SHELBY, N.C. — As many as 100 or more people are expected to attend this small town’s first ever LGBT Pride event this evening, Friday, June 27, 6 p.m., at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer.
Located about 50 minutes west of Charlotte, Shelby is a town of about 20,000 people — and it’s not particularly well-known for its gay-friendly attitudes. It’s most famous claim to gay fame — or infamy, more appropriately — is its connection to a 1987 triple-slaying, where three men were shot execution style at a gay bookstore.
In 2012, voters in Cleveland County voted overwhelmingly — by 80 percent — to approve the state’s anti-LGBT constitutional amendment.
All of that hasn’t stopped the Rev. Dr. Valori Mulvey Sherer, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, from organizing the area’s first-ever Pride. The event, Sherer says, started out simply — a desire on her part to connect the community after a tumultuous campaign season surrounding the amendment two years ago.
“We participated in the protests against the amendment and spoke out against it,” Sherer recalls. “I just happened to notice that the second anniversary went past and I didn’t hear much conversation anywhere. I was just talking to friends and praying. It seemed wrong to just let the anniversary go by.”
When Sherer learned that President Barack Obama had issued a June LGBT Pride Month proclamation, she knew it was time to act. She sent out a few emails and some announcements on Facebook soliciting involvement for an interest meeting.
“We had 22 people show up, which is remarkable in Shelby,” Sherer says. “To have 22 people at a meeting in Shelby is a lot of people. We’re just a little town.”
The Pride picnic — it’s a simple “bring your own food” affair — will be small, but Sherer expects it will jumpstart much-needed conversation in a small town where many LGBT people still fear challenges or repercussions from being out.
“A lot of people have no one to talk to and they don’t feel safe going to church or even going to a restaurant and, because of North Carolinas, even their employment is at risk if they are out,” Sherer says.
The Pride picnic comes as the LGBT community celebrates the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots — considered by many to be a pivotal turning point in the modern LGBT equality movement. In New York City, where the three-day riot took place in the Greenwich Village, hundreds of thousands will gather for a parade, festivals, parties and more. In Shelby, 100 will gather for an event Sherer says will be “soothing, family friendly and fun.”
Several organizations will be present distributing literature, she says, including the PFLAG chapter from Gastonia. Sherer and others hope to start a PFLAG chapter in Shelby.
The event hasn’t gone without controversy. Elizabeth Baptist Church pastor, Dr. Rit Varriale, took issue with the way the event was recently reported by the local Shelby Star.
“If they want to do that event, that’s their right. This is a free country,” Varriale says. “If the Star wants to report on it, then again, that’s fine. Great. This is a free country. The concern that I had was the way they reported on it was insensitive to the sentiments of a majority of the people in our county.”
Varriale says the local newspaper published the story on the Sunday edition’s front page and over the fold. With so many people opposed to marriage equality, Varriale says it was the wrong decision.
“You’ve got roughly 80 percent of the people that their definition of marriage is going to be consistent with what has been considered the traditional or biblical view of marriage,” he says. “To start their Sunday morning off with, bam, right there, front page over the fold. Yeah, granted, media is media — generate conversation. But, I just felt it was an insensitive way to do it.”
Varriale says Christians in the community might gather sometime in the future for their own event upholding their view of marriage.
Sherer says she’ll welcome those who truly want to dialogue and explore issues at the Pride picnic this evening, but she won’t engage in arguments.
“I know we have a different approach to the authority of scripture,” she says. “I don’t address the conflict. I don’t engage in arguments. I stand where I stand and Episcopalians, our entire church, has a position that is very public. We are the Episcopal voice here.”
Sherer says the church is not worried about protesters or other disruptions to the event, thought they’ve spoken to local law enforcement regarding the possibility. She and fellow organizers are keeping their focus where it belongs.
“This event is primarily to build friendships and community and relationships among the LGBTQ and [Ally] community,” she says.
if you go: Shelby Pride, Friday, June 27, 6 p.m., Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, 502 W. Sumter St., Shelby. “BYOPicnic”-style. Featuring family-friendly activities like face painting, coloring, sidewalk chalk and photo booth. Information and referrals to local LGBT-friendly services. Event is rain or shine; in case of rain, celebration will be held indoors.