slots when, for the first time in history, an openly GLBT marching-band contingent was invited to participate in the parade.
The Lesbian and Gay Band Association (LGBA), a national organization made up of GLBT marching bands from around the country, sent out an e-mail call for participants and asked people to apply on the LGBA Web site on a first-come-first-served basis. The immediate and overwhelming response crashed the server. The next day, the site was back up, asking people to apply by section, according to the type of instrument they played. Every section was full within minutes.
All band members had to make their own arrangements, and hotel costs were astronomical - if a room was available at all. Luckily, Hernandez had friends and relatives in the area who offered accommodations. The four men flew into Philadelphia on Saturday night and went to D.C. on Sunday for rehearsal. They had the music in advance and were able to practice the songs, but then they had to learn to work and play with all the other members who were there - 177 total participants from 26 states, ranging in age from early 20s to 70s. There were two rehearsals - one Sunday and one Monday - and then it was time for the big day.
Inaugural Day was icy cold in D.C., with below freezing temperatures and even colder wind chills - cold enough to make the slides on the trombones freeze up. The four men got up at 4 a.m. to catch the train into Virginia, where they had a big breakfast with other band members then boarded a bus to D.C., where they sat and waited on the bus for three hours, looking at the Pentagon. When they were allowed to leave the bus, they met with several detours through Secret Service checks, and they were instructed not to put their hands in their pockets or make any suspicious movements during the parade. After the checks, it was back on the bus for more waiting.
Finally, it was time to disembark, and the parade was underway. The cold kept some spectators away, and even the media had advised people to choose - the morning ceremony or the afternoon parade. But those in attendance were thrilled by the entire spectacle - and only one protestor with a bullhorn shouted out any anti-gay remarks.
The band played five songs - Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," "Brand New Day" from the musical The Wiz, Sam & Dave's "Hold On, I'm Comin'" and two John Philip Sousa marches, "Manhattan Beach" and "Washington Post," the latter of which was played as they passed the reviewing stand that contained President Obama, Vice President Biden and their wives. Did they see Obama? "We had to play," says Lujan. "And obviously you can't look at the same time because the Secret Service might think that's a threat, but out of the sides of our eyes, we were able to see them, and we did see both him and Michelle waving."
The whole experience was special, but each man had something that made it memorable for him.
"It's just exciting to be the first gay and lesbian contingent ever to march in the parade," says Lujan, "to do that for all your fellow brothers and sisters out there who don't get a chance to have their voices heard."
"Going off that, just that whole experience with being with everyone from all over the country," says Hernandez. "To participate in the same band with those who are in the same situation and just hearing their various stories as well, how they felt about being able to come out, what they sacrificed."
"I think the most memorable," says Vestal, "was the second day of rehearsal. They had a photographer there who took the picture of Bill Clinton doing the thumbs up to the band when they were playing on the sidelines during his first inaugural, and he was relating that, and he basically broke down in tears explaining what this meant to him, coming full circle and seeing it come to fruition."
"Playing in the parade for the first black president, which was a big thing in history, too, and for us to be able to be there is a big thing to me," says Hemr. "Being in that piece of history with the band, my friends and family, if you will - doing it together was a lot of fun."
originally published in OutFront Colorado, 2009