All over the U. S. and many countries, June is recognized as Pride month for the LGBTQ community and its allies. June was chosen because of the 1969 Stonewall Riots which took place in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan. The riots were sparked by years of police violence and harassment of LGBTQ people which came to a boiling point in the early morning on June 28 ,1969. While other acts of protest had taken place in earlier years, the Stonewall Riots marked a turning point in the lives of LGBTQ people and sparked the modern movement toward visibility and equality.
While the riots lead to almost immediate organization and action in New York and other large cities, places like Charlotte, with its conservative environment, were not so easy to organize. In 1969, homosexuality was still criminalized in every state except Illinois. Even in major cities, LGBTQ people could not live publicly and those who tried faced harassment and violence.
Considering its size in 1969, Charlotte had an active gay social scene even with the oppressive atmosphere. But political organization and activism would develop incrementally. Pride events in Charlotte grew out of the activism of the 1970’s, such as the short-lived Charlotte Gay Alliance co-founded by the late Don King in 1972, and a chapter of Dignity, organized in 1977, and later changed to Acceptance to expand its diversity and outreach. There was a small un-promoted event at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC) that same year.
Arguably, Queen City Quordinators (QCQ) organized in 1981, was the most important catalyst for Pride in Charlotte. The group was founded by King, along with partners, Billie Stickell and Samis Rose and others. They organized the first Charlotte Pride event in June of 1981. It was held at UNCC, and even had Budweiser as a corporate sponsor. The atmosphere has been described as more of a field day, with a music stage, softball tournament (by the Stinging Scorpions, incidentally) and speakers.
That first event was promoted by word of mouth, due to possible backlash against attendees, but later events would be publicized. It would set a precedent for Pride events to come. By 1983 QCQ-sponsored events gained much more visibility — there was kickoff party at Scorpio, a beer bust at the Brass Rail, an open house at Friends of Dorothy Book Shop, a Beer Social at Tags and an afternoon tea dance at the Odyssey. Most significantly, private donors and organizations raised $600 to fund a quarter page ad in The Charlotte Observer, to educate the public on the purpose and history of Pride. The festival also gained local news coverage for the first time.
From 1987 to 1989 QCQ/Q-Notes sponsored a Gay Pride Picnic with an atmosphere more like a big family reunion or community celebration. The events featured barbecue, volleyball and horseshoes. It took place in Bryant Park off Morehead. The park had a history of use by the gay community for social events.
Pride continued to be celebrated during the month of June, and in 1990, there was a coordinated effort that year between Columbia, Chapel Hill and Charlotte. Q-Notes (later rebranded as qnotes) continued to sponsor a Pride Picnic from 1990 to 1993. The WOW women’s organization held their own picnic the following week, and 1990 marked the debut of Charlotte’s One Voice Chorus, which also travelled to the marches in Columbia and Chapel Hill, where they joined Durham’s Common Women’s Chorus in performance.
The first actual Pride March in Charlotte took place in 1994, when Charlotte hosted the North Carolina Pride Festival and Parade, which had been taking place in Durham. Activist Don King opined in Q-Notes that Charlotte’s NC Pride would be “a celebration, a festival, a classroom and a defiant demand for equality .“
The event delivered on that promise starting with a kickoff gala, featuring keynote speaker Donna Redwing of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against defamation (GLAAD). Then up and coming comedian Lea DeLaria performed two shows at the uptown Radisson which also hosted 22 seminars including one by noted activists Dr. Mel White and Mandy Carter, whose talk was facilitated by the NC Conference on GLBT Youth. That Sunday’s Pride March was moved up an hour after protest from First Baptist Church, located near the starting point at Marshall Park. The late Danny Leonard, owner of the Friends Lounge in Jacksonville, N.C., and activist and beloved drag entertainer, also known as “Brandy Alexander,” co-marshaled the march with noted activist Deb Kirby Saleeby. The 1994 NC Pride was a major success, drawing over 5,000 people with an emphasis on activism, awareness and action. A wrap up gala dance party at Nation’s Bank Founders Hall drew 2,500.
As the largest LGBTQ event in N.C., the 1994 Pride drew praise from the community, and while protestors were more numerous than at current events, they were dwarfed by the crowd. The media covered the event with fairness and respect and local TV personality and PFLAG parent Cullen Ferguson marched with his wife, even though his television station failed to mention that fact. Hopes were high that Charlotte could build on the success of 1994.
Because of the 1995 return of NC Pride to Durham, a smaller Pride event was organized by an ad hoc committee, including activist Sue Henry. Hosted at the Van Landingham Estate in Plaza-Midwood, the celebration featured entertainment, a potluck dinner and booths for local LGBTQ organizations and businesses.
Surprisingly in following years, there were no organized Charlotte events for Pride, and other cities like Asheville and Winston-Salem, continued to host NC Pride, alternating every other year with Durham. In fact, Charlotte had no organized Pride events until the organization of Charlotte Pride in 2000 by Jeff Schmehl.
According to the organization’s website, Charlotte Pride made its debut in 2001, with a festival held in Marshall Park, which would be the home for Charlotte Pride through 2005. The later year had been marked by a large group of “protestors” led by local homophobic preacher Michael Brown, founder of Fire Church in Concord N.C. Wearing red shirts, these people harassed attendees, often being confronted by LGBTQ people when police refused to remove them.
After that Pride, the Rev. Philip (Flip) Benham, head of Operation Save America also in Concord, and a partner in discrimination with Brown complained about Charlotte Pride to the Charlotte City Council and anyone he could get to listen. He later claimed he was responsible for shutting down Pride.
“A local TV station call me, one Sunday morning when I was getting ready for church, for a comment on Benham’s claim that he had stopped Pride” said Jim Yarbrough, publisher of qnotes. “I told them that was not correct and that there would be a Pride event in 2006.”
Determined not to let Benham claim that victory, the next day, David Aaron Moore, the Q-Notes editor at the time and Yarbrough meet with Laura Kane-Witkouski, executive director of the LGBT Community Center to get the ball rolling on 2006 Pride. After a couple of town hall meetings the center established a “Pride Task Force” to plan and run the event.
The name was changed to “Pride Charlotte “ and in order to avoid a repeat of the mass red shirt invasion, Pride events were moved to private property at Uptown’s Gateway Village for their first event in August of 2006. Gateway Village was the site of Pride Charlotte’s events until 2010 when it moved to the NC Music Factory. The less-than-hoped-for success of that year’s event led to the return of Pride to Uptown Charlotte in 2011.
In 2012, Pride Charlotte made the decision to expand to two days. The event failed to turn a profit and that lead to Pride reorganizing separately from the Community Center and going back to the previous Charlotte Pride name. The 2013 Pride, for the first time since 1994, hosted a Pride Parade. The 2014 event, the largest, to that date, was also the first year any economic impact data was gathered on any regional Pride event. Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority found that the 2015 Charlotte Pride hosted 120,000 people and brought nearly 12 million dollars into the local economy. Since then, Charlotte Pride has grown annually in attendance. The only question to some remains, why is Charlotte Pride held in August? That originally was due to scheduling with city, and the use of public property. Also, it avoids competition with other more established Pride events scheduled in June.
From humble beginnings in a field at UNCC, far from the center of power and commerce in a conservative southern city, to one of the largest LGBTQ events in the region; — and no matter who is behind the organization of the events, — Pride celebrations in Charlotte mean one crucial thing. We are here, we are powerful, and we will never be silent and unseen.