This year marks the 30th anniversary of one of Charlotte’s less remembered social scuffles, when the city refused to accept bus ads for the annual Gay Pride Week.
It’s worth remembering only to underscore the about-face organizers are seeing as they prepare for the Charlotte Pride 2014 Parade and Festival this weekend.
City leaders are now participants (two City Council members are in the parade), leading employers such as Bank of America and Wells Fargo are among the sponsors, and the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority is a partner, having been wowed by last year’s 80,000 attendees.
It’s undeniable, too, that the event appears to be more mainstream, a point underscored by the fact that country singer and actress LeAnn Rimes is one of the headliners, with a free show Sunday at 4 p.m.
CRVA says the festival now qualifies as one of Charlotte’s “city signatures” and is being promoted as such.
“We recognize what a draw this is for our community, especially with it being one of the largest organized pride events on the East Coast,” said Laura Hill White of CRVA, noting that the event brings in a lot of out-of-town visitors.
Last year was the biggest and most financially successful Charlotte Pride ever, organizers said. It was expected to attract 55,000 but surpassed that by 25,000 people, based on surveys and beverage sales, organizers said.
The 2014 event is planned to be bigger, with 154 vendors (54 more than last year) and 100 parade entries with 22 floats (compared with 80 entries and four floats last year). There also will be two dozen vehicles and more than 25 motorcycles.
New this year will be a Discovery Place family zone with kid-friendly activities, as well as an on-site creation of art work, “Faces of Diversity,” using 10,000 thumbprints collected from festival attendees. The project, by Charlotte artist Edwin Gil, is funded through grants from the Arts & Science Council and the N.C. Arts Council.
Organizers have conservatively estimated that this year’s crowd will be the same as last year’s 80,000.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it draws double the crowd it had last year,” said Jennifer Gaisbauer of the Charlotte Gay and Lesbian Fund, which gave money in 2013 to help re-establish the festival.
“It’s a time in society when things are changing fast, and organizers of Charlotte’s festival are capitalizing on that,” she said. “They moved it uptown (in 2011), putting it where all mainstream parades are. It was no longer hidden.”
Societal changes include growing support for same-sex marriage – which remains illegal in North Carolina – and a recent decision by the Obama administration to establish employment protections for gay and transgender workers in the federal government and its contracting agencies.
Richard Grimstad, who is among the organizers, admits being surprised at last year’s crowd, recalling a moment when he stood at one intersection and watched “a wall of people.”
It was emotional, he said, considering the festival had struggled financially just a year earlier, when it was re-inventing itself. Before that, it had been part of an annual collaboration with the LGBT Community Center of Charlotte.
“No one could have imagined it,” Grimstad said. “I was awestruck, not just by the numbers but by the variety of people. It felt like we’d finally made it.”
A lot of credit for the festival’s resurgence goes to a decision last year to include a parade, which hadn’t been done in Charlotte for 20 years.
Organizers such as Matt Comer say the parade is important to show the diversity of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender culture. The parades are also popular with straight allies of the gay community, who are more than 50 percent of the entries, Comer said.
Last year also broke ground with then-Mayor Patsy Kinsey joining the parade. This year, she and fellow City Council member LaWana Mayfield are grand marshals. Other leaders, including county commissioner Pat Cotham, will appear as part of separate parade entries. Current Mayor Dan Clodfelter is not scheduled to be in the parade, but he signed a proclamation naming it “Charlotte Pride Weekend.”
“We have a lot of long-held stereotypes, but the parade gives us an opportunity to show the LGBT community is much more diverse, with people of many races, many ages and many backgrounds,” Comer said. “That includes gay and lesbian parents with their children.”
He said it’s OK if some people perceive the festival as more mainstream but adds, “We still love our drag queens.”
LGBT advocates said they want the festival to include everyone so that some of the more unconventional people in the community do not become marginalized.
Joshua Burford of the Multicultural Resource Center at UNC Charlotte is compiling an archive of Charlotte’s LGBT community, and he said he has found evidence of multiracial gay pride events as far back as 1981 in the city.
Burford attended last year’s Charlotte Pride and said he was impressed at both the size of the crowd and the sparsity of protesters demonstrating against gay rights. The latter is a common sight at the festival, but their numbers have been dwindling each year. Last year, about 30 showed up.
Burford said anti-gay protesters are a reminder of LGBT history and the reason Gay Pride festivals and parades are important. Protesters tend to spark “political venting” by gays, and he believes that kind of passion should remain a part of the Pride events.
Another important festival element, he said, is a healthy dose of people in the LGBT community “who cannot or will not be mainstreamed.”
“The idea that LGBTQ people should be represented as semi-heterosexual families with children is a problem for me,” Burford said.
“Yes, there are gay and lesbian couples with children and houses in Dilworth, but they are part of a tapestry of people who are the exact opposite because they want to be.”