Monroe resident Cristal Robinson recognized a need for a safe environment for queer LGBTQ+ Union County residents. They noticed one of the restaurants in Monroe, East Frank Superette and Kitchen, began to host drag queen performances, and Robinson reached out to the owners of East Frank to ask if they believed the county was ready for something it had never experienced: its own LGBTQ+ Pride festival.
“I asked her … because if you do it too soon, it won’t really make it,” Robinson explains. “I knew that we [LGBTQ+ people] were living here in Union County, and we always go into Charlotte to do a lot of stuff we didn’t have here.”
Robinson and other LGBTQ+ residents and allies came together last year to create Union County Pride, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization aiming to “support the youth and young adults of Union County with all sexual orientation and gender identities,” according to its website.
The organization has become one of the main advocacy groups in the community working to represent and defend LGBTQ+ youth and adults in a community where queer folks have historically been marginalized and demonized.
Union County Pride has worked specifically to help provide safe spaces for queer youth in the community, as the climate in Union County isn’t the most kind toward LGBTQ+ residents.
“School is not always a safe place for queer teens,” Robinson offers. “So the parents who are fighting for their children to have a safe space have banded together [and] the kids that are out here have lots of support.”
In fact, Union County Pride organized the county’s first ever Pride festival, which made its debut last year.
The festival is set to make its return in a couple of weeks and will be accompanied by a week of events ranging from family-friendly LGBTQ+ pop culture trivia at Waxhaw Taphouse to the September 17 Pride festival scheduled for Belk-Tonawanda Park in Monroe.
The events for Pride week include:
- LGBTQ+ Pop Culture Trivia at 6 p.m. on September 12 at Waxhaw Tap House.
- A Candidate Meet Up at 6 p.m. on September 14 at East Frank.
- A 21+ Party from 6 p.m. to midnight on September 15 at The Bottle Factory.
- A teen party in partnership with the Charlotte Gaymers’ Network at 6 p.m. on September 16 in Indian Trail.
- An all-day Pride Festival starting at 11 a.m. on September 17 at Belk-Tonawanda Park in Monroe.
However, planning Union County Pride has proven to be a battle, often against the city or county government, according to Robinson. Last year the group faced backlash from some residents, local churches, elected officials and even the county manager at the time.
History of anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes in Union County
In order to understand the challenges Union County Pride has faced organizing its events, it’s important to understand the political climate of the county. Union County is often divided into two halves, according to Robinson: the east and the west.
“The west side is Waxhaw, Indian Trail, and closer than Matthews, and they are usually coming from someplace else so they’re much more accepting,” they explain. “When you get to the east side, this is where a lot of the people who grew up here are, and they’re the ones who typically don’t want things to change.”
Union County has made local headlines for various actions the government took to remove or censor LGBTQ+ voices. The county’s library system wanted to create a banned book club, according to Robinson, which would allow teens and young adults to read and discuss various books that have been challenged across the country.
Robinson said once the county government got wind of the proposed book club, a policy was quickly passed only allowing government agencies to rent out room space in the library.
“If you already had a club established, those were allowed to continue,” they said. “At this point, the library’s rooms are only available to governmental entities — they’re not even available to other nonprofits.”
The library system was also forced to take down its LGBTQ+ Pride exhibits last summer when the county manager at the time called them and demanded for the removal of those displays. Robinson also said the county government also didn’t allow for the library system to participate in last year’s Pride festival.
“They [the library] were also starting a magazine and the first magazine was supposed to have an author that they interviewed, who was autistic and queer, and they canceled that whole magazine,” Robinson explained.
The school system isn’t much better, according to Robinson. While some of the individual schools have their own renditions of gay-straight alliances, the school board and administration have worked to pass policies impacting LGBTQ+ identifying students.
“They’ve got a ban on flags, but they can’t tell us what flags they’re banning,” Robinson said. “There’s also someone on the board who wants to have a bathroom ordinance or bathroom policy that states that whatever is on your birth certificate is the bathroom you use, which targets our trans students.”
All of these actions from local government entities have created an elevated need to have safe spaces for not just the queer students and youth, but for all LGBTQ+ Union County residents. However, this year’s Pride festival still has some hurdles to clear.
The Pride festival this year is still facing pushback from Monroe city commissioners, and in fact, commissioners have placed an ordinance on their next meeting agenda, which is for September 7, to change who can rent city-maintained facilities. This seems to be targeting the Union County Pride organization, as the group is set to have its Pride festival at a city park on September 17.
Robinson points to an unusual observation related to the action by the city: Monroe’s current city manager – identified by Qnotes as Mark Watson – was the county manager who previously demanded the libraries remove the LGBTQ+ displays and spearheaded the room rental policy for the libraries.
“We started this permit process back in February, and I got the permit solidified before we started marketing in April,” they explained. “We put this in the county seat because it’s in the center of our community … I’m just on high alert right now … why are they changing the policies for city rentable facilities if they’re not thinking about doing this to us?”
Despite the challenges Union County Pride has faced, Robinson said they will have Pride, even if the city governments don’t want to.
“This is one of the only spaces here where people can truly be themselves,” they said. “We are going to continue to fight to have these spaces for our queer neighbors and kids, no matter what it takes.”