During Columbus' first Pride Parade 28 years ago, most of the 100 or so participants marched with paper bags over their heads, afraid to come out publicly or to be recognized by co-workers.

During Columbus' first Pride Parade 28 years ago, most of the 100 or so participants marched with paper bags over their heads, afraid to come out publicly or to be recognized by co-workers.

They were fearful, but they were also angry.

"People were losing their jobs because they were gay. It was very hard to be a teacher if you were gay at that time. Landlords would say, 'We don't rent to your kind,'" recalled Karla Rothan, executive director at Stonewall Columbus.

"Three guys were sitting around in their apartment, and they were very young, and they were like, 'We've got to do something about this.' They decided to stage a march."

Afterward, the group sat down and formed the building blocks for what would become Stonewall Columbus, originally known as Stonewall Union.

Today, the Pride Parade is organized by Stonewall and has expanded to a weekend-long event expected to attract visitors from as far away as New York and Colorado.

The atmosphere has changed, too.

Rainbow colors abound, and the spirited walk down High Street will start at the Statehouse this year, where politicians will address the GLBT community. The celebration contrasts sharply with original parades.

"Back then, it was a reaction, a protest, a civil rights march," Rothan said. "Now I think it's just, hey, we're here and we're creating a great day for the citizens of Columbus."

Still, the march skews political. And some walk to support and represent others who are still fearful to do so themselves.

"We still have not achieved equality," Rothan said. "It will always have a political bent to it until we achieve equality, which I think will be many, many years from now."

This year is the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City, when police raided a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn. The violent demonstrations against the persecution of gays that followed marked the start of the gay rights movement in the United States.

Today, the support from mainstream local and national businesses for Columbus' Pride 2009 - sponsors include Macy's and Bud Light - make it clear to Rothan that their efforts are winning people over, she said.

"If you look at our poster - look at all those companies that are supporting this event and giving us money. They're saying, 'Put our logo on that so people know we support you,'" Rothan said. "Whereas maybe in 1981, they were shying away, they didn't want to be associated with this thing."

Proceeds benefit the Stonewall Columbus Center on High, a community center for gays, lesbians and allies that offers programming and support.

Columbus has come a long way since 1981, Rothan said. She credits city officials and businesses for being allies and making Columbus one of the top 10 cities to live in if you're gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

"People really do support us, other than just gay people," Rothan said. At the festival, "We're celebrating our cultural significance, just as the Latino Festival celebrates their significance."

While many pride fests across the country aren't happening this year because of the economic downturn, Columbus' is bigger than ever, with 120,000 people expected to attend.

In addition to changing locations from Bicentennial Park to Goodale Park, this year's festival is being held one weekend earlier than ComFest for the first time in recent memory. The new date opened the door for organizers to offer additional programming.

A $5 ticket gets you access to a Kat DeLuna concert, 27 food vendors, 150 exhibitors and plenty of fun and games for families.

"We're encouraging everyone to come out and be gay for a day," said Rothan, who volunteered as chair of the festival in 1998, back when 20,000 to 30,000 people attended Pride events. "It will be fun."