NEW YORK —
“We are Orlando!” exclaimed the master of ceremonies, draped in U.S. stars and stripes, at the start of New York’s 46th annual Pride march.
The LGBT celebration, which extended more than 30 blocks along Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue Sunday, attracted a record breaking 32,000 marchers, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, civil rights leader Al Sharpton, and a surprise guest: presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Behind tightly secured barricades, more than one million attendees packed the street’s sidewalks. To the beats of Rihanna and Calvin Harris, waving countless rainbow flags, they sang, danced and cheered the parade’s participants. “We found love in a hopeless place…”
For an afternoon, New York City was a safe and hopeful place - and a proud moment for all.
“This is a celebration for everybody who cannot express themselves every day,” said Miami, who was marching in her first parade.
"It’s not just about LGBT, it’s about everyone,” added her friend Nill.
Winter Murray, who traveled from Connecticut, said being among such an accepting group was a special feeling.
“It's nice to have a place where you can come and be yourself and just see everyone else who is also very true to themselves,” Murray said.
But between cheering and dancing, this year’s march took on extra significance. Parade goers and participants from around the world mourned and remembered the 49 mass shooting victims two weeks ago at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando.
“How many more have to die?” exclaimed a group of marchers staging a "die-in” — lying still on the scorching asphalt.
Nick Shamp, who traveled from Connecticut with his boyfriend, said he cried at the site of tributes dedicated to Orlando victims.
“A person saw me and he was like, 'you’re being too serious,' and I’m just like, ‘well, that happened and it’s hard,’" explained Shamp, recounting his conversation with a stranger.
“He was like, ‘well, you need to stay proud and you need to stay strong,’ so now it’s just overwhelming positivity."
It was precisely that feeling - positivity and acceptance - that extended in the days after the shooting to the family of Kori Ligon, an LGBT member of the U.S. Army.
“It actually brought me closer to the people that support me for my lifestyle choices,” Ligon said. "Me and my family have gotten much, much closer. They’re more accepting now.”
Today, the struggle continues for LGBT communities worldwide to gain equal rights and live free from fear of persecution and discrimination. For many of them, from both near and far, Sunday’s parade served as a beacon of hope and a message of enduring love.
“We encourage Russian speaking people to go out of the closet and not be afraid of persecution that is happening back home,” said Maasim Khimchamka, an asylum seeker from Belarus.
"That’s the biggest message,” he added, “not to be afraid.”