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Photo Credit: JC Digital Photography Works

COLUMBIA — South Carolina Pride organizers re-elected youthful president Ryan Wilson to start planning next year’s festival while he worked to wrap up this year’s finances.

“We’re in the black,” said Wilson, indicating there will be no debt passed forward as a legacy of the biggest Pride ever in the history of the state. Wilson said the SC Pride Movement will publicly issue an annual report at the end of the year. “I’ve got five new people already signed up to help with the planning,” he added.

The international controversy over a tourism campaign that proclaimed “South Carolina is so gay” gave the 2008 event a publicity boost. “Since July, I’ve received over 2,400 e-mails,” said Wilson.

On Sept. 20, the downtown parade and festival starring drag sensation RuPaul drew thousands of people, including a reporter from England. Attendance estimates ranged from 4,000 to 6,000 for the event, a culmination of a week-long series of activities including movie nights, an open house and political town hall.

Other performers included singer-songwriter Richard Cortez, who will make an appearance for Pride Charlotte at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center in November. Singing duo Change Due and comedienne Jinx Kelly also appeared. The stage was emceed by longtime advocates Bruce Converse and Tony Snell.

“We strive for a balance of entertainment to interest all parts of the community,” said Wilson. Sparse opposition from protesters failed to put a damper on a day filled with color, sunshine and fun. The stage, twice as large as last year’s, was circled by booths for 85 vendors.

The City of Columbia sponsored the event, and Mayor Bob Coble spoke from the stage. In addition to the mayor, all six members of the Columbia City Council signed a welcome letter printed in the Pride Guide, along with a welcome letter from Charleston mayor Joseph Riley, Jr.

Radio station WXRY 99.3 FM broadcast live from the event. Other sponsors included Club Fusion, ID Lubricants, Embassy Suites, P.T.’s Cabaret, The Free Times, Q-Notes, and the Nickelodeon Theatre. “We were able to make great relationships with our sponsors this year,” said Wilson. “We went door to door and talked to donors.”

Award ceremony honors local heroes
The night before the festival, SC Pride bestowed awards on more than 20 individuals and organizations for their advocacy on behalf of the LGBT community. Among the highlights of the ceremony, the Community Partner of the Year award went to the City of Columbia. It was picked up in person by Coble and four members of the Columbia City Council: E.W. Cromartie, Sam Davis, Tameika Devine, and Belinda Gergel.

Devine told Q-Notes that a welcoming environment for gays leads to greater quality of life for all. “If you can’t live in a city and feel comfortable, you don’t want to be there,” she explained. “More people look at us favorably because diversity adds to our character.”

Davis added, “We respect the rights of everybody. You just can’t shut people out of the process.”
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott was named South Carolina Hero to acknowledge his appointment of the only law enforcement liaison to the LGBT community in South Carolina, Dottie Cronise, who has served since 2004.

“We’ve made a lot of inroads with people respecting each other,” Lott told Q-Notes, pointing out that his department includes sexual orientation in diversity classes. “We had an idea, and Dottie has made it work. It’s very simple. We just do the right thing.”

The co-hosts of Rainbow Radio, Bruce Converse and the Rev. Candace Chellew-Hodge, were named Harriett Hancock Volunteers of the Year, an award honoring the pioneering Columbia activist and namesake of the local LGBT center. “We have done some groundbreaking things in this very, very red state,” said Chellew-Hodge, referring to South Carolina’s conservative politics.

Attorney and straight ally David Collier received the Ryan Wilson Equality Award for his work including co-chairing the SC Equality board of directors. Another long-time community volunteer, Jennifer Tague, was named Unsung Hero. Fifteen-year-old Tommy Gordon, Tague’s son, was named the Straight But Not Narrow awardee. Q-Notes’ Editor Matt Comer was named to receive the Ed Madden Media Advocacy Award and acknowledged this writer for her contributions to the newspaper.

Town Hall covers community issues
Change was the theme of a Town Hall meeting hosted by the political action group SC Equality and moderated by University of South Carolina professor Todd Shaw on Sept. 18. Speakers at the event included corporate diversity consultant Susan Lill of Align HR, Greenville, S.C., veteran activist Mandy Carter of North Carolina and Coble.

SC Equality Executive Director C. Ray Drew pointed out that state assemblies are slower to adopt changes than any other forum except the Congress. Even so, Drew said, 2008 has been a “banner year” for gays.

“We’ve accomplished more in South Carolina in 2008 than in the entire history of the state,” he said. Drew honored the pioneering grassroots activists who have made those changes possible through their work in the past 10 or 20 years. He told the crowd, “Some of those people are here tonight, and some have died.”

State Rep. Todd Rutherford (D-Columbia) told Q-Notes at the Town Hall, “People who are not closed-minded appreciate diversity. South Carolina has a history of hatred, and this state is stagnant, but the city is taking steps in the right direction. It might be the first step on a million-mile journey.”