Thousands enjoy day of entertainment, speakers, empowerment
by David Stout . Q-Notes staff
Best. Pride. Ever.
At least, that seemed to be the prevailing sentiment among the record-setting crowd who attended the Aug. 25 festival that crowned the week’s events of Pride Charlotte 2007. For the second consecutive year the celebration was sponsored by The Lesbian & Gay Community Center of Charlotte and organized by the Pride Charlotte Task Force.
With all the praise heaped on uptown’s Gateway Village, the new site of the festival last year, it was a no-brainer for the event to return there. And it came back in a big way. Based on estimates from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police and Pride organizers, 8,000 people filled the venue for a day of musical entertainment, guest speakers, arts and crafts, merchandise and food vendors, visibility and empowerment.
The phenomenal turnout topped last year’s then-record crowd by 2,000 and beat the Task Force’s goal by 500. As organizers pointed out, attendance was especially impressive given that the heat hovered near the 100-degree mark for the greater part of the day.
“We couldn’t be more pleased with the numbers,” said Jim Yarbrough, co-chair of the Pride Charlotte Task Force and the publisher of Q-Notes. “For so many people to have been out there on that scorching day confirms how much the community values the Pride Charlotte festival. From the Task Force’s perspective, it was a ‘best-case scenario’ type of turnout.”
The gains of the 2007 festival weren’t limited to setting attendance records. The number of vendors at the event outstripped last year’s total as well. According to Task Force member Jeff Schmehl, space permitting, the figure could have been even greater.
“We had 88 registered vendors,” he said. “That’s about 10 more than last year and I turned away 15 after we’d filled all our spaces. We had inquiries up to the last day. A lot of interest came from outside Charlotte this year, which I think is a result of more marketing, getting our name out there.”
Volunteer Coordinator Toryn Stark enlisted an army of helpers to mount the booming event. “We had about 100 volunteers the day of Pride,” she explained. “They did everything from helping set up the stage to hanging banners to taking surveys, serving as Enforcers of the Peace, supervising the kids’ area and cleaning up at the end. The volunteers were definitely a big part of the day.”
The Enforcers of the Peace were charged with keeping tabs on the approximately three dozen protestors who picketed outside the venue. Their job was relatively easy. Opponents were not allowed to distribute tracts or proselytize in any way within Gateway Village. (The one man who tried was arrested.) For most festival attendees, the anti-gay presence ranged from negligible to non-existent.
In fact, the Task Force’s Opposition Strategies committee is so adept at dealing with protestors — via the Enforcers of the Peace and the Booth of Truth, where spiritual leaders of various faiths share LGBT-affirming spiritual information — representatives of NC Pride, SC Pride and Atlanta Pride were on hand gathering info for their own events.
Task Force co-chair Raine Cole observed, “The main thing the street preachers provided was entertainment for folks walking into the festival. Besides, they were gone by three — they couldn’t take the heat.”
The supportive presence of straight clergy, elected officials and civic allies also helped balance the scales.
Charlotte’s Republican Mayor Pat McCrory was nowhere to be seen at Pride, of course, but Mayor Pro Tem Susan Burgess was a guest speaker. She had already submitted a welcome letter that festival organizers reprinted in the Pride Guide that was distributed at the event. Jennifer Roberts, chair of the Mecklenburg County Commission, also addressed the crowd.
Additional speakers of note included Ahmad Daniels and Cooper Lawrence. Daniels is one of Charlotte’s most prominent African-American civic leaders. Although best known for his work to bridge the city’s racial divisions, he has publicly supported his two lesbian daughters and the LGBT community for years.
Popular syndicated radio host Lawrence, who can be heard in the Queen City on 107.9 The Link, emceed the main stage in the afternoon at no cost. She good-naturedly refers to her gay friends (her “marys”) regularly on her talk show.
Cole said heterosexual participation seemed to be a trend of the 2007 festival, “I noticed a lot of straight people in attendance this year, which is great. Pride is a party for everybody; it’s not exclusive.”
Darryl Hall oversees logistics for the Task Force, which means part of his job is to plot the festival space so everything fits. The more successful the event becomes, the more difficult his job gets. Not that he’s complaining.
“The difficulties we face revolve around our success. I’ll take that over the alternative. And we’re looking at some things to afford us more space next year. I’ve already had some conversations with the City about possibilities.”
Hall said the Task Force worked closely with municipal officials, Gateway management and the police department. He feels the collaboration will reap long-term benefits for the LBGT community. “They all appreciated how well organized we were, but I think it helped our relationship with the police particularly.”
He added, “There was a lot of miscommunication in the past and [previous Pride organizers] thought the police weren’t helping them. We made an effort to coordinate everything with them and I think they responded as well as they could within the boundaries they have to work.
“We have to remember that the festival is a balance of our right to freely assemble and the protestors’ right to free speech. Overall, the police do a pretty good job I think.”
Yarbrough said festival-goers most common complaint wasn’t directed toward the police or even the protestors. “Guys in particular were upset because Gateway management instructed the security staff that no one could be shirtless in the venue. We had a lot of men complain that they were told by security to put their shirts on. They weren’t happy about it. Neither were we — especially in that heat.
“I asked [Gateway representative] Maggie Kidd why people were being told to put their shirts on. She said it was Gateway policy that everyone on the property must be fully clothed. When I asked her why it wasn’t enforced the previous year, she said she didn’t know.”
Lesbian activist Concetta Caliendo was told by security to change her T-shirt depicting two women embracing because one figure’s nipple was slightly visible. She complied after consulting with police and Gateway’s head of security, who, she complained, deemed the shirt okay before the partial nipple was pointed out to him.
“I was told that if I refused to change, I would be escorted to the edge of the property and never allowed in again,” she said. “The Pride committee asked me to be at the festival to register voters. I changed my shirt because I didn’t want to cause any problems for them. But I don’t think it was right.”
Yarbrough said of the problems, “These types of situations are the trade-off for using private property versus public spaces like parks. We either keep the protestors out and live by someone else’s rules or we go to a park and put up with the disturbance throughout the event.”
It’s clear where the Task Force stands. And based on the numbers, including the growing financial returns, plenty of businesses and people agree with them.
According to Task Force Treasurer Michael Curtis, preliminary accounting shows revenue up 16 percent from last year. Sponsorships increased 13 percent over 2006, vendor fees soared 42 percent and sales of Pride T-shirts, beer and water were up 15 percent. He said it is anticipated that Pride Charlotte 2007 will make about $20,000 after all the bills have been paid.
Cole is, of course, delighted that the festival is financially successful and that the attendance is growing and the entertainment keeps getting better, but she said none of these things means as much to her as the experiences of one particular visitor to the event.
“My best Pride memory is of this homeless guy in his late 20s or early 30s who wandered in. He looked rough — with twigs and leaves stuck in his hair. He looked like he had been hitchhiking because he was wearing one of those backpacks with the framing. He came in and sat down in the shade near the beer tent. I watched from where I was sitting at the information booth. People just started talking to him. They fed him, gave him something to drink, welcomed him to Pride.
“Later, I sent one of our team over with some water. He came and thanked us profusely. He grabbed my hand and said, ‘You guys are out here because you care about people.’ That just blew me away. Here was this man telling us how good we were while the protestors were out in the street saying we were going to hell. It made me wonder, if that man had wandered into one of their churches, what would they have done?”