Small town activists share stories behind local Pride festivals

LEADING THE WAY: Todd Carter says he knows the challenges LGBTQ community members face in small towns. Raised in Hendersonville, he remained in the closet throughout his youth in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, he is a member of the Boone City Council and has helped establish the town’s Pride festival. Photo courtesy of Carter

Asheville’s reputation for being LGBTQ-friendly is part of what drew Tera McIntosh and her wife to Western North Carolina. Yet when the couple moved from Pittsburgh in 2019, they settled in Clyde because Haywood County had more space for a much better price. The couple assumed they could find their LGBTQ community in Asheville, just a 20-minute drive away.

However, social isolation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic made that difficult to do in person. And McIntosh says other experiences in their new hometown felt isolating in a more piercing way.

In July 2023, Smoky Mountain News reported multiple complaints about a transgender woman using facilities at Waynesville Recreation Center, a town facility. One man posted on Facebook about the individual using a changing room, while a woman filed a police report, Smoky Mountain reported. (WLOS later reported a subsequent  investigation by Waynesville Police Department found “no unlawful conduct.”) McIntosh says she thinks the individuals who took these actions wanted to out the transgender person.

She also recalls an acquaintance asking a Waynesville-focused Facebook group last summer if anyone knew about Pride events in Haywood County. “She went and took a nap and woke up and there was, like, 150 hate comments on her post,” she says.

To counter these incidents, McIntosh worked to bring together the LGBTQ folks and their allies, which she knew existed in her community. Last year she organized a Pups and Pride event — a daylong celebration of the LGBTQ community featuring adoptable animals, a s’mores bar and rainbow doughnuts — at the nonprofit animal rescue, Misfit Mountain, that she and her wife operate in Clyde.

She organized a second Pups and Pride event on June 15, which included free Pride flags and a “Most Pride Doggy Costume Contest.” This year, IDEA — Inclusion, Diversity & Equity Alliance — of Haywood, an organization McIntosh formed, is hosting what she believes is Waynesville’s first Pride celebration beginning Friday, June 28. Thirty Haywood County residents have helped plan Haywood Pride on Main, and McIntosh says a man who grew up in Haywood County contributed to the celebration. “He never thought that he would ever see a Pride festival happen in Haywood County, so he donated,” she says.

The most well-established Pride festivity in Western North Carolina is Blue Ridge Pride in Asheville, which broke attendance records for downtown’s main plaza in 2023. Blue Ridge Pride Executive Director Amy Upham tells Xpress the City of Asheville informed her group recently that 14,000 people attended Pride 2023 — “the single highest attendance of any Pack Square event last year,” Upham says.

But elsewhere in WNC, these celebrations are more nascent. Advocates say Pride events in smaller towns foster community, support homegrown talent and highlight local services, such as gender-affirming health care. “It’s important to [remember] even in the day and age of the internet, we are not by ourselves, even in our small town spaces,” says gender studies historian Amanda Wray, who is compiling an oral history of the LGBTQ community in WNC.

‘Lives are on the line’

Boone City Council member Todd Carter knows being LGBTQ in a small town in WNC can be hard. He stayed in the closet as a youth in Hendersonville during the 1980s and 1990s because coming out did not feel possible. Hendersonville didn’t have Pride celebrations. His high school did not have a gay-straight alliance. If it had, Carter says, “It probably would have meant that I wouldn’t have tried to kill myself when I was in college.”

Carter eventually came out; he traveled the world and returned to North Carolina in 2011. The following year, state residents approved Amendment One, which added an amendment to the state constitution defining marriage as between a man and a woman. He recalls “sitting at my parents’ house, watching election returns like we always did. I’m crying. My mom starts to cry. My dad started to cry. Just so upset. And then I realized somewhere out there, there’s a 13-year-old kid thinking about killing himself because of this vote.”

Within two years, the U.S. District Court in Asheville ruled Amendment One was unconstitutional.

Spurred by a need to support such kids, Carter helped form the High Country LGBTQ Youth Alliance in Boone, focused on marginalized youths. Over the past few years, he has been the force behind Boone Pride, which was celebrated on June 23.

Carter is motivated by supporting small-town LGBTQ youths. “Kids’ lives are on the line,” Carter explains. “They’re being attacked by adults and policies and laws. It’s horrific.” He cites how last year the N.C. General Assembly banned gender-affirming medical care for transgender youths. “It’s particularly troubling that it’s targeting the most vulnerable kids, the trans kids, and taking the parents’ rights away — taking away the health care that they deem important to their child,” Carter says.

The General Assembly also banned transgender women and girls from competing in middle school, high school and college sports teams that align with their gender identity, Carter adds.

He notes that not all LGBTQ youths are out to their families, friends or school. Some might fear for their own safety. “If they don’t feel safe in being visible, we have to be visible for them,” he says.

Carter says it was a privilege to see his hometown of Hendersonville hold its first Pride celebration in 2019 — the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, considered by many to be a turning point in the fight for LGBTQ equality. “When I saw Hendersonville Pride, it made me so proud,” says Carter. “It gives me chills to see [how far we have come]. And that’s why we’re not backing down. … In the face of hate, you have to be more visible. You can’t fight hate with silence. You have to show up and you have to fight it with visibility.”

‘Make it an official thing’

Carter is doing just that in Boone, the home of Appalachian State University. “People say Boone is such a cool, hip progressive place, and it is,” Carter tells Xpress. “But our policies did not mirror that. … You can’t say you’re a really cool, inclusive place if you don’t recognize Pride Month.”

Carter says he’s heard members of the LGBTQ community in Boone held small Pride celebrations off and on over the years, which dissolved when the organizers moved away. After moving to Boone in 2011, he has dedicated himself to reviving Pride as an annual celebration. He wanted to “make it an official thing for the town, so … it’s just expected.”

Upon his election to City Council in 2021, Carter focused on getting a nondiscrimination ordinance passed. (Boone previously had a nondiscrimination proclamation, which was not legislatively binding, he says). It passed in January and prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, among other things. In 2022, Carter organized a march and a rally, which 400 people attended.

Last year, the City of Boone formed a Human Relations Commission and a Pride organizing committee. In addition to 600 people marching down King Street, Boone Pride held its first festival. It featured drag performers, musicians and vendors, and brought an additional 400 guests. “It was glorious,” Carter says.

‘Provide as many opportunities’

In March, after changing its rules for parades that affected several events, Sylva Town Council voted not to grant a permit to close Main Street for a Pride parade in September.

Former Town Council member Natalie Newman was the lone vote in support of the permit. According to Smoky Mountain News, she said during the April 11 meeting, “I want to make it very clear that I am deeply hurt and disappointed following our last meeting and the recent decision and vote to deny Sylva Pride’s application for a two-block street closure. It is not the denial that has been so troubling to me, more so it is how flippantly and hastily this board made that decision with little to no consideration about what was before us.”

Burgin Mackey, a board member of Sylva Pride, underscores that the absence of a Pride parade won’t detract from its event. She says the Sept. 13-15 celebration will include a drag show, karaoke, a drag brunch, a voter registration drive, a storefront decoration contest and music acts.

“We are going very heavy on drag this year because our community’s just receiving so much negativity lately,” Mackey says. “We just wanted to provide as many opportunities for drag artists to be heard, be seen, be visible, in as many different avenues as possible.” She notes Sylva Pride will have drag shows for ages 21 and older, ages 16 and older and all-ages shows “that are appropriate for anybody.”

Mackey says a Pride celebration will welcome people who may not have felt seen before. “Our community comes from every single creek and holler,” she says. “If I can grow up on a 50-acre farm with Southern Baptist parents and come out swinging as a big beautiful drag queen, then our community really does come from every single corner of the world.”

And no matter which creek or holler someone hails from, McIntosh from Haywood Pride on Main wants LGBTQ people to know they belong throughout WNC: “You shouldn’t have to go to Asheville to feel safe.”


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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One thought on “Small town activists share stories behind local Pride festivals

  1. Enlightened Enigma

    ha…don’t come to Asheville to ‘feel safe’, no. my two high schools never offered ‘gay-straight alliance’ clubs and were never needed. Pride is just too exploited and overemphasized these days…pride is an off putting term for many.

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