InFocus: Charlotte 2016 — Protection when you need it

Allied Guard provides added security for Charlotte Pride Festival goers

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The concept is simple: five glow sticks held together with a zip tie. The need is profound: find a way to make participants feel safe as they leave Charlotte Pride this year.

The result is the establishment of the Allied Guard, a loose-knit organization of volunteers who will be carrying a “lantern” of glow sticks and accompany any person exiting Charlotte Pride to their vehicle or walk with them to their home in Uptown Charlotte.

Allied Guard is the brainchild of Anders Olson, a 31-year-old straight man who works in the financial sector and lives in Fourth Ward. The idea came to him as a result of conversations with his openly gay friend and neighbor, Tyler Bailey, 28, who works in real estate in the Uptown area as well.

“We were discussing what it is like to be out and living Uptown,” Olson said. “Tyler told me that in the places he has lived that at least once a week something has been said to him or thrown at him, and he has had at least one physical altercation. There is not a lot that I can do, but I felt that there should be at least one day of the year when LGBT people should feel safe.”

The need became apparent after reports surfaced on social media about how celebrants at the New York City Pride event felt the need to remove flags, beads, stickers, etc., when they got on the subway in order to avoid being harassed on their way home.

In their conversations, Olson recognized that Charlotte Pride is a critical mass. “It is a target-rich environment for bigots,” he said. “On weekends, it is a touchpoint when people are drinking and they start saying or doing things.”

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Olson saw that there was something simple that LGBT allies could do: help protect Charlotte Pride participants as they exited from people who might harass them. “One person is easy to attack, but it is more daunting coming up against five or 10 people,” he said. “Having a group of us walk together makes people think twice. And it is something easy to do.”

“One of the easiest things to say is that you support LBGT,” he added. “But we need to put our money where our mouth is.”

Bailey affirmed Olson’s ideas.  “Sometimes you have to blend to feel safe,” he said. “But Pride is one weekend when you should feel safe.”

Olson then started jotting down some ideas on a loose-leaf paper and the Allied Guard was born.

“He ran with it,” Bailey said. “He turned what I thought to be a pipe dream into reaffirming my faith in straight men.”

Looking for a symbol for the organization, Olson rejected the idea of an armband since it seemed too gauche and a bit too far right. He remembered his favorite Greek philosopher, Diogenes, who carried a lantern and said he was looking for an honest man.

So the idea of the rainbow “lantern” was born. “We string up five glow sticks: red, yellow, green, blue and indigo, to approximate the rainbow flag,” Olson said. “Then we run a zip tie through them and have our lantern in the night.”

Groups of at least three volunteers carrying the lantern will be canvassing Pride on the night of Aug. 20 to offer to walk with LGBT people leaving the event.

Olson began to spread the word through social media and even made presentations at his financial institution, and he has been overwhelmed by the response.

“At least 50 volunteers have signed, and probably more may show up,” Olson said. “I’ve gotten donations from work. My boss’ boss gave $40. I was even asked to make a presentation at my work.”

He said there may not be a need for people to make more lanterns, but more volunteers are welcome. Nonetheless, he is aware that not everyone will react positively initially.

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“I expect a good number of people to be suspicious, not having been aware of what we are doing,” Olson said. “If they see the lanterns, they should ask people if they are Allied Guard.”

Volunteer groups will be mainly at Pride, but a smaller group will also be available in areas near clubs and nightspots in Plaza-Midwood and South End such as Bar 316, Cathode Azure and Petra’s.

Bailey said the effort will be significant to his weekend. “I’m going to feel safer,” he said. “I will feel what Pride is all about: everyone coming together. After all it is not just for gay people.”

“You could never walk in another person’s shoes, but you can walk next to them,” Bailey added. “That feeling of isolation begins to dissipate because of groups like this.”

He has been thrilled with the response, but what matters to him is what happens on the weekend of Pride. “If we prevent one person from being attacked or make one person feel safe, we have succeeded,” Olson said.

Bailey said he will be one of them. “Walking around the light rail, it is not uncommon for some drunk idiot to point out that I’m different,” he said.

“Anders’ (Olson’s) group diminishes the line between us and them,” Bailey said, “and makes people who think we are targets think twice.”

Even though he has been praised for coming up with the Allied Guard concept, Olson doesn’t want to be in the spotlight. “I decided to do this on my own volition,” he said.  “It was not started with any idea of recognition.”

Bailey believes this is just the first step to something greater. “I think this could be a starting point to establish a non-profit or social activist group,” Bailey said.

Olson said he is thinking of shopping the idea at Pride events in Raleigh and possibly other cities in the Carolinas. He added that he wants to make a difference.

“Is there more I can do?” Olson said.  “Certainly. I don’t have it in me not to do anything….I wanted to start with something small to spark things.”

“I hope it catches fire.”

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