South Carolina. The land of the Dixiecrats. Strom Thurmond and the Confederate Flag. The KKK and a “House of Homophobia.” And in the middle sits a blue oasis in a desert of red: The City of Columbia.
The 2008 SC Pride Festival and Parade in the Palmetto State’s capital city went off without a hitch. A sunny day, cool temperatures and sparse opposition from religious protesters left attendees in a state of excitement, regardless of their location in a state with a “a history of hatred,” as State Rep. Todd Rutherford (D-Columbia) told Q-Notes.
No one quite knows the attendance for the day — estimates range from 4,000-6,000 — but one thing is clear: This year’s festival was the group’s largest and most successful. The South Carolina Pride Movement raised all the money they needed, placing them “in the black,” according to President Ryan Wilson. They also garnered much-needed support from Columbia city government, including every member of the city council and the mayor. Even Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley, Jr. sent a letter of welcome to be printed in the group’s 2008 Pride Guide.
In the summer, the SC Pride took hold of their chance to gain international exposure. Wilson and other SC Pride leaders took to newsprint and the airwaves to raise awareness of the good they were doing in the state after the “South Carolina is so gay” advertising controversy. The strategic leadership and vision of SC Pride certainly paid off.
Without question, somebody is doing something right in Columbia. From fundraising (the group won a tremendous amount of public support with a City of Columbia tax grant) to political networking (every member of the city council signed a welcome letter to the group), SC Pride has squarely placed itself in a position to be a model for LGBT organizing across the South.
One would think a city like Charlotte, a “New South” metropolis closely approaching a million residents, would be more progressive than a city that ranks among the Carolinas’ smallest business and government centers. With the exception of a bright few visionaries, the Charlotte LGBT community is repeatedly ignored by members of the city council and the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners.
Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, who is engaged in a heated gubernatorial battle with Democratic Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, has refused to acknowledge the community’s existence in his entire 12-year leadership. I guess “business friendly” Pat doesn’t care about the combined hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into the city’s economy during Pride Charlotte and the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Carolinas Gala. So much for a “business-friendly” Pat.
Even when stacked against the annual Pride parade and festival in Durham, N.C., the SC Pride events look astonishing, despite their smaller size. Nationally-known performers, above-board fundraising and sponsor relations, the lack of opposition from the right-wing, year-long outreach and coalition-building across the state — South Carolina has it all.
For years, the North Carolina LGBT community has benefited from a number of positive influences, including a larger queer and allied population, a slightly more progressive state leadership, major corporate support and funding and a stable LGBT political establishment. Unlike our Southern sister, North Carolina leaders continue to defeat a constitutional amendment enshrining discrimination into its most fundamental governing document.
Ranking the Southern states on their gay-friendliness, or at least their lack of outright gay hostility, North Carolina ranks near the top.
Columbia’s LGBT and allied community is just now coming into a variety of positive influences that will continue to make it grow in new and exciting ways.
But it might just be that what North Carolina has and what South Carolina lacks serves as the true impetus for why the Palmetto State’s queer community seems so gung-ho and ambitious.
Perhaps North Carolinians have become complacent. Perhaps Tar Heel LGBTs think they’ve pushed enough. You don’t have to look far to hear average LGBT Joes saying, “I have my life and it is fine. The gay politicos in Raleigh will handle it.”
There’s no doubt South Carolina still has miles and miles to travel. One elected official told Q-Notes that Columbia’s progress “might be the first step on a million-mile journey.” What South Carolina lacks in terms of size or true, statewide political influence, they more than well make up for in pure, determined perseverance.
South Carolina might still be red, but its blue capital city is making strides. The small, sleepy town of Columbia is growing into one of the most progressive cities in the South. That’s something all Carolinians — North or South — can be proud of.