HIGHLAND — Gazing in to each other's eyes as they exchanged vows, a Michigan couple said their “I do's” at the inaugural NWI Pride Festival.

Jessica and Lucas Nikkel, both dressed to the occasion with rainbow flare, fit in with the vivid array of colors that filled the Lincoln Community Center in Highland for Satirday's event. Saturday not only marked the fest's debut, but an unforgettable memory for a couple in love.

“Pride is really important to me,” Jessica Nikkel said. “My fiance is transgender and I thought this would be the best place to say our vows.”

The couple met two years ago on a dating site and have been smitten ever since. When the bride-to-be saw a call out on Facebook searching for couples who would like to get married at the event, she reached out — not expecting to be chosen as the first couple to wed at the fest. The Galien, Michigan couple had family members come from as far as Texas to witness their special moment.

“I think it's really cool,” Lucas Nikkel said. “It's part of history, in a way. We want to celebrate our love. ... And I found my one.”

The family-friendly, LGBTQ event celebrated diversity and inclusion in the Region with activities like Zumba, theater ensembles, live music, dancing and drag shows. Vendors sold everything from Pride jewelry and pins to offering resources and services tailored to the LGBTQ community.

A giant poster showed sliding scales for sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, where visitors were encouraged to put stickers where they land on each spectrum.

Leo Mintz, a volunteer for LGBTQ support organization PFLAG's Crown Point group, said he's watched countless people approach the board — some thoughtfully hesitating as they question where they land in each category.

“A lot of people in the younger generations are coming out more and more,” Mintz said. “As a family-friendly event, this is a neat opportunity to educate parents, who may not know a lot about the community but want to learn.”

Natalie Lukich, LGBTQ Program coordinator for Crown Counseling in Crown Point and Hammond, said the event provided a crucial venue to spread the word about free support groups throughout the Region.

“(The LGBTQ community) is a high-risk group,” Lukich said. “It's priceless to get the word out, especially because there's never been anything like this before.”

With it being a family-friendly event, she saw a lot of supportive family members in the crowd with their children and grandchildren — something she said not everyone in the community is lucky enough to have.

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“I've seen a few shirts that say 'proud dad,' with the pride flag on it,” Lukich said. “Every time I see it, it makes me want to cry.”

For those needing support, a coalition of open arms greeted visitors at the Free Mom Hugs stand, where mothers gave out hugs and encouragement where needed. Volunteer Michele Tarnow said a simple hug goes a long way.

“I think for those who don't have that love and support from family at home, a hug can be pretty significant,” said Nicole Brenzik, a volunteer for Free Mom Hugs.

The event was not only centered around celebration and support, but also taking action. Beverly McNulty, a volunteer for the League of Women Voters, said she has seen a good amount of people stop in and sign up to vote.

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“The LGBTQ community has been left out a lot,” McNulty said. “It's important that they're recognized and treated fairly and equally, which is a difficulty in today's political climate.”

Looking around at the crowd, one young fest-goer from Merrillville saw what she hoped would be the beginning of community acceptance in the Region.

“I feel like Indiana isn't very accepting and this event shows how many people who are here who should be accepted,” Allison Helton said.

Lisa “Doc” Dutour, a member of the planning committee staff for the event, said seeing all of the people who have come through has been a pleasant surprise.

“It's been remarkable to see how many families have come out,” Dutour. “This event is for everybody — for the community, for the allies and for the people of Northwest Indiana who wants to learn more.”

Dutour said the LGBTQ community has a major presence in Northwest Indiana, which testifies to the need for a pride event close to home.

“We live here, we work here, we're your neighbors, we're at grocery stores, we wait on you at restaurants,” Dutour said. “Having something like this is a great way to say we are here and we're a vital part of the community.”

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Night Crime/Breaking News Reporter

Anna Ortiz is the breaking news/crime reporter for The Times, covering crime, politics, courts, investigative news and more. She is a Region native and graduate of Ball State University with a major in journalism and minor in anthropology.