Jerry Allman dressed as a unicorn on Saturday, knowing he could be himself in uptown Charlotte.
“No one will laugh at me here,” Allman, 51, of Concord, said as he walked North Tryon Street at Charlotte Pride, the city’s annual gay pride event.
The festival and its parade attracted a record 120,000 people last year over three days, with out-of-towners accounting for 20 percent of the attendance. A Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority study said the event had an $11.9 million local economic impact, including $7.2 million in direct visitor spending.
Even more people are expected at this weekend’s event, to protest passage of North Carolina House Bill 2, which nullified a Charlotte nondiscrimination ordinance that would have extended protections to LGBT residents.
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Mayor Jennifer Roberts opened the two-day festival as protesters tried unsuccessfully to drown her out.
“In spite of the protesters, we will prevail, because God loves every single one of us,” Roberts said to loud applause. “And God embraces diversity. Our voices will not be silenced here in Charlotte.”
For the Rev. Robin Tanner, who also spoke at the beginning of the festival, Charlotte Pride is not only a celebration but a liberation.
“Celebrate Pride this day in all its glory, then go forth from this week called to open more doors, smash more closets, expand greater freedom,” Tanner told the crowd. “To liberate by love what is always beautiful, always worthy – each and every one.”
Festival goers enjoyed food, music and fellowship. They bowed their heads at the opening ceremony to remember the 49 LGBT people murdered at an Orlando nightclub in June.
Lakisha Steele, 32, of Charlotte took her 5-year-old daughter to the festival. “We enjoy festivals like this, because they show equality across the board,” she said.
Jason King and Hailey Hamilton, both 16, checked out the vendor booths lining the street. They attend York, S.C., Comprehensive High School, where Jason is president of the GSA Club and Hailey vice-president. GSA clubs bring together gay and straight students to support each other and fight for racial, gender, LGBT and economic justice.
“Principals don’t think it will be around long,” Jason said of the student-run club. “But it will be around for a very long time.”
The event also drew about 10 protesters behind a police barricade at a corner of North Tryon Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Five Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers stood silently near the protesters, as some in the crowd shouted back at them.
“I love the homosexuals enough to warn them that what they’re doing is against God’s law, and if they die as an unrepentant sinner, they’ll spend eternity cast from God in a lake of fire,” protester Buddy Fisher said.
Donna Faile, 53, of Rock Hill, brought an 8-foot-tall banner to mask the protesters’ banners.
“Our goal is to stand between the hate and the festival-goers and let them know that God loves them,” she said
Longtime festival-goers including Allman said they’ve enjoyed seeing the festival draw bigger crowds over the years.
“I’ve seen the crowds grow from a very small crowd to the big crowd that we have today,” said Allman, who’s attended since the beginning nearly 25 years ago. “It’s about the largest crowd I’ve seen since coming here, and I really enjoy that.”
Allman dressed as a court jester last year and in other years as himself in drag, Miss Shanta.
“I come to be with my LGBT community and to enjoy life and to have pride and to be not discriminated against, and to have fun with my friends and family,” Allman said.
Staff Writer Mark Price contributed