There's more to a gay-pride event than drag queens and disco.
That's what a local group of Asheville residents decided after last year's Asheville Pridefest, which by all accounts was a poorly attended affair held in the parking lot of Scandal's, the gay night club on Grove Street. Without criticizing past events, they began building a gay-pride celebration similar to events in other cities, where gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people come together in high-profile gatherings to connect, be recognized and revitalize their activism.
About 20 organizers began attending other area and regional events, reaching out to local churches and planning a new event. The result will be Blue Ridge Pride 2009, a day-long festival set for Saturday, Oct. 10, at Martin Luther King Jr. Park in downtown Asheville. It will feature a variety of vendors, food, drink, local bands, the Asheville gay men's choir and, yes, even a few female impersonators. Add a beauty pageant and an interfaith worship service, which were held last weekend as a lead-up to the big event, and event organizers say they've put together a showcase that embraces both the gay community and the larger Asheville community.
"Just because people are gay doesn't mean they're all interested in the same thing," says Amy Sawyer, one of the Blue Ridge Pride organizers. "There are people who like to get together for dinner. There are book clubs. There are hiking clubs. There are all kinds of ways people come together. We're just trying to create a common place for folks to, once a year, meet up and say 'Hi' to each other and cross pollinate a little."
Organizer Yvonne Cook-Riley adds that she hopes the purposefully broad approach to this year's gay pride celebration will encourage more people to come out.
"Our goal is to create something that can give an opportunity for the 40,000-plus members of the GLBT community who live in Western North Carolina to come together, network and socialize," Cook-Riley says.
"While Asheville has always been known as gay-friendly, the community across Western North Carolina still maintains a discreet presence. We hope this event will be a motivator for them to be proud of their colors and to take that day and celebrate."
Building a foundation
Behind the scenes, a core group of about 20 to 25 people have been working hard to make the celebration successful, says Amanda Leslie, a spokeswoman for the all-volunteer group.
After last year's event, the group began holding a series of community-input meetings and asking people what they wanted to see in a local gay-pride event, Leslie says. "We were asking, 'Should it be a parade? A festival? How do we include gay and straight people?'"
The group decided that, at its core, the event should be welcoming to anyone, Leslie says. "They really wanted it to be family friendly. That's not always the case with some pride events, so I think it's really an Asheville twist. They want everyone to feel welcome at the event."
That open approach is evident throughout the festival, the organizers say. Sawyer notes that advocacy groups such as Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays will be on hand to talk about how to get involved. Nonprofit groups will offer information about how to handle domestic violence and offer resources for sexual health. And Sawyer adds that organizers have extended invitations to political office-holders and the candidates running for Asheville City Council. On the musical front, Cantaria, the gay men's choir, will perform in a line-up that also includes Blondie-tribute band Heart of Glass and an Asheville folk favorite, Now You See Them (see sidebar for the full schedule).
The group has plans beyond the festival. Blue Ridge Pride has submitted paperwork to incorporate as a nonprofit entity, Leslie says. The goal, according to organizers, is to put the foundation in place to create a self-sustaining entity that can keep building on Asheville's gay-pride event.
"I think we've really set the stage for next year," says James Lane, another organizer who's been working on festival sponsorships and fundraising. "This is going to be an all-inclusive festival. I think it's going to capture the essence of Asheville."
Revitalizing Asheville's gay-pride event may also signal a reawakening of gay activism in the region.
People are energized because the political landscape is shifting, says Lin Orndorf, editor of Asheville's gay newspaper, StereoTypd.
"I think that local politics are becoming a little more progressive, and the gay community across the state is becoming more active," Orndorf says, noting that North Carolina still does not have an anti-gay-marriage amendment to its constitution. "I think there's a bit of a groundswell of standing up to the Bible Belt."
National politics may be playing a role, as well. Cook-Riley says there's still a sense of optimism in the gay community over the election of President Barack Obama. And in a bit of serendipitous planning, the Blue Ridge Pride event is set for the same day as the National Equality March in Washington, D.C. The march will promote full equality for gay people under the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment in areas from health care and marriage to the right to serve openly in the military.
This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City. The spontaneous demonstrations against a police crackdown heralded the start of the gay-rights movement in the U.S., and the anniversary was marked by a small parade in downtown Asheville.
Back in the mountains, where partner benefits is an issue in Asheville City Council elections, Cook-Riley says she sees "the whole attitude of Western North Carolina moving to a more caring environment in terms of diversity and respect." That's important, but those virtues can be obstacles because apathy can take over, Cook-Riley says.
"It's because our community is so very satisfied with where they live, their lifestyle, the acceptance that's here," she says. "There's not the anger you would find in other parts of the country. It's hard to find something to be mad about."
Leslie, the festival spokeswoman, notes that as Asheville continues to grow and attract new residents, "I think we're becoming more diverse. And the same things that attract other people are attracting a large number of gay and lesbian people here.
"I think it's reaching a critical mass that's ready to be recognized."