As she strolled in Minneapolis' Loring Park past small white tents hawking photography, floral arrangements and wedding planners, Kate Blau stood next to her longtime partner Saturday morning and paused to marvel at everything around her.

At her first Twin Cities Pride gathering 35 years ago, she said, there was anger and fear in the air as she and a few hundred other gay and lesbian protesters fought for acceptance. "We were all tightfisted and scared that we were going to get beaten off the streets," she said.

But this year, as the 41st annual weekend festival kicked off with thousands attending, it seemed as if everyone was relaxed and smiling.

Blau said she and her partner of 29 years, Dianne Como, were still getting used to the idea that they soon can get married in Minnesota and that the state and federal governments will acknowledge that union.

"It feels celebratory," Blau said, surveying the crowd. "It feels OK to be gay."

Festival organizers agreed there was a distinct change in the event's atmosphere.

Just a year ago, the grounds teemed with stickers and T-shirts promoting efforts to defeat a proposed state constitutional ban on gay marriage.

"It had a negative feel to it … a heavy feel," said Scott Feldman, chairman of Twin Cities Pride.

"This year it's celebrating the achievements," Feldman said. "There's relief. There's excitement. It really is time to celebrate."

An area of the park that was once reserved for commitment ceremonies has been transformed this year into a "Save The Date Wedding Showcase."

Across the park, a section promoting health was dubbed the AARP "Boomer Town."

Organizers estimated recent Twin Cities Pride festival weekends have been drawing more than 300,000 people — the largest free-of-charge Pride festival in the nation, they said. This year, they expected that number will grow, including more support from straight allies of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community who in past years made up about 30 percent of the crowd, executive director Dot Belstler said.

Recent changes in government — the Minnesota Legislature legalizing same-sex marriage and a U.S. Supreme Court decision resulting in the federal government recognizing such unions in states where they are legal — prompted Ken Athey and Jim Schuth to drive from their Rochester home to the Minneapolis festival for the first time in eight years.

The couple, together for nine years, sat in the front row to watch a flower show in the wedding section of the park. Schuth, a florist, said marriage is "in the works" for them.

"It's new and exciting," Schuth said. "It just seemed like the perfect place to be this weekend."

A few yards away, Jennifer Jordan and Shirley Mundy, of Brooklyn Center, ducked inside a tent promoting Magical Memories wedding consulting. Mundy had proposed, ring in hand, under a shady tree at the festival eight years ago.

While the speed of the legal changes caught them by surprise, they said they're getting serious about a ceremony now.

They want a wedding that's elegant but not splashy, 36-year-old Jordan told consultant Marsha Chernoff Golob.

"It's not a statement moment, it's our lives," agreed Mundy, 41. "We're not gonna go over the top."

"We've always considered ourselves married, really," Jordan said. "We just want to make it official."

The proposal

A model in a wedding flower show, 28-year-old Brittany Lepowsky, of Mendota Heights, nervously smoked a cigarette in a quiet spot behind a tent Saturday afternoon. Clad in a white tank top, flowing white skirt, and shoes and purse covered in leaves and flowers, Lepowsky's hand shook.

"I'm freaking out," she said. "Like, I can't walk."

She and partner Amy Menier marched through the show with other models as about 200 people gathered to watch. As the crowd applauded at the end, Lepowsky brought out a microphone and knelt on the ground and pulled a ring box from the flowered purse.

"If you would" she stammered "be my wife."

The crowd erupted in screams. Menier and Lepowsky kissed and beamed as a flash mob of about 50 gathered around them singing "Seasons of Love."

Work to be done

While there was much to celebrate Saturday, organizers and others said, there's still a lot of work to be done.

"Marriage is important but it's not the be-all, end-all," Belstler said, pointing out a need to fight the bullying of gay kids, to legalize marriage in many states and to promote acceptance in many communities. "There's so much discrimination."

But for a couple of days, at least, organizers said they would take a break to appreciate the progress. "It's a sea-change feeling, really," Belstler said. "People are really feeling validated, finally."

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102