Crowds of as many as 120,000 people have made Charlotte’s annual gay pride affair a tourist attraction. But organizers say six months of anti-gay rhetoric from the N.C. General Assembly is expected to turn this year’s uptown festival and parade into one big civil rights march.
That’s pretty much how Charlotte Pride started nearly 25 years ago, and organizers say they’d be pleased if that spirit returns to the two-day affair, particularly for the annual parade Sunday on North Tryon Street, from 1 to 3 p.m.
Several parade contingents have announced they intend to highlight such issues as the murder of 49 LGBT people at an Orlando nightclub in June and the passage of North Carolina’s House Bill 2. The latter nullified all municipal nondiscrimination ordinances in the state, many of which protected LGBT people from discrimination.
HB2 was created specifically to keep a Charlotte nondiscrimination law from going into effect this year, making the city ground zero in the ongoing national debate over civil rights for lesbians, gays and transgender people.
Equality NC, an LGBT advocacy group, says it will carry banners in the parade that call for the repeal of the law, which was passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory in one day.
“We’re inviting people to join in, to show that there are plenty of average North Carolinians opposed to this law, not just some liberal elite,” said Matt Hirschy of Equality NC.
“This year, we (LGBT people) and allies have something to coalesce around and a reason to take a stand and fight.”
The Charlotte Pride Festival and 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.
HB2 is expected to drive up attendance among LGBT people, their straight supporters and companies seeking to make clear their opposition to HB2. Organizers say they have seen a 10 percent jump in applications to participate in the parade (130-plus), indicating this will be the biggest gay pride parade ever in the Carolinas.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police appear to have anticipated that last month, when they announced they were raising the security level at the festival to the highest possible status. That allows officers more leeway in stopping people and conducting searches. The added security could also prove useful if protesters show up in support of HB2.
Joshua Burford of UNC Charlotte’s Multicultural Resource Center says HB2 has changed the dynamic of Charlotte Pride. For a short time, the gay community assumed earning the right to marry meant the fight for gay rights had been won. But HB2 proved otherwise, he says.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if (Charlotte Pride) cracks 200,000 attendance. I think a lot of people will show up just to make the point that they are not scared,” Burford said, predicting the event will reflect both solidarity within the LGBT community and resistance to state officials.
“We’ll do this in the face of HB2 and what happened in the Orlando shootings. We’ll make this happen. And it’s a crucial moment, too, one showing full solidarity with queer people of color and our trans siblings. … It feels like we are getting back to our roots.”
One big difference to those early years – Charlotte’s first gay march was in ’94 – will be the prominence of corporate sponsorships. Most of the region’s biggest employers, including Bank of America and Duke Energy, are backing the festival and parade, which LGBT advocates see as yet more proof that state leaders are out of touch on gay rights.
Among the corporations participating in the parade is Wells Fargo, which will pay tribute to the 49 LGBT people killed by a lone gunman in June at an Orlando nightclub. The bank will have a contingent of 300, who’ll close out the parade.
Fifth Third Bank is also paying tribute to the 49. Laura Passerallo, a regional marketing director for Fifth Third, said the bank will have a float, as well as a team walking in the parade.
“We have a big presence in that (Charlotte) market and so there’s big involvement,” she said. “It’s important to be fully supportive of (LGBT) employees in the community. … It’s important for our employees to know we value diversity. It’s important for customers and the community to know as well.”
Charlotte Pride spokesman Matt Comer says organizers welcome the idea that parade viewers may feel strongly enough about gay rights to get off the curb and join the parade.
“We’ve seen attendees sometimes do that,” he says, “whether they're joining groups marching in the parade or whether they’re following in at the tail-end of the parade.”
Charlotte Pride Festival runs Aug. 20-21, on South Tryon between Trade and Stonewall streets.
The PNC Bank Festival Zone operates Saturday, noon to 10 and Sunday, noon to 6. The Wells Fargo Stage presents live entertainment, Saturday noon to 10 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 6 p.m..
The Bank of America Charlotte Pride Parade runs 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday along North Tryon Street, starting at 9th Street, turning left at Trade Street and onto College Street.