ST. LOUIS — On a small stage on the west end of St. Louis' Soldiers Memorial, a group of young men gave testimonials to an audience of strangers.
Their backgrounds and stories differed, but the message they shared was the same.
"I am gay and proud."
So was the scene Saturday at the Homebase open-mic, a 25-and-under event at PrideFest St. Louis.
Eleven months ago, Michael Sam gave a similar testimony to his former Missouri teammates. Now with the St. Louis Rams, the defensive end sent shockwaves through the sports world in February by publicly announcing he was gay.
That moment, though, didn't appear to be on the minds of many PrideFest attendees.
"I think you'll get a lot of varying opinions about Michael Sam," said Lawrence Lewis, whose group Project Ark helped sponsor the open mic session. "Some will ask why his sexuality matters; others are happy he's a hometown guy."
About 160,000 are expected to attend the weekend festivities, said Pride St. Louis marketing director Patrick Howard. It is the 35th installment of PrideFest, which coincides with the June 28, 1969, Stonewall riots in New York City.
This is the second year PrideFest was held downtown. It was previously held in The Grove, a lively neighborhood with many of the city's gay-friendly bars and clubs.
This week was also marked by the city challenging Missouri's ban on gay marriage. The city issued four marriage licenses to same-sex couples Wednesday night. The licenses were issued at City Hall, which is located across the street from the site of PrideFest in downtown St. Louis.
Howard said Pride St. Louis contacted Sam to be at the event, but the former Missouri defensive lineman was unable to attend.Sam was out of town this weekend for a wedding, according to a local CBS report.
Sam was also contacted by Team Saint Louis, a group that encourages and supports LGTBQ athletes to participate in sports in metropolitan St. Louis. Team Saint Louis sponsored an athletes' village section at PrideFest with numerous athletic activities such as rock climbing.
"We were trying to get him to come to our events even before he came out (publicly)," Team Saint Louis fundraising director Debbie Schmidt said.
Schmidt said the group hopes Sam will still be in the St. Louis in 2016. The city will host the OutGames that year, an Olympic-style athletic competition for the LGBTQ community.
"We reached out to him but he couldn't attend," Howard said. "We're happy he's in St. Louis, though, and happy he's a Ram."
Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.