Emily Allen’s nerve-wracking journey to come out to her family last December ultimately became a revelation about what identifying as queer means in a small town. “I just started to see in Union County there weren’t really many safe spaces for LGBTQ youth or adults to hang out and be themselves,” Allen, a 22-year-old student at Wingate University, said.
As Charlotte’s Pride festivities hit full swing the last week of August and are generally embraced, outside the Queen City’s bubble is not as welcoming. North Carolinians identifying as LGBTQ+ face other challenges and are striving to create their own inclusive spaces in smaller cities and towns.
Building inclusive spaces is hard fought in the face of resistance. It comes after Union County officials in June decided to cancel LGBTQ+ events at the Union County Library planned in advance of the county’s first Pride festival, next month. Earlier in June, Gaston County officials removed a photo of two men kissing that was a part of the county museum’s photography exhibit.
Allen said she noticed differences in how people treated her after she came out. One of her favorite restaurants she used to attend was always warm to her. When she later returned with her girlfriend, things changed. “I was treated very rudely,” she said. “I don’t even know how to explain [that]. It was like I was pushed over.”
And while her parents grew to be supportive, other family members were not as receptive when she posted her girlfriend on social media. The support she received from her friends on campus helped ease the challenging moment.
One of the spaces that also helped Allen was Prism, a club at Wingate dedicated to the education and support of gender identity and sexual orientation. “I have a lot of friends at Wingate who are also in the community,” Allen said. “I think that’s the great thing about having these clubs and these events is that it brings people together and it gives you a support system that you may not normally have. I definitely needed that during that time… I still need it now.”
The Globe and Mail Prism provided an immediate resource for Allen and other students in the LGBTQ+ community at Wingate. The tight-knit club helped Allen find kindred spirits, but when she found out about East Frank Superette and Kitchen, she found a community.
The restaurant, located in downtown Monroe, has become a gathering space for those in the queer community in Union County. “They have a bunch of events that [are] inclusive, including poetry slams, karaoke nights, and gaming nights,” Allen said. “You get to meet people from all different backgrounds and interests but they still support you.”
The restaurant also connected Allen to Cristal Robinson, a Weddington resident who was looking to create a safe space for LGBTQ+ people in Union County. Robinson, who identifies as queer, moved to Union County shortly before the pandemic, but found she had to travel to find more inclusive spaces.
“The first year I really just did a lot of stuff in Mecklenburg (County). There wasn’t really anything to find over in Union County,” Robinson, 46, recalled.
Traveling to Mecklenburg County for such resources is not uncommon for those in surrounding counties, according to Bethany Corrigan, executive director of Transcend Charlotte. Corrigan leads an organization that pursues equity for transgender and gender expansive communities. “It would make sense that in a highly, densely populated urban area that there might be more services,” Corrigan explained, “but it doesn’t make it easier on the folks who are in smaller or rural surrounding counties.”
People in less densely populated areas with limited or no transportation options can also face challenges accessing these resources, Corrigan said. A 2019 report by the Movement Advancement Project estimated between 2.9 million and 3.8 million lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people live in rural America — at the time around 15 percent to 20 percent of that respective population. Robinson got to know the Union County Democrats, who would meet at a Whole Foods prior to the pandemic. The supermarket chain marked one of the few spaces she considered liberal leaning at the time. It was at least one more space for people in the LGBTQ+ community. “There was nothing,” Robinson said. “We didn’t even have coffee houses we (could) find that would feel comfortable. There was one in Waxhaw that had a good vibe, but until East Frank’s came along there really wasn’t a hang out place.”
Over the last few years, Robinson has worked alongside others to carve out an inclusive space for members of the queer community in Union County. She now heads Union County Pride, one of many pride organizations that have sprouted up in the past decade outside of more densely populated cities. Allen, who is now Vice President of Union County Pride, said many of the youth living in counties outside of Mecklenburg need these spaces and support systems in their towns — especially if some are not getting it at home.
“It makes it easier for them to have someone to talk to,” she said. “And that can go a long way.” Robinson echoed similar sentiments. In 2015, a transgender teen in Union County died by suicide after being bullied by both youth and adults. In the work Union County Pride aims to do, Robinson wants to ensure they can prevent this from happening in the future. One of her organizations’ goals is to increase GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) clubs in the local high schools.
“I don’t want another child to go through that,” Robinson said. On August 11, Allen joined Robinson and Cynthia Brown, treasurer of Union County Pride, at East Frank’s in Monroe. The restaurant has been open for three years, but has already come to be known as a hub and safe space for members in the LGBTQ+ community. The restaurant has a home-like and laid-back vibe and is rarely empty, according to Robinson.
For its owners, being inclusive was always the goal. “We decided from the get go to provide an inclusive space for everybody because that was lacking in Union County,” said Carley Englander, co-owner of East Frank’s.
The restaurant holds a variety of events, including drag shows, which regularly sell out. Englander said while their other events were popular, the drag shows were really embraced by the community. Already their show for September is sold out and they’re considering now doing two a month. “This one was where people were like, ‘Finally I have a place to be,’” Englander said of their drag show events.
Cress Barnes, a co-owner at East Frank’s, said upon moving to Union County they did a lot of research about the angst and civil unrest that took place in Union County’s history. Currently there is even a Confederate statue still in the middle of town, she said. “That sends a message, but our message is everyone is welcomed in our store,” Barnes said. “We never intended to be crusaders or anything. We were just who we are.”
Spaces like East Frank’s and Union County Pride were long in need, says Cynthia Brown, a Monroe resident. Brown has been out as a lesbian for decades and was excited to see Union County Pride established. “I’ve been talking about it for a year,” Brown, 55, said of establishing a local pride organization.
“When they told me there was a Facebook page I jumped on it. I wanted to be involved, and I wanted to be a part of it because I’m a part of the older community, I guess you could say.” Brown, who was raised in Charlotte, said similar to how her hometown changed over the years, Union County is now slowly changing. “I have been flying my rainbow flag since the first of June and it’s August,” she said. “And I’ve had zero resistance.”
Brown has watched both the nation and her hometown come a ways over the years when it comes to embracing people in the LGBTQ+ community. But she pointed to the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme court case in 2015 as a true watershed moment for LGBTQ+ people. In 2015, the Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage through the case.
In 2021, the Charlotte City Council adopted a new nondiscrimination ordinance which would include protections for gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation and natural hairstyles. “I enjoy seeing a younger couple walking down the streets holding hands without any resistance,” Brown said. “It’s a beautiful sight to be able to do that, and I’ve seen that just explode in Mecklenburg.” It’s improving in Union County, but there is still a ways to go, she said.
The Momentum Is Growing
Members of Union County Pride noted there is a vocal minority seemingly opposed to change. In June, the Union County Library backed out of plans to host a seminar ahead of the county’s first ever pride festival, as first reported by WSOC-TV. Robinson said the group also planned a drag queen story time, and wanted to partner with the library to host a book club for teens. She said the move was disappointing, but did not blame staff, and noted the decision came from Union County government officials.
Liz Cooper, Union County’s director of communications, told the Charlotte Observer the government typically participates in or promotes municipal-sponsored events, or events by organizations that receives the government’s funding. “County administration determined it was prudent to review events … particularly ones we had not previously participated in,” Cooper said in an email.
But the decision was tough for many, including Kate Kimbrell, a former librarian at Union County Library, who said it was hard to stomach. “The library is a safe space for everybody,” Kimbrell said. “It’s a space anybody can go for a non-biased interaction for non-biased information. Sexuality, gender expression, the LGBTQ community, well that’s a part of that.”
The library was one of the spaces in Union County where Kimbrell was able to find their own resources. Kimbrell, who identifies as non-binary, said they noticed a co-worker wearing a non-binary pin like them one day. After approaching them, they instantly hit it off. The connection led them to resources within the library, like LGBTQ+ friendly books, and resources outside the library, like East Frank’s. Word of mouth has become one of the ways people in the queer community are finding and sharing their own spaces and resources in Union County, Kimbrell said.
“It’s still like that even though Union County Pride is just getting off the ground,” they said. “But they are literally making it more accessible for the queer community in Union County.” Kimbrell recently resigned from the library, in part because the library canceled the Pride events. But they worried about those who had found a comforting person to walk up to and ask about more LGBTQ+ resources. “With me being gone, it’s so important they still feel safe when they walk up to someone at the library,” Kimbrell said.
Having members of the queer community come up to them and know they found someone safe to interact with was so important, they said. Even within the library, the queer community would try to be as affirming as they could, giving warm gestures to each other, providing compliments and continuing to direct those in need to affirming resources. But some in Union County still do not realize how many people live within the county who also identify as LGBTQ+, Kimbrell said.
“The need is there and the momentum is growing,” they said. Elsewhere, Robinson points to Salisbury Pride and Rock Hill Pride as examples of smaller counties or cities that have seen local organizations work to make their own towns more inclusive. Salisbury Pride was created by a group of friends who wanted to celebrate equality and diversity, according to the organization’s website. It held the city’s first pride festival in 2011, and the organization became a nonprofit in 2012. Similarly, Queen City News reported Rock Hill celebrated its first Pride Festival in 2021, which drew more than 2,000 people to its events. Robinson is hopeful smaller counties or towns will continue to create their own organizations to provide inclusive spaces for their queer population, and not force them to travel out. For Brown, who has witnessed slow change around the country, in her hometown and where she now lives, Union County Pride is about continuing to show the queer community are everywhere and no different. “We’re validated in our relationships,” Brown said. “We’re validated in who we are.”