Image 1. The march goes on: The rainbow flag in front of City Hall during last year’s Blue Ridge Pride festival. In a tumultuous year for the LGBT community, a slew of events this month celebrate a vibrant and determined local culture. Photo by Caitlin Byrd. Image 2. Party with a purpose: Revelers at last year’s Blue Ridge Pride festival. This year’s expanded event will feature longer hours and more space, offering entertainment as well as services. Photo by Caitlin Byrd. Image 3. Qfest returns: Fine Arts Theatre Manager Neal Reed and Qfest representative Kara Arndt in front of the site that will host an expanded list of LGBT films from Oct. 11-14. Photo by Max Cooper.
It's been a tumultuous year for LGBT advocates. On the one hand, national polls showed growing support for same-sex marriage, Asheville began offering domestic-partner benefits for city employees, and the locally based WE DO Campaign made national news.
But in May, the strong voter support for Amendment One — now enshrined in North Carolina’s constitution — underscored how contentious the issue of LGBT rights remains. In Buncombe County, precincts within the city limits overwhelmingly opposed the amendment, which decrees heterosexual marriage the only legally recognized domestic union in the state; those outside of Asheville supported it.
Against that backdrop, the local community is planning a busy schedule to mark the fall incarnation of LGBT History Month, including Qfest (a film festival( and Blue Ridge Pride (see box, “History Month Highlights”). These and many other events around town aim to celebrate the LGBT community’s determination, cultural heritage and continuing struggle for rights and recognition.
Standing for civil rights
Blue Ridge Pride comes back to Pack Square Park Saturday, Oct. 6, in its biggest edition to date. Since last year, the event has attracted national attention; a May CNN story listed it among the top five places worldwide to celebrate LGBT History Month.
This year’s theme is “United With Pride.”
“It's not like the big-city pride festivals you go to,” spokesperson Holly Paar reports. “There's this local emphasis: In Asheville, we do things differently.”
But the passage of Amendment One, she notes,“was a real blow, especially in this community which has always been so supportive.”
Nonetheless, continues Paar, “There's no rest for the weary. That was one battle, but it's not the war.”
This year, the festival will spill over into the Renaissance Asheville Hotel parking lot across the street; pet care is also on offer, so pet owners can attend. Another new feature is a direct-service area offering everything from legal advice to chiropractic care while highlighting LGBT-supportive local businesses.
“There's going to be a little stage there as well, for the people with the booths to give their spiel on the importance of having legal documents drawn up,” Paar explains.
This year’s entertainment roster will feature singer/songwriter Amy Steinberg and alt-country artist Steff Mahan, as well as Asheville WordSlam poets Dakota Oder and Shanita Jackson, who attracted attention at the Brave New Voices competition in Oakland, Calif.
Now in its fourth year, Blue Ridge Pride has evolved into a designated 501(c)(3) nonprofit with a 10-member board.
“It's not just for Asheville: We've got a lot of folks that help support us in Sylva; we've got folks in Madison and in some of the eastern parts of Tennessee,” Paar reveals. “We can't always serve that area, but that's what we're trying for.”
The festival, she stresses, is “a celebration, but it's also a reminder that there are so many diverse groups within the LGBTQ community here. We have a history of grass-roots movements here; we have a history of standing for civil rights. That has more power when we can all feel like we have a voice.
“Really, Blue Ridge Pride's theme is seeking to say, ‘Yes, we have a lot of different opinions, a lot of different ways of living, but we're all in this together,’” adds Paar. “We get to celebrate who we are, the milestones we have — and the victories to come.”
A perfect niche
Meanwhile, Qfest, founded last year by filmmaker Robert Gaston and performer Michael Sheldon, is returning to the Fine Arts Theatre. Featuring 19 movies, the expanded event will run Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 11-14.
“It's such a perfect niche for this community: These are films that wouldn't normally get any distribution or play in a market like ours,” notes festival spokesperson Kara Arndt. “We have a real passion for that and wanted to bring it here. It's really important for these filmmakers to get as much play as possible.”
Usually, she notes, “These sort of film festivals are in New York, San Francisco, Toronto. Ours is unique, because it's such a smaller area here, and it's still growing.”
Since last year, Arndt reports, “a lot more people are talking about it,” volunteering and helping organize the festival. Meanwhile, Qfest is already looking beyond the event, hoping to become an ongoing organization offering monthly screenings. Posana Café will create a signature drink for the festival, and The Hop is developing a special ice-cream flavor.
Qfest is also planning an Oct. 7 pre-festival event: a special screening of Gen Silent. The documentary spotlights elderly LGBT people, a group that Arndt says is often forgotten.
“There's so very little of this in film's mainstream,” she points out. “The behind-the-scenes to these films is just as important — to show the youth community that you can follow your passions and do what you're drawn to do.”
Amid an up-and-down year for Asheville’s LGBT community, Arndt believes events like Qfest are rejuvenating and help remind people of their common ground.
“This is a positive way to celebrate the community,” she says. “Any artistic, creative expression helps to bring relevance to a community, more than it just being a political soapbox. I think these films being shown in this area is incredibly important: We want film lovers of all types to come. These stories show the humanity of everyone.”
David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.