The world was an unfriendly place for LGBT people in June 1969. Late that month, some folks were fed up with how they were being treated. Drag queens, street hustlers, gay youth, people of color and drag queens revolted against police oppression and harassment. They stormed out of the Stonewall Inn and into the streets. Each year since, LGBT communities across the world have commemorated the birth of the modern LGBT civil rights movement. The largest events, in places like New York City, still occur in June. But, in many places, especially across the South, annual Pride festivals and parades have shifted toward cooler ends of the summer, spring or fall months.
Still, organizers of Pride events across the Carolinas say the meaning and history of Pride is still strong today, even if it has changed over nearly five decades.
Acts of remembrance
Pride organizers say their annual events give community members an opportunity to remember and celebrate the past.
“It’s a celebration of how far we’ve come and it’s a celebration of our freedoms and the things that are upcoming,” says Jeff March, president of SC Pride. “We are on the map to gain our equality all over. Pride and the recognition of the gay population have opened the minds of the general population to advance us to this level.”
March’s thoughts are echoed by James Miller, executive director of the LGBT Center of Raleigh. Each May, the center produces its Out Raleigh festival, a Pride-inspired event designed to be more family-focused. Miller says Pride is a time to remember.
“I have to remember that Pride is supposed to be about remembering the past and working toward the future,” Miller says. “The past is something we can’t forget. We have to be aware and make other people aware of the people who built the foundation for who we are.”
That includes all the folks who came before Stonewall, says Miller — organizations like the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitus.
Since at least 2000, Pride festivals and parades have grown tremendously across the Carolinas. Once confined to liberal meccas or state capitals, cities and towns across the region now boast their own locally-produced events.
In Winston-Salem, Pride organizers Debra Taylor and Keith Hicks say their event enables the LGBT people and their allies to be seen as part of the larger community.
“Pride today is something for everyone, not just gay or straight,” Taylor says. “We celebrate all colors, all fights. That’s what Pride means today as opposed to the past when we were invisible and it required some sunshine to be recognized as a human being.”
Hicks says seeing a Pride parade in Winston-Salem was an act of affirmation.
“I’m 47 years old and I’ve always been out to my friends and family…but I’d never felt that much love and excitement,” Hicks recalls from his participation in a past Pride Winston-Salem event.
Decadence or Determination?
Critics, both inside and outside the LGBT community, have often painted Pride events as decadent and outrageous. Some say they are an antiquated means of awareness from a bygone era. Yet, Pride organizers see it a bit differently.
“I actually think visibility is the most important thing for the community,” says Miller. “Harvey Milk said come out. You have to be out so that people understand.”
Pride events and similar activities accomplish that goal, Miller says.
“The media will always cover the outlandish and colorful people,” he adds. “Personally, I’ve been to enough Pride festivals to know it’s never like [what the media portrays]. You may have one guy on stilts and leather, but that’s the one guy who gets on TV. It’s a narrow view of what they’re seeing and they’re not experiencing what Pride is.”
March says the outrageousness of Pride events has subsided.
“I don’t think we need as much as we did before,” he says. “I think we’ve gotten everybody’s attention. That was the path we had to take before; we had to get people’s attention. We’ve overcome that now. Now, it’s a matter of we are truly becoming an equal part of society.”
“The hill was a lot harder to climb [in the past],” says Taylor. “Every time we do something to make it more normal and don’t go to that bleeding edge, it impacts everyone around us.”
Hicks says more toned-down festivals offer more people the opportunity to participate.
“You’re encouraging two or three more straight allies to have conversations they wouldn’t normally have because of the vanilla event you put on,” he says.
Coretta Livingston, marketing director for Charlotte Black Gay Pride, says today’s Pride activities offer people the chance to continue breaking down barriers and creating change.
She got involved when she thought the LGBT community wasn’t being well-represented.
“It’s very important to me to be on the forefront bring forth something that represents something great,” she says.
And, like Pride’s birth in 1969, today’s events can be a time to challenge the status quo.
“Being an Afro-American woman, there’s still prejudice,” she says. “It goes back to me knowing and understanding who I am and what I stand for and how I want to be represented.”
Local Pride organizers say they are committed to presenting growing, successful events.
In South Carolina, March says his festival will return to Main St., with the South Carolina State House again as a backdrop to their main stage.
Livingston says she’s been encouraged by the growth in corporate and community support for Charlotte Black Gay Pride. Corporate support has also been on the upswing for SC Pride, Pride Winston-Salem and elsewhere.
In Winston-Salem, organizers say they are excited to forge a new path as an independent organization. Formed in 2010 under the auspices of Equality Winston-Salem, Taylor and Hicks say they followed Charlotte’s lead in creating a new Pride group. Doing so will allow both groups to focus more on their core services.
And, when all the events are wrapped, the streets are cleaned and the revelers have gone home, organizers say it will have all been worth it as they continue to build community.
“I’m really excited about showing change and showing the cohesiveness of what we are trying to do,” says Livingston. “If we can stand strong as a board, we can help others do the same.” : :
Visit qnotescarolinas.com/in/pride for the latest updates on Pride happening across the region. : :