The rainbow flag did not fly at Lubbock’s fourth gay pride festival on August 23. Instead it was tied to a chain-link fence behind a community center east of Interstate 27 in a rundown industrial part of town. Despite the humble location, the daylong event with speakers and live music attracted about 400 people and was a milestone for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community in this mostly conservative and religious Panhandle city.

For the last three years, Lubbock Pride has been organized by Kat Cade, a 24-year-old Texas Tech University geography major and lifelong Lubbock resident. (The first Pride event, in 2011, was held by a different group.) After coming out as a lesbian in 2010, Cade started networking with local support groups like the South Plains College Gay Straight Alliance, the Texas Tech University Gay Straight Alliance and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

While she kept running into the same few people at meetings, she suspected there was a larger gay population in the area. She and a friend believed an annual event could help extend support to those people.

Not knowing about available resources, Cade said, is “such an immensely lonely feeling. And then the minute you realize, ‘Oh, there’s a group of people just like me,’ it’s so uplifting.”

Cade and a friend tailored the event to the community. “As Lubbock is such a conservative city, we decided that the wisest thing to do would be to make it a family-friendly festival,” she said. The first event was a park potluck and barbecue.

This year’s Lubbock Pride, also in a park, included a talk by a lesbian Army veteran, live music, an award for activism, and a drag show. Attendees contributed to an interactive sculpture reminiscent of a pink triangle. Stenciled on the Sheetrock sides were questions like: “What’s it like to be LGBTQ?”

One answer in black marker: “Scary and wonderful. Scary to hold hands in public. Wonderful to live authentically.”

Organizations like Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays and the Human Rights Campaign, as well as churches like St. John’s United Methodist and the Metropolitan Community Church, ran booths. Vendors sold food, apparel and rainbow ribbons beside a stage festooned with rainbow bunting. Jennifer Beck estimated that she sold 200 of her “GL&KG” T-shirts, which stand for “Girls or guys loving and kissing girls or guys.”

Beck, who lives in Amarillo with her partner and three children, said the shirts were a subtle way to show gay pride in a region that might be resistant to a more overt message. “It’s all about love, but we want to be discreet,” Beck said.

The atmosphere in the Panhandle has certainly changed since the first meeting of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, also known as Pflag, at St. John’s United Methodist 21 years ago, said the group’s president, Tony Thornton-Tippit. Back then, organizers covered the windows with cardboard and hired security guards. Groups in Amarillo have held a Pride festival for two decades, and Abilene’s Pflag chapter now holds an annual event, too.

Still, “outside of these kinds of events, it’s really hard to feel safe, a lot of the time, in your own skin,” said a 17-year-old girl who attended the festival with five friends, and asked that she not be identified. “At my school people aren’t afraid to use slurs.”

Sitting on a quilt under a tree with three friends all in their “forties and above,” Sheri Jones of Lubbock wore a black T-shirt that read, “All the cool girls are lesbians.” “I’ve had this shirt for, like, five years, and I’ve never worn it until today,” she said.

One of her friends, Sheryl Baker of Lubbock, said, “You go to Austin and you feel comfortable holding your partner’s hand, but that comfort zone is not in Lubbock.”

While a larger city like Austin or Dallas may be more accepting, the women said that Lubbock’s silver lining was a more tightly knit lesbian community. The friends are so close that they hold a “Family Christmas” each year.

As the sun set, the drag show began in a grassy area behind the community center, where a large crowd of people in their twenties, thirties, and forties—and a few young children—sat in a semicircle on the ground. Standing at the back of the crowd, a man wearing glittery heels, skinny jeans and a black, lacy top, who goes by “Lady Ava” when dressed in drag, watched performers in bustiers and gold boots lip-sync to Whitney Houston and Nicki Minaj. Ava said this was her second Lubbock Pride. She said the city’s drag scene, which includes an annual show at Texas Tech and Sunday night shows at Club Luxor, was also growing.

“What’s neat to me is all this support for the gay community,” she said, “because not everyone here is gay. You can just tell.”