Blue Ridge Pride Festival rolls out the welcome mat

GREAT EXPECTATIONS: Blue Ridge Pride’s theme for 2019 — "Becoming Our Greater Selves Together” — honors the organization’s intersectional approach to the celebrations. This year’s festival includes booths, food and drink vendors, an array of music acts and a kickoff procession. Photo by Sheryl Mann

Tina White, executive director of Blue Ridge Pride, moved to Asheville three years ago after a 35-year corporate career in New York City.

“I transitioned from Tom to Tina on the job. I stayed on the job for two [more] years, and then I realized I wanted to spend the balance of my life paying it forward.” She and her wife decided to move South, where White felt she could make an impact. “The day we’re barreling down I-87 in our U-Haul, the news comes on the radio with something about HB2. And that was my introduction to North Carolina and Asheville.”

The notorious “bathroom bill,” officially known as the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, required transgender people to use the public bathroom that corresponds with their birth certificate, and it had just been signed into law by then-Gov. Pat McCrory.

It was one of many things about which local LGBTQ folks were buzzing with concern during that fall of 2016, when White attended her first Blue Ridge Pride Festival in Pack Square. There, she met then-Executive Director Yvonne Cook-Riley who, she says, “grabbed me up, and I just got more and more involved.”

Now in its 11th year, Blue Ridge Pride’s main focus is a series of events that run Friday-Sunday, Sept. 27-29.

It will all begin Friday when Youth OutRight holds its Youth Night by the stage in Pack Square Park and Blue Ridge Pride presents its first story slam at The BLOCK off Biltmore. The slam is an outcropping of the all-volunteer organization’s newest program, the Western North Carolina LGBTQ Oral History Project, a partnership with UNC Asheville and the YMCA.

The slam, White says, will feature eight storytellers, “not just LGBTQ [but also] allies, who will be telling some of their stories about coming to terms with either their own identity or sexuality, or with their family, or with a loved one. … It’s free because we wanted it to be accessible to anyone in the community. It’s something we hope to continue, even outside the festival calendar in the future.”

Saturday will launch with a procession from the parking lot across from 23 Grove Street to Pack Square Park, to kick off the daylong festival.

The weekend will close Sunday morning, with a brunch and auction at Tupelo Honey’s downtown location.

During Saturday’s festival, attendees can explore the maze of nearly 200 booths spotlighting local organizations, some of which will be offering vaccines for the uninsured, health screenings, name-change clinics and voter registration information. There will also be food and drink vendors and a diverse roster of entertainment.

A major draw is WNC’s best drag performers — in addition to the better-known drag queens, the festival will close with a junior drag showcase Saturday night. The music schedule begins at 11:15 a.m. and includes local rockers Modern Strangers, R&B artist Ryan RnB Barber, guitarist Aaron “Woody” Wood, the Asheville Gay Men’s Chorus and the party band 80H Project.

Local musician Laura Blackley will also be on tap with her indie-roots band, The Wild Flowers. Blackley is a darling of the Asheville songwriter scene who had a radio show on WNCW for seven years and has been known to sit in with various other artists around the region.

At Pride, “I get to see people I haven’t seen in a while, and the band and I get to do our thing,” Blackley says. “I look forward to … bringing music and community together.”

Indeed, bringing community together is one of Blue Ridge Pride’s main focuses. Once the festival is over, the group’s next project is launching North Carolina’s first virtual LGBTQ community center, which will be more widely accessible than any brick-and-mortar facility.

To boot, its theme for 2019 — “Becoming Our Greater Selves Together” — honors the organization’s intersectional approach to the celebrations. White notes that, in addition to amplifying the voices of local groups like Tranzmission, Campaign for Southern Equality, SONG and Youth OutRight, she has worked with other festivals to create partnerships across various communities in Asheville. She was pleased that Shindig on the Green invited Blue Ridge Pride to set up a booth this year and hopes that these kinds of connections only continue to grow.

“The Human Rights Campaign had a gala in Charlotte in February,” she says, “and we were there … handing out ‘Welcoming WNC’ buttons. That’s our big theme, which extends beyond LGBTQ [visibility].

“I find that in Western North Carolina, the vast majority of people and institutions at least aspire to be welcoming,” she adds. “They may fall short sometimes. They may not understand all the things they should be doing, but we are a community that, at its heart, is a welcoming one. So we just want to help everybody find a voice.”

WHAT: Blue Ridge Pride Festival,
WHEN: Saturday, Sept. 28, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Auxilliary events take place throughout the weekend; see website for details
WHERE: Pack Square Park, 80 Court Plaza. Free


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About Kim Ruehl
Kim Ruehl's work has appeared in Billboard, NPR Music, The Bluegrass Situation, Yes magazine, and elsewhere. She's formerly the editor-in-chief of No Depression, and her book, 'A Singing Army: Zilphia Horton and the Highlander Folk School,' is forthcoming from University of Texas Press. Follow me @kimruehl

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