SHELBY, N.C. — Organizers of the first-ever Pride event in this small town 50 minutes west of Charlotte say as many as 285 people attended their community picnic on Friday, June 27.
The #ShelbyLoves Pride picnic was held at Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, where families, both gay and straight, laid out blankets, ate picnic-style and networked to learn more about the local community and available resources. Children participated in making balloon animals and face painting, while mix of Oldies and more modern Pop music floated from large speakers next to the church.
Wes Helton, who lives about 20 minutes from Shelby in Rutherford County, attends Episcopal Church of the Redeemer and attended the first organizational meeting for the Pride picnic. He says he wasn’t surprised with Redeemer Pastor Valori Mulvey Sherer reached out to plan the event.
“Valori has been a strong suppoter — probably the strongest supporter — of LGBT rights in the surrounding area, definitely in Rutherford and Cleveland counties,” said Helton, who is gay and serves as chairman of the Rutherford County Democratic Party. “She’s very open minded and very accepting of the LGBT community.”
Helton and other organizers have said they hope the event becomes an annual tradition and helps to move more conservative-minded community members forward on the issue of equality.
“I definitely believe it…will raise the issue among people who may be conservative on the issue but somewhat indifferent,” Helton said. “It may get them to think about their own position more and open their mind a little bit that gay people are members of the community and are their neighbors and friends.”
The event in Shelby was unique for several reasons. It’s among some of the smallest towns in North Carolina to host an LGBT Pride event, following similar events in Boone and on the Outer Banks at Manteo and Nags Head. For longtime LGBT community members in Shelby, the event also marks a decidedly different tone than that which surrounded the town’s tragic 1987 incident in which three men were shot execution style at a gay bookstore.
Though the event went off without a hitch — with looming rainstorms holding back — it did attract a small amount of protest. Four protesters — two from Charlotte and two from Shelby’s Elizabeth Baptist Church — stood on the perimeter of the church property holding anti-LGBT signs and preaching.
Elizabeth Baptist Church Pastor Rit Varriale had previously lodged public complaints about the way the event had been reported in 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 said the local newspaper published the story on a Sunday edition’s front page and over the fold. With so many people opposed to marriage equality, Varriale told qnotes last week that he thought it was the wrong decision by the newspaper.
“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 said. “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 said Christians in the community might gather sometime in the future for their own event upholding their view of marriage.
Despite the pushback, Episcopal Church of the Redeemer’s Sherer said she thinks Shelby is ready to move forward.
“I’ve had a lot of conversation with tremendous support in this town,” Sherer said last week. “What pleases me is that everybody is ready. They are so ready to have a Pride event and to begin this discussion in a real way.”
The Shelby Pride event also attracted support from surrounding areas — including participants from Hickory and Charlotte.
Shelby Pride Photos
Photos by Matt Comer & Jamie Hildreth