Blue Ridge Pride celebrates more than just its annual festival

Downtown Asheville celebrates the Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriage this past June. Photo by Sarah Whelan

Fresh off a Supreme Court victory for marriage equality, Blue Ridge Pride Festival 15 has even more to celebrate this year, including new participants and a new status for its sponsor.

Blue Ridge Pride, formerly an organization that existed to produce the annual pride festival, has become a full-fledged community center reaching out to LGBT people in the Western North Carolina area, according to Executive Director Yvonne Cook-Riley. It is now connected to Center Link, a network of 172 such organizations around the country, and will expand its function to include advocacy and programs, including collaborative efforts with other agencies.

“It’s a point of contact for people coming into the community and not knowing anyone,” Cook-Riley says.

The festival, which began in 2009, will be held Saturday, Oct. 3, from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Pack Square Park downtown. This year’s event will feature the American Red Cross for the first time.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a draft guidance on allowing gay men to donate blood. Until that point, U.S. policy, established in 1985, had been to “recommended that blood establishments indefinitely defer male donors who have had sex with another male, even one time, since 1977” due to the outbreak of AIDS and the “discovery of high rates of HIV infection in that population.” Even men who had been in monogamous relationships for decades and who were not HIV-positive were excluded.

Amanda Edwards, executive director of the Asheville Area Chapter of the Red Cross, said she is excited to be able to work with Blue Ridge Pride. “We are governed in who we can accept for [blood] donations by FDA rules,” she says. “But now, we have a whole new segment of the community we can reach out to and who we can serve with other programs.”

Blue Ridge Pride Center and the Red Cross hope to sponsor a number of blood drives in the coming year, including one at the center’s planned wedding exposition next April, Cook-Riley says. She and the Red Cross also are working to make the language of the agency’s literature more inclusive.

Also making a first appearance at the festival is the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Since World War II, about 114,000 men and women in the military were given dishonorable discharges from service because of sexual orientation, Cook-Riley said. Now, the VA is reaching out to help eligible people change discharge status, which could make veterans eligible for benefits such as housing loans, scholarships and health care.

“I served with honor during the Vietnam War era,” said Cook-Riley, who is transgender. “Maybe because I was scared … of outing myself.”

Cook-Riley believes the discharges of LGBT soldiers “disgraced their very humanity, and at Blue Ridge Pride Center, we are proud to fight for those veterans who need and deserve to be honored.”

Cook-Riley is pleased to see walls between the LGBT and straight communities crumbling, although she believes much work remains. The nation’s military academies now sponsor support groups for LGBT students, she says, and the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville has two support groups.

“Equality is moving forward. We are seeing ourselves dealing with marriage and commitment, and we live in a marriage-destination town. There’s a lot of work ahead.”

Cook-Riley said the center, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, will work with other agencies to help people in the LGBT community, including sponsoring a program for elders with the Land of Sky Regional Council. In addition, the organization is hoping to find funding to open an office in the coming year.

“Right now, we have a table at Denny’s,” Cook-Riley said.

If you go

What: Blue Ridge Pride Festival 15

When: Saturday, Oct. 3, 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m.

Where: Pack Square Park, 121 College Avenue, Asheville

Information: Visit blueridgepride.org

Admission: Free

To volunteer: Email volunteer@blueridgepride.org

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