I have never seen so many rainbows.
This is my first (admittedly asinine) thought as I stepped out onto Trade Street to find downtown Charlotte in the thralls of its annual Pride festival.
It was 2013, and I had been invited to tag along by my then-coworker and friend Jenny to help paint faces at the PFLAG Charlotte family booth. I was equal parts excited and terrified.
I was excited because I love painting faces and, as a high school teacher, I couldn’t think of a better cause than raising awareness for the struggles of LGBT young people. I was terrified because my social anxiety comes out in full force when I’m in crowds, and there was absolutely no doubt in my mind as I walked further into the festival that this would be an introvert’s worst nightmare. There were thousands of people there, and as I stepped closer to Jenny where I could safely peer out from behind her back at the rowdy masses, I couldn’t help wondering what I had gotten myself into.
I needn’t have worried: once we made it to our booth, we were greeted with hugs and handed our paint supplies and assigned a table in the shade, and although scores of people poured past for the next three hours as we toiled over sweaty-cheeked children demanding butterflies, hearts, and (of course) rainbows, the atmosphere on the adjoining street was welcoming and positive and by the time our shift was over, I felt like we had hardly begun.
Jenny and I spent some time wandering the festival after we were relieved by the next set of volunteers. I was curious: until that day, I had never been around so many queer people in my life, and the experience was thrilling. Jenny – who had already been a member of PFLAG for a few years – literally and figuratively held my hand as we perused endless stalls selling pride flags, t-shirts proclaiming “Equality for All,” buttons with identifying pronouns, and jewelry in every color combination imaginable, each one specific to a group within the LGBT+ community. Volunteers with the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network (or RAIN) handed out free condoms while local churches passed out postcards reading “Jesus Loves You and So Do We.” All the while, I watched in wonder and thought what a beautiful thing it is to be any ally for such a vibrant community.
It’s been almost six years since I attended my first Pride festival, and quite a lot has changed since then. I’m a PFLAG board member now and a five-time parade participant, and rather than stand gaping on the sidelines, watching the festivities with the happy disconnect of a spectator, I am in the thick of things, manning booths and hugging passersby, standing between protesters hoisting signs big enough to act as a buffer against their bigotry. More importantly, perhaps, I am a proud asexual woman advertising my identity in my clever purple, black, and grey attire, scoping out the crowd for other “aces” to high-five.
But more about all of that later. Charlotte Pride itself has changed quite a bit, as well, and not just since I started attending six years ago. What has become the largest statewide event in North Carolina has a rich and vibrant history that deserves to be told. Its legacy stretches back to 1994 and beyond, and unless I’m very much mistaken, it will continue to reach its rainbow-colored arms well into the foreseeable future.
THE HISTORY OF CHARLOTTE PRIDE
Fifty years ago, almost to the day of my writing this, a routine police raid of a gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York City, incited a movement that would empower a generation. The bar was the Stonewall Inn, and June 28, 1969, was hardly the first time the establishment had been raided. There was no probable cause for the raid, no search warrants handed over upon entry; the officers who arrived at the bar that night were there because of the establishment’s reputation as a haven for the gay, lesbian, and transgender community, and in the eyes of the law, no other incitement was necessary.
There were roughly 200 people at Stonewall Inn that night, and when the police arrived with orders to clear out, most did as they were told. It wasn’t until officers began asking for identification, carting off cross-dressing individuals to the bar’s restrooms to verify their sex, and carrying out men and women in handcuffs that the crowd on the street called out for justice. Shouts of “Gay power” and “We shall overcome” rang out along Christopher Street, and those gathered began throwing whatever they could find at the officers emerging from the bar. The police responded with billy clubs in hand, and within minutes, the scene was engulfed in chaos.
America in 1969 was hardly a haven for the sort of people who called the Stonewall Inn “home.” Just over a decade earlier, then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower had passed a law banning gay people from serving in the federal government for fear that they would be a security risk. The adoption of the Model Penal Code in 1962 had technically removed “consensual sodomy” from the long list of crimes for which Americans could be prosecuted, but it would be years before comprehensive reform would reach every state in the nation. Much of the queer community lived in silence, afraid of persecution from their neighbors and their own government – but not for much longer.
One year after the Stonewall Riots, community members in New York City organized a march through the streets of Greenwich Village to commemorate the uprising, and in the years that followed, dozens of cities across the country began to follow suit. Parades and festivals became annual events mainly in urban areas with large LGBT communities, the start of what would become, for many, a beloved tradition and celebration of empowerment and solidarity.
Fast-forward 25 years. The city of Charlotte, North Carolina, was an up-and-coming urban center, a fast-growing Southern city with a booming population of emigrants from across the nation. Unsurprisingly, many of these diverse Charlotteans identified on the LGBT+ spectrum, and in 1994, they were looking for new ways to empower the queer community and raise awareness of the issues surrounding the LGBT+ population that they felt many of their heterosexual, cisgender peers were choosing to ignore.
Darryl Logsdon was a gay man living in Charlotte in the early 1990s, and he remembers a city not so very far removed from the conflict of Stonewall 25 years earlier. “Gay people were not just in the closet,” he said at a recent panel discussion commemorating the 25th anniversary of Charlotte Pride, “they were in the vault.” The late 20th century was still a period of marginalization for anyone brave enough to be “out,” a time when acknowledging your sexuality gave employers grounds to fire you and passersby on the street permission for harassment and, sometimes, assault. HIV/AIDS was the single greatest killer of men between the ages of 25 and 44, and the stigma of that disease reached all the way into the seats of government where politicians like North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms were fighting legislation that would provide funding for AIDS programs because, as he said a few years earlier, “We have got to call a spade a spade and a perverted human being a perverted human being.”
In the midst of these troubling times, a small group of LGBT+ activists in Charlotte decided that it was time to bring the North Carolina Pride Festival to the Queen City. Among these activists were Darryl Logsdon, Kimberly Melton, Sue Henry, and Dan Kirsch. Each had attended various Pride parades and demonstrations in other major U.S. cities and been amazed at the support they had found there, and after having a chance to attend the 1993 National Washington March, they decided that it was time to bring that experience to Charlotte.
Although Charlotte had hosted a handful of Pride-related events over the years, nothing on the scale of what this intrepid group of freedom fighters imagined for 1994 had ever been attempted. The first public Pride meeting in 1983 had proved that such a thing wasn’t impossible: 200 people had showed up for that event, and the organizers ran out of paper plates before day’s end. There was obviously a demand for a space where queer folks and allies could come together to demand equality and celebrate diversity; they just needed to make it a reality.
Logdson, Melton, Henry, Kirsch, and their team of planners put in a bid with the North Carolina Pride committee to host the annual event (usually held in Raleigh) in Charlotte, and the committee agreed to give the new location a try. The following months proved to be a testament to the power of persistence as the organizing crew prepared what would be the largest statewide event in North Carolina’s history. The theme was “Invisibility to Equality: Never Turning Back,” and it saw upwards of 3500 attendees flocking to the streets of uptown Charlotte for a week of workshops, church services, concerts, and parties. Comedian Lea DeLaria was the guest of honor, and the week culminated in a bright and boisterous dance at Founder’s Hall. It was, for all intents and purposes, a rousing success.
Image: The logo for the 1994 NC Pride Festival and Parade which occurred in Charlotte.
THE FUTURE OF PRIDE
The years immediately following that first Charlotte Pride celebration were a whirlwind of hopeful progress for the queer community. For the first time in the event’s history, there was money left over after the bills had been paid, and the organizers set out to utilize those funds for the benefit of the community. Grants were awarded to help support (and in some instances, kick-start) burgeoning LGBT+ organizations like Time Out Youth, a local support and advocacy organization serving LGBT youth in the Charlotte area. It would be many years before marriage equality came to North Carolina, but in the meantime, Charlotte Pride was there to ensure that queer voices were being heard in the Queen City and beyond.
There were just under 4,000 attendees at that first Pride event; by 2017, more than 150,000 people from across the country would make their way to Charlotte to join in the various programs, festival activities, and Sunday parade that Charlotte Pride had become famous for. New additions to the schedule cropped up every year including the Reel Out Film Festival (an annual LGBTQ film festival featuring original documentaries and feature-length films), and as the event grew in popularity, sponsors like Bank of America signed on as corporate backers.
As they look towards the future, the original organizers of Charlotte Pride recognize that their work is not finished. For all the positive change that has come about over the last 25 years, America remains a nation governed by a president who supports policies that deny transgender Americans health care under the Affordable Care Act. The right to serve in the military while openly identifying as transgender continues to be a point of contention on Capitol Hill, and as recently as June 5 of this year, the Trump administration announced that it would be cutting essential federal funding for AIDS research at the University of California. Marriage equality may be recognized by the Supreme Court but hate crimes against transgender individuals – especially trans women of color – is on the rise in a country that prides itself on being “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
But what is Charlotte Pride’s role in this nationwide epidemic of discrimination? Can one single event really hope to make a difference against an establishment that, 50 years after Stonewall, continues to deny basic rights to an entire community?
Logsdon, Melton, Henry, and Kirsch think it can, and I am inclined to agree.
Margaret Mead was once quoted as saying, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the word; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Darryl Logsdon believes that that kind of change comes from having uncomfortable discussions, from giving voice to those very issues that plague our country even when talking about them means stepping on the toes of those who would rather focus on the positive developments within the LGBT+ community.
“Change begins with hearts and minds,” Logsdon said, and it’s events like Charlotte Pride that help humanize a population that many in the United States would rather ignore. By lifting up the voices of queer youth at local panel discussions, encouraging dialogue within religious communities of all faith backgrounds, funding grassroots activism, and making Charlotte a safer place to be out and proud, Charlotte Pride plays a vital role in ensuring that the progress made by the LGBT+ community does not go unrecognized and that that same progress does not come to a grinding halt because of bureaucratic prejudice and bigotry.
REFLECTIONS AND CONNECTIONS
In the grand scheme of things, I have only been a witness to a very small piece of the rich history that is Charlotte Pride. It’s incredible to look back at this event’s humble beginnings and to revel in its growth over the last 25 years, especially because without Pride, I know that I would not be the woman I am today.
My first Pride experience turned out to be a symbolic linchpin in my own coming of age story. As I walked among the dozens of booths with my friend Jenny, shyly approaching one or two for a closer look and then hurrying off again before I could attract any attention, one booth in particular caught my eye. The large, white banner affixed to the tent, resplendent with its display of rainbow-colored musical notes, proclaimed the organization to be “One Voice Chorus,” and in my excitement, I forgot to be self-conscious. I sang in high school and college and music had always been a part of my life, but since returning to Charlotte from a brief stint with Teach for America, I had had no luck in finding an outlet for my love of vocal performance. The women working the booth had been kind, quick to answer my questions: yes, One Voice is a local choir; no, you don’t have to audition; yes, everyone’s welcome; no, you don’t have to be gay to sing with us, we’re an LGBTQIA and allies chorus; yes, you are more than welcome to come out to one our rehearsals and see how you like it.
I signed up for their newsletter, and a few weeks later attended a social gathering at Petra’s Bar in Plaza Midwood where I was welcomed with open arms and encouraged to come out for rehearsals in the fall. I have been a member of OVC ever since, and the community of loving, accepting, talented individuals I have found there is beyond anything I could have ever hoped for or imagined.
After attending that first Pride event in 2013, I also became an active member of PFLAG Charlotte. For those unfamiliar, PFLAG is a national organization that was founded in 1973 as a support, advocacy, and education group that works in cities across the country to promote the cause of equality for the LGBT+ community. Originally an acronym for “Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays,” PFLAG has grown with the needs of the community to embrace all sexual and gender identities. My friend Jenny encouraged me to join, and together, we would go on to become board members despite the fact that neither of us have children ourselves. We are both teachers, however, and working alongside the parents, family, and friends of queer folks in the Charlotte community has, perhaps, been the single most influential factor in my growth as an educator these past five years.
It was at Pride 2016 that I bought my first asexual pride flag. I discovered the identity earlier that year in the manner of typical queer millennials: through the Internet, specifically the social media platform Tumblr. As someone who had despaired of ever being “normal,” learning that there were other people in the world who didn’t experience sexual attraction was nothing short of miraculous. It became my little secret, a small flame I kept alive within me to bring me hope in those hours when I was feeling most vulnerable. It wasn’t until Charlotte Pride 2016 that I felt comfortable enough to don the colors of the ace pride flag (purple, black, grey, and white) and march alongside my PFLAG family not only as a devoted ally but as a member of the LGBT+ community, confident in my place therein and proud to be able to display it for all the world (or at least, all of downtown Charlotte) to see.
Every August, I drive uptown in the sweltering heat of late summer, park my car in a metered lot, and join the hundreds of parade participants lining up with their multicolored floats and their hand-painted signs. I walk five, six, ten blocks to join my PFLAG family, and as I walk, I wave at the dozens of young people flocking to the Time Out Youth float who wave their pride flags like batons as the sun sets the glitter on their cheeks to sparkling; I grin at the Rocky Horror Picture Show shadow cast in their fishnet stockings and waist-shrinking corsets as they touch up their makeup on the crowded sidewalk; and I always, without fail, find myself wiping away tears at the scores of local church members who have gathered with their signs of love and acceptance in spite of the South’s long and bitter battle against LGBT rights.
Image: Members of PFLAG Charlotte prepare to march in the annual Pride parade
I take my place next to the PFLAG float, greeting old friends and new, and despite the heat and the crowds and the noise, I cannot keep a smile off my face. We march together through downtown Charlotte past thousands of people who have risen early on a Sunday to show their support for the dozens of LGBT-affirming organizations that call this city home. There are always a few protesters, but their numbers grow blessedly smaller as the years march on. More numerous by far are the young people who run out from the crowd to embrace our PFLAG members who proudly carry their “FREE MOM/DAD HUGS” signs as we pass, the families standing together in solidarity, the parents who hoist their little ones onto their shoulders so they can see the parade, and the elderly members of the LGBT+ community who stand on the sidelines with quiet smiles, hands on their hearts as they mouth the words “thank you” to the marchers as they walk, dance, and cartwheel past.
This, for me, is the legacy of Charlotte Pride. The future for the queer community is uncertain even now, even in 2019, but when the political landscape seems bleakest and the news of transgender women of color being murdered with alarming regularity seems almost too much to bear, this festival remains a beacon of hope. It is a celebration of identity, a call to action, a cry in the dark that change is coming and that the struggles of our forebears will not be in vain.
May it remain so for many years to come.
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