MCALLEN — Pride in the Park: Love Without Borders shattered attendance records Saturday night when more than 3,000 people gathered to celebrate the ability to choose freely whom to love.

Held at the McAllen Convention Center Oval Park, the event drew people from across the aisle — sexually and otherwise. Together they helped spread awareness about LGBTQ rights and the importance of HIV testing.

The music festival, founded in 2013, was the brainchild of Ruben Patlan. The 26-year-old serves as the community mobilization coordinator for the Valley Aids Council (VAC), a local nonprofit that provides primary outpatient care and support services to men, women and children living with HIV.

Patlan, together with about a dozen LGBTQ organizations, came together as a coalition known as South Texas Equality Project. Together, they hosted the first event in Harlingen to remove the stigma that surrounds HIV and encourage people to get tested.

“That’s the whole point of pride — show people that we’re here — that the (Rio Grande) Valley is an accepting place,” he said. “You don’t have to go out to Austin to have a pride festival. You have a place right here in the Rio Grande Valley.”

The event, which has grown each year since then, was canceled last year after the tragic shooting in Orlando, Fla., where 49 people at Pulse nightclub were gunned down.

“There was going to be a gun show on the same day,” Patlan explained about last year’s local event. “They were going to be inside. We were going to be outside. There wouldn’t have been any problem logistically, but just for the sensitivity, after hearing from the community, we (said) let’s cancel it. It would have been insensitive to certain people.”

The shooting in Orlando affected the Rio Grande Valley community deeply when word spread that Weslaco native Frank Escalante had been among those killed. His family gathered Saturday night at the park while the crowd held a candlelight vigil for him.

Pictures of the victims flashed on the stage as the crowd held up candles and maintained a moment of silence. One by one, the images showed smiling men and women of all ages. Escalante’s was the last picture to flash before the crowd erupted into cheer and applause.

“Rest in pride,” flashed at the end of the video.

“I know where he is, he is very happy,” Escalante’s mother, Esmeralda said. “You have to fight for what you love. He is still alive through us.”

GRASSROOTS

Dozens of civic organizations passed out information and gadgets to remind people help is out there.

“We believe firmly we all have the same human rights and no one should be discriminated based on their sexual preference or orientation,” Maria Cordero said.

Cordero, the community organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said her organization has been actively participating and testifying against Senate Bill 6, which requires transgender people to use public restrooms that correspond with their biological sex. Texas Governor Greg Abbott called a special session in part to help push this bill into law.

“It discriminates against people’s sex at birth, and it’s an assignation that they don’t recognize as of now,” Cordero said. “And so we believe no one should be discriminated.”

Representatives from the Gender Care Clinic at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance were also present. The clinic provides a safe space for members of the LGBTQ community to seek treatment.

Dr. Michelle Cordoba-Kissee, an endocrinologist at the clinic, was named one of two grand marshals for the event because of her work and dedication to the community. Drag Queen Beatrix Lestrange was also named a grand marshal for her continuing efforts to educate the community at large and her support for the drag scene.

“It’s ok to be gay; it’s ok to be trans or be anything,” Patlan said. “Regardless of who you love or who you sleep with, don’t let that stop you from getting tested for HIV. Don’t let that stop you from being you because at the end of the day we want healthier communities. We want people to be healthy and we want people to be happier.”

He has a special place in his heart for this event. In 2015, Pride at the Park helped Patlan accept himself.

“It gave me the courage to come out to family, to my friends. So it just meant the world to me,” he said. “If this event can do that for even one person, then we’ve done our job.”

And while he’s grown on a personal level, he’s also seen professional growth.

“That insecure closeted boy never thought he’d been doing this —ever — especially with my parents’ support,” he said.

Nlopez@themonitor.com