Blue Ridge Pride’s Yvonne Cook-Riley estimates that 35-40 percent of attendees at Pack Square Park for the organization’s festival on Saturday, Oct. 4, will be straight allies. That is, people who identify as heterosexual but back their lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning friends and family. What accounts for such strong support of the LGBTQ community? “We are good neighbors,” Cook-Riley says. “We live here — we are somewhere close to 20 percent of the population of Asheville.”
With that in mind, the Pride Festival’s musical talent comes both from nearby (lead act Cantaria, Asheville’s gay men’s chorus) and out of town (Washington, D.C., 10-piece ensemble M.H. & His Orchestra). “One hundred percent [of the performers] are strong, strong allies for the gay community or queer themselves, but they have to be good,” Cook-Riley says. “There’s not unworthy talent, and even those who are doing drag [through Natalie Smalls Productions] have to be vetted. It’s not amateur night.”
Originally a six to eight-hour, single-day event, the festival has expanded for its sixth iteration to four days of activities that more fully engage the public. “It’s not a parade. It’s not just five seconds of somebody going by as you’re standing on the corner,” Cook-Riley says. “It’s interacting with providers, services, organizations [and] groups that are oriented to the Pride community.”
The extended weekend gets underway on Thursday, Oct. 2, with the Miss Blue Ridge Pride Pageant at the Altamont Theatre — a traditional pageant composed of talent, personal appearances and costuming, but with contestants offering a gender-variant presentation. The panel of judges for the competition is what Cook-Riley calls “an interesting cross section that represents many aspects of our community” and includes some elected officials.
This year’s festival reflects a paradigm shift in the LGBTQ community, moving from individuals to family units. Expect an emphasis on children’s activities, and Friday, Oct. 3, will focus on marriage equality and feature recommitment ceremonies at Pack Square Park. “It’s a neat way of saying, ‘Here are many couples who are wanting to get married [and] are part of this community,’ and we want to celebrate that openly and publicly on Friday evening,’” Cook-Riley says.
Following the ceremonies, stand-up comic Jennie McNulty will perform at the Renaissance Hotel. The festival itself takes place from noon-7 p.m. on Blue Ridge Pride Day, deemed as such by a mayoral proclamation in 2011 to occur the first Saturday of October. Capping the festivities is an after-party brunch on Sunday, Oct. 5, at Edna’s of Asheville, which Cook-Riley says is becoming the gay center of North Asheville.
In its efforts to educate people about the history, diversity and future of the Western North Carolina LGBTQ community, Blue Ridge Pride strives to increase public awareness and “eliminate homophobia, transphobia and discrimination,” according to its mission statement.
Key to continuing this mission is the establishment of an inclusive community center. Cook-Riley and Rebecca Chaplin are co-chairing this work under an offshoot of Blue Ridge Pride, The Pride Center of the Blue Ridge. They will present a report on their progress over the past year at a town hall meeting on Monday, Oct. 20, at a location to be determined. Once funds are raised and the building constructed, the community center will accentuate Blue Ridge Pride’s day-to-day outreach and educational opportunities for all of WNC, including providing general services — such as counseling and social services — that residents may not feel comfortable seeking out in other places.
“The community center represents home,” Cook-Riley says. “Asheville right now has many, many support groups, but they are not related to any particular one home, and so we hope that the new community center would represent that.”
While the exposure of a concentrated celebration goes a long way in educating the community of Blue Ridge Pride’s efforts, it’s still only four days out of the year. In keeping these principles healthy for the other 361, Cook-Riley encourages supporters to become involved with the organization, assist with the community center fundraising and, most important, adopt an inclusive mindset and put it into action. “As long as it’s a ‘them and us’ situation, we will always [experience] a lot of conflict, but when we become a ‘we’ in our conversation, we will enjoy the love and togetherness of a community,” she says. “It’s a very simple concept but a very hard one to practice.”
WHAT: Blue Ridge Pride Festival, blueridgepride.org
WHERE: Festival at Pack Square Park (with other Pride Week events throughout Asheville, see website for details)
WHEN: Saturday, Oct. 4, noon-7 p.m., free