The massive community festival that started out a generation ago as a gay rights protest returned to its roots Saturday, with new political purpose.

The 29th annual Pride Festival once again filled Loring Park just south of downtown Minneapolis to overflowing for the day. But new energy was in evidence -- in support of Friday night's vote to allow gay marriage in New York and in opposition to a constitutional referendum that would bar marriage rights for gays in Minnesota.

"We're going to be the first state to defeat a marriage amendment -- we're representatives of the larger Minnesota family," the crowd was told by Scott Dibble, the openly gay DFL state senator who represents the Loring Park neighborhood.

The ballot battle over the state constitutional amendment that would decree that marriage in Minnesota is solely between a man and a woman is expected to continue from now all the way to the 2012 elections.

The Pride Festival, which has its roots in the earliest years of the gay rights movement, has become a mainstream event over the years, drawing corporate sponsors and sometimes taking on the feel of a county fair.

This year's event carried a renewed sense of urgency, with the decision late Friday by the New York state Senate to legalize same-sex marriage, doubling the number of Americans who can marry their partners regardless of gender, electrifying the rain-spattered crowd.

"We saw what happened in New York last night, so let's celebrate that," Dibble said.

Gearing up for the fight

Jeremy Hanson, a senior aide to Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, went further. "We need a little more love for New York," he said. "I love New York!"

Referring to a recent survey on the nation's gay population by the Advocate, a gay/lesbian-oriented magazine, Hanson added: "This is the gayest city of the USA! This is the most lesbian city in the USA!"

As for the marriage battle, Hanson said, "Minnesotans are going to be talking about us. The opposition has never had to talk about the reality of our families ... This state will never be the same."

One way the state's not the same: Gov. Mark Dayton plans to take part today in the annual Pride Parade along Hennepin Avenue, the first Minnesota governor to do so. He also has officially declared June as Pride Month in Minnesota.

Unlike previous Pride Festivals, on Saturday, opponents of gay rights were virtually invisible. But politics pervaded several of the tented booths that ringed the park.

"It's a long road, but we're making strides," said Dennis Sanders, a state board member of the Log Cabin Republicans, a group of gay GOPers. "New York could well be the tipping point on something that's becoming a mainstream civil liberty issue. All we want is the same rights as everyone else."

Symbols and civil unions

The gaping political divide that Minnesotans will grapple with over the next 16 months was symbolically bookended Saturday at the two churches that border Loring Park. On the south side, St. Mark's Cathedral, a parish of the Episcopal Church that has partly embraced same-sex marriages, flew a phalanx of rainbow banners commemorating the festival. On the north side, the bells merely tolled every 15 minutes at the Basilica of St. Mary, a cornerstone of a Catholic archdiocese, which has campaigned aggressively against the practice.

In the middle, in front of a row of rainbow banners, stood Donna Bailey and Tamra Doble. They'd driven from the home they've shared for more than a year in Albertville to have their relationship blessed in a civil commitment ceremony by the Rev. Greg Renstrom.

Before officiating, he explained, "it's important to show God's grace, which means to love everybody -- period. We need to extend God's blessings to all people."

Before Bailey and Doble exchanged rings, Renstrom spoke of their "relationship to be honored and blessed" and asked them, "Will you build your life together?"

Yes, they answered.

Afterward, wiping away tears, Doble explained, "It's our commitment to each other. For now, it's the closest thing we can get to being married."

Bob von Sternberg • 651-222-0973