For the past five years, Nate Gowdy has been photographing thriving gay community in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. As the staff photographer for Seattle Gay News for many of those years, Gowdy witnessed the evolution of a movement as the country inched, slowly, towards the legalization of same-sex marriage. Gowdy speaks to TIME LightBox about his work.

I moved to Seattle in 2009, and being a straight cisgender man, immersing myself in Seattle’s LGBTQ community was not something I ever expected. At that time I was working as a preschool teacher. While at a local event, I met the editor of the Seattle Gay News, one of the country’s oldest gay and lesbian newspapers. We started discussing photography, namely my interest in learning it, when he brought up the fact that the paper’s staff photographer had just left, leaving them in need of a replacement. I accepted the position and hit the ground, or dance floor as it were, running. I was hooked.

Nate Gowdy

The Gayborhood is a photographic project that portrays Seattle’s LGBTQ community pre-marriage equality, during the last days of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and the exhilarating moments in the gay community, post Defense of Marriage Act. My livelihood consisted of drag shows, club culture, and meeting what seemed like a never-ending Pride procession of personalities and performers. That first year I photographed nearly 200 events.

Seattle is a unique place, so you can imagine how different and truly special the LGBTQ community is in a city that boasts one of the largest transgender populations in the country. From the second largest order of gay nuns, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the Abbey of Saint Joan, to one of the first royal courts in the International Court System (founded in 1965, it is one of the oldest and largest LGBT organizations in the world) I photographed pageants and fundraisers that ranged from the sexually charged to the obscure and inspiring. Whether it be a naked couple embracing while standing in the fountain at Seattle Center (where the Space Needle rests) or zeroing in on the image of a lesbian on a Harley (Dykes on Bikes) at the start of a Pride Parade, the LGBTQ community’s knack for over the top costumes and willingness to perform in a club that costs more money to get to in a taxi than they make in tips from the audience, the photos capture some of what is the essence of queer life in the Pacific Northwest.

Nate Gowdy

Perhaps unbeknownst to me at the time, The Gayborhood documents history too. This is seen clearly in the portrait of Governor Christine Gregoire, who enthusiastically signed the state’s marriage equality legislation in February 2012. Soon after, opponents to the law mounted a challenge, which required voters to approve the statute at a referendum. In an instant, the colorful characters I had met were now organizing benefits, rallies and civil rights marches. I continued to visually represent what had first endeared this community to me: its diversity and fluidity of gender expression — unfiltered, raw, and in your face. Washington would go on to make history by popular vote when in November 2012 marriage equality was achieved. With the referendum soundly passing, the end of 2012 and all of 2013 saw me finally (and happily) being able to document the best moments of a couple’s life — weddings. So many weddings.

In the years since, social progress has largely defined the LGBTQ landscape, touching almost every part of that community. I’ve watched as friends — just by marrying the person they love or by openly serving in the military — finally realized their aspirations for equality. The Gayborhood of Capitol Hill has changed. It has become a bit more subdued, mature, and dense. While everyone will admit that there’s still so much work ahead, there’s equally as much to celebrate, and Pride is about recognizing both.

Nate Gowdy is a photographer based in Seattle.

Josh Raab, who edited this photo essay, is an Associate Photo Editor at TIME. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

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