Pride: Not just for state capitals anymore

Festivals popping up in locales across the Carolinas

In 1981, gay and transgender North Carolinians celebrated their “day out” at the first statewide NC Pride festival in Durham. The same year, Charlotte had its first local Pride gathering, on the campus of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. The Queen City event would return two years later, while the statewide Pride would be held the next time in 1986, and then each year thereafter.

The sustained Pride movement in Charlotte began in 1987 with the launch of an annual picnic in Bryant Park. The now-defunct group Queen City Quordinators oversaw the event until 1989, when Q-Notes assumed responsibility. The picnic was replaced with a more traditional Pride festival in 1993.

Since those early days, both events have continued to grow. Along with them, in more recent years local Pride festivals have popped up across the Carolinas. Today, from the mountains of North Carolina to the coast of South Carolina, LGBT communities hold their own celebrations.

The phenomenon has raised some intriguing questions: What’s behind this movement? How are local communities organizing their own festivities? Are there larger trends afoot? Are these events a fad, or is this the new paradigm?

Proliferating Prides
LGBT folks have taken to the streets since the first rumblings of queer liberation. What started out as a riot in New York City’s Greenwich Village in the hot and sultry summer of ’69 has become the city’s annual celebration of life, liberty and the spectacular and frivolous pursuit of Pride in the years since.

Now, along with New York, there are massive Pride events in such cities as San Francisco, Atlanta and D.C. We all know about these hundreds of thousands-strong parades: Dykes on Bikes up front leading blocks of raucous marchers waving a sea of rainbow flags and carrying signs addressing every type of social concern. It’s what these events are famous and beloved for.

The question is: In this new era of proliferating Pride observances, have these festivals lost any of their appeal?

“From my limited experience with Prides such as the San Francisco event, large gatherings have lost none of their luster,” says Angela Stewart, board member of Alternative Resources of the Triad, which has presented Triad Pride for two years now. “There will always be groups of people who enjoy the spectacle that comes with such a presentation.”

Of course, North Carolina’s and South Carolina’s state Prides can hardly be compared to San Francisco. Might these statewide events become less important with the growing number of city festivals?

Darryl Hall, co-chair of Pride Charlotte, which is slated this year for July 26 and likely to be largest festival of its kind in the Carolinas, says it’s possible — particularly in North Carolina where the presence of several moderate-sized cities allows for local organizing across the state.

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“Some large festivals will continue to have importance, such as Atlanta’s,” Hall explains. “Georgia has fewer cities of any substantial size causing Atlanta’’s to still have statewide significance. In states such as North Carolina — which has Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro and others — a statewide festival may lose some of its luster.”

Daniel Sams, editor of the NC Pride Parade and Festival’s NC Pride Guide, says there are no signs of that occurring to date. In fact, “Every year, NC Pride continues to grow,” he says. NC Pride 2008 will be held Sept. 27.

Changing minds at home
Some of the rise of the local Prides is rooted in the desire of local activists and community members who have visited the large Pride festivals to see the same spirit and outness displayed at home.

No doubt, Pride is a powerful showcase for the LGBT community. Having a local event can be an effective counter to the often conservative nature of many Carolinas cities. Hall says these Prides offer unique opportunities for smaller communities.

“The more localized a festival, the more direct contact LGBT people can have with their community, both in business and in a social setting. And the best way to tear down stereotypes against LGBT people is for the average person to have visible and direct contact with them.”

Stewart adds that the the rise of the internet and its powerful networking and organizing capabilities play a large part in local organizing. She said her organization used MySpace and Facebook to do the bulk of their organizing for Triad Pride.

“Previously, the only means of communicating the message would have been through publications such as Q-Notes or bars and clubs,” she says. “Smaller communities likely do not possess such resources. The ubiquity of the Web has truly given smaller voices a chance to organize and be heard.”

Ryan Wilson, the dynamic youth leader of SC Pride Movement and its annual SC Pride March and Festival in Columbia, says growing support from local officials and communities has also made these events possible.

“City councils and police departments are becoming more accepting, granting permits for Pride events,” Wilson says. “Local bars and organizations are growing stronger, finding both the resources and the volunteers to plan such events.”

As individual towns become more organized, Wilson believes community members’ focus on activism and advocacy becomes more centralized. And, while having large events is fun, having safe and welcoming hometowns is the real goal.

‘Local flavor’
Stewart feels another important factor fueling the rise of local Pride organizing is “a desire for festivals which more clearly represent the flavor of the local community.”

Because every community is different, she says there’s no one way that will fit for every locale. She also thinks stereotypical Pride images have played a role in the growth of local observances.

“Let’s face it, the tried and true formula of drag queens on floats, lesbians on motorcycles, etc., is almost so trite and unrepresentative of the LGBTQ community at large as to be almost a parody,” she says.

‘Sure, these sorts of events are very entertaining, but they don’t do a very good job of showing us in a positive light to the mainstream. I’m not saying conformity to the ‘straight ideal’ is required, just a bit more of a spirit of rapprochement, rather than ‘we’re out, loud and different than you.’”

She adds that the desire for more moderate Pride events has led some to create their own festivities.

“Many smaller events, such as Triad Pride, are becoming increasingly aware of the need for a ‘family friendly’ atmosphere. That’s not to say that the party is over, just that we need to decouple the notion that the gay ‘lifestyle’ is focused on sex to the exclusion of all else.

“Perhaps these smaller groups ‘get it,’ while the more established Prides operate under the banner of, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’” Stewart continues. “I liken it somewhat to the trend over the past several years in the brewing industry. Smaller craft brewers have made minor, but nonetheless successful, inroads into an industry dominated by the Buds and Millers of the world. People want local flavor, rather than a cookie-cutter formula. Why should Prides be any different?”

Gordon Hensley, board member for Boone Pride, says local festivities are “a natural reaction to ‘mega Prides.’” Although, he adds, both have their own merits and draw people for different reasons.

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“A regional festival is often capable of larger scale funding and events,” he says. “A local Pride event is smaller and more intimate community bonding. I’ve attended Prides for many years, and I truly believe that both types have great merit and serve an ongoing need to unite on many levels.”

Hensley says there is something special about having an event with local musicians, community workshops and local sponsors. “It’s our Pride, and well…we’re proud,” he says. “It’s a 21st century community doing some old-fashioned community building.”

Balancing act
Echoing Hensley, Sams says local Prides are like “homecomings for our people,” even at the statewide and regional levels. NC Pride Fest, he says, gives communities that are spread across a vast geographic area a chance to come together as a strong, unified voice at one time and in one place.

Where some see divisions between the various Prides, Sams sees increased resources for youth and those first coming out.

“No matter where in the state a Pride event takes place, they give an opportunity for us to share in each other, meet new people and have a great time,” he says. “For some LGBTQ people, events like these are the first time they have a chance put there foot into the water, so to speak.”

For these reasons, Sams says local organizing and statewide, regional organizing should not come at “the cost of divisions that happen within our own community.”

Hall, who is partly responsible for logistics and fundraising for the Charlotte celebration, acknowledges that conflicting Pride festivals put a strain on sponsorships and attendance. However, he feels there are opportunities for these obstacles to be overcome.

“Invariably they will split some business sponsorship and may have reduced attendance if the two festivals are close together,” he says. “But if they pull a larger local audience and more local support, they may be able to overcome the conflicts.”

Collaboration the key
Unlike the Tar Heel state with its variety of local Prides, South Carolina only has one local festival. On July 12, for the first time in 10 years the LGBT community in Myrtle Beach will hold its own Pride celebration.

SC Pride attracts 6,000-7,000 revelers annually according to organizers. In recent years, SC Pride Movement has increased its outreach to local areas to build support for the statewide festival. Throughout the summer of 2008, the group is hosting a tour across the state.

Starting in Columbia and then making its way through Charleston, Myrtle Beach and other areas, the tour is meant to not only raise money for the statewide festivities, but also to generate local support and meet the folks SC Pride Movement seeks to serve year round.

“SC Pride seeks to include all the major organizations, bars, clubs and community centers in our events,” says Wilson. At the same time, he adds, the group is supportive of local communities who wish to start their own Pride events.

Wilson says SC Pride is already a sponsor of the third annual South Carolina Black Pride, slated for June 25-29 in Columbia. They’re also looking for ways to be more supportive of the re-born Myrtle Beach event.

Wilson shrugs off any worries over waning support for state-level events.

“We dont think it will hurt SC Pride to have events at different times of the year around the state,” he says. “The more chances for the GLBT community to show their pride and stand up for who we are, the better chances we have at making a difference in our state.”

The beat goes on
No matter where they take place or who sponsors them, one thing is for sure: Pride festivals and the people who are united and empowered by them are not going away anytime soon.

Whether it’s a local or statewide celebration, Prides help us reach our common goal of equality. As such, the responses of community organizers must be supportive.

For community members, state and local festivals serve varying purposes and meet different tastes. Some Pride-goers are looking for “down home,” relaxed and family-friendly atmospheres. Others want colorful, out and loud affairs. With events dotted across the region, there’s clearly no lack of choice when it comes to Pride season 2008.

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Posted by Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.