An event believed to be the state’s largest-ever gathering of gays and lesbians is set for uptown this weekend, culminating Sunday with Charlotte’s first gay pride parade in 19 years.
About 55,000 are expected to attend the festival – more than 10 times the number who showed up the last time Charlotte had a gay pride parade in 1994.
Organizers say everything about the two-day festival reflects changing social and political attitudes toward the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender community, including major corporate sponsorships and a prime location on South Tryon Street.
A record 1,500 people have registered to be in the Bank of America Charlotte Pride Parade Sunday, including Charlotte Mayor Patsy Kinsey and City Council members LaWana Mayfield and Billy Maddalon, organizers said. Kinsey is a longtime supporter of the LGBT community and Mayfield and Maddalon are both openly gay.
It’s believed to be the first time a Charlotte mayor has taken part in the parade, though Mayor Anthony Foxx made an appearance at a gay pride event in 2011, organizers said.
“Sending a message is not my intention, but I think it’s important to be in the parade. I support the LGBT community and I’d be in the parade whether I was mayor or not,” said Kinsey, saying her stance is “equal rights and equal responsibility” for all.
“I think Charlotte has changed, but I also think a lot of this has to do with (gays and lesbians) being more out in the community working for change … Since I’ve been on the City Council, they have grown into the role of activists and it has been a pleasure to watch.”
The annual Charlotte Pride festival comes at a time when the federal government and Supreme Court are leading the way in establishing equal rights for the LGBT community, though opposition remains strong.
More than 60 percent of North Carolinians supported an amendment last year to thwart same-sex marriage. Yet a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision has already led to challenges of marriage amendments in North Carolina and other states.
Matt Comer, media chair of the Pride Festival, said setbacks like the North Carolina amendment energize the gay community. And that’s a big reason the all-volunteer Charlotte Pride committee revived the parade, he said. It was last held in 1994 and about 4,000 attended.
“The entire LGBT community is more celebrative this year, because people are seeing that all the changes they’ve worked to see for decades are starting to amount to something,” said Comer.
“We’ve just now reached a tipping point where the public support is decidedly in our favor.”
Nowhere is this increased support more evident than the list of nearly 50 sponsors, 22 of which are first-time donors, officials said. Included are all Charlotte’s major banks, along with Food Lion, US Airways, Time Warner Cable, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina and Novant Health.
The parade lineup is equally diverse, with its 80 entries including everything from drag queen pageant winners to church groups (Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, United Church of Christ, and Unitarian Universalist).
Among the parade participants will be Davien Anderson, 27, who’ll march with a group of US Airways employees. He was born and raised in Charlotte but says this is the first year he’s participated in the festival.
“I didn’t feel there was enough support in Charlotte for the LGBT community in the past, but I sense a momentum now and it’s important for me to be part of it,” said Anderson.
“I expect there will be protesters, but I think they are the least of our worries. If anything, this is our opportunity to show them we’re here, we want to be heard and we’re not going anywhere.”
Protesters are a certainty, but their numbers have been dropping in recent years.
In 2009, police reported about 500 protesters, including evangelists from as far away as Missouri. Last year, it was closer to 50, organizers said.
Arrests are so rare that both police and organizers can’t remember the last one. However, the state gained national notoriety in 2011, when a 74-year-old female gay activist was charged with assault in Salisbury for kissing a preacher who was protesting at a gay pride event there.
Charlotte police say they intend to treat the festival like other uptown events by scheduling additional officers to manage crowds and traffic. “We recognize there may be agitators on either side of the issue that need to be dealt with, but that isn’t something new to us,” said Charlotte Police Capt. Mike Campagna.
Parade Chairman David Webb said organizers will also have a team of 25 volunteers on hand called “Partners in Peace,” who are trained to defuse arguments between protestors and festival participants.
“Some protesters will literally have a soap box and preach bigotry,” said Webb.
In the last four years, attendance has gone from 10,000 in 2010 to 45,000 last year.
“We were being told that we needed to have the festival on Tryon Street just like the St. Patrick’s Day festival or any other community event,” Webb said. “Moving uptown is a statement that we are more confident, more visible and more vocal.”
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