Shawna Morey remembers attending the very first Blue Ridge Pride Festival back in 2009. Since then, she says, “It’s gotten huge.” But the annual event is only one of the many ways Blue Ridge Pride, an Asheville-based nonprofit, works to promote local acceptance of the LGBTQ community.
“We filed for power of attorney at Blue Ridge Pride,” says Jenna Metcalf, smiling as she looks at Morey, her partner of three years. The group, she continues, “had lawyers and everything; it was really nice. We can’t get married, so it’s one of the few ways we can be legally recognized if anything were to happen.”
The couple who are new homeowners and parents to two pre-teen boys, say they’ve had very few negative experiences since moving to Asheville in 2010. “That’s one of the main reasons we decided to move here,” Metcalf reveals. It was a very different story in Madison County, where they previously lived. “You would’ve thought we were in a clown costume from some of the stares we got just walking into a restaurant,” she recalls.
“We feel a lot more normal here,” adds Morey.
Ashley Arrington, Blue Ridge Pride’s community outreach coordinator, says she’s proud of what the organization has accomplished in just five years. She was having drinks with friends one evening when the conversation turned to creating a community center that could help raise awareness and funds to support local LGBTQ groups. The first Blue Ridge Pride Festival was held in Martin Luther King Jr. Park. “It was cold and rainy, but about 2,000 people came out,” remembers Arrington. “That was a clear indicator that the community wanted more.”
This year’s festival, says Arrington, will be the biggest one yet. Besides the usual music, vendors and information booths, an Adult Fun Zone will feature a bounce house, silent disco dance party and other surprises. Another first is VIP packages: For $40, pass holders will get access to the Fun Zone, alcoholic beverages and locally catered food, plus free entry to parties at Scandals, Club Hairspray, O. Henry’s and The Underground.
A Youth Pride Zone will offer creative activities like poetry slams, a magic show and crafts. The stage will feature such local acts as Cantaria, Porch 40, Common Foundation, The Get Right Band and a drag show, as well as numerous community members sharing their personal stories. “We really wanted to show the diversity of our community, and I think we’ve accomplished that, hitting a variety of races, genders, orientations, ethnicities, ages, etc. We’re excited to be honoring them and putting them in the spotlight,” says Arrington.
And while conceding that the annual event is hardly comparable to what you see in places like San Francisco or New York, she says the local feedback has been overwhelming. “A few years back we got a letter from an elderly man who came to a Pride Festival for the first time. He was moved to tears and admitted to openly weeping in the middle of the festival — a sentiment we shared reading his letter,” Arrington recalls. She hopes the festival helps educate those who may be apprehensive about the LGBTQ community while providing a safe space for community members who may be living in the closet. “Are there fairy wings and leather and all that stuff? Of course. But what we do is so much more than that.”
Although the festival is the organization’s most recognized event, Blue Ridge Pride works year-round in support of its mission: “Advocate. Celebrate. Educate.” Ten percent of festival profits go to a different LGBTQ organization each year; the group has also hosted conferences, legal advice forums, bullying panels, Amendment One forums, second parent adoption forums and numerous community outreach events. Another program, the Your Equality Speaks campaign, encourages businesses to support the LGBTQ community. “We provide them with a decal for their place of business and a listing on our tourism map,” Arrington explains. “This year we expanded the program to include listings of LGBTQ-owned businesses, gender-neutral bathrooms and safe zones for LGBTQ folks to meet.
“I have to tell you, though, as much as we appreciate all the support from businesses, we know we wouldn’t be here without our community and our volunteers,” says Arrington.
This marks the third year that Morey and Metcalf will be attending the festival together, celebrating their relationship — and a community where they can feel accepted and safe.
— Sharon Bell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
what: Blue Ridge Pride Festival
where: Pack Square Park
when: Saturday, Oct. 5 (noon to 7 p.m. blueridgepride.com)