Video: Charlotte LGBTQ & Pride History 101
NOTE FROM CHARLOTTE PRIDE: We are rolling out increased online events and programming, as well as news and commentary coverage for our local LGBTQ community in Charlotte and the Carolinas, as part of our new online programming during the COVID-19 crisis. Charlotte Pride is committed to ensuring our community has the most up-to-date and accurate information during this time, so we are sharing and documenting the stories and experiences of our community while also planning exciting and unique online engagement and education opportunities. Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter and bookmark our website’s news section to get the latest updates.
On Wednesday, April 15, Charlotte Pride hosted its third weekly Facebook Live broadcast bringing you valuable and engaging community education and programming directly to you online during the COVID-19 outbreak.
The topic this week was a brief exploration of Charlotte’s LGBTQ and Pride history, with communications director Matt Comer (he/him).
In this livestream, some of the most important and critical historical moments in Charlotte’s LGBTQ community were discussed, along with a smattering of other important moments in time across North Carolina.
We invite you to watch the video above and, below, you’ll find an outline of the topics discussed, along with links to resources, articles, and further reading if you’re interested to learn more about any of the topics.
Much of this livestream was based on Matt’s prior research and knowledge during his time working as editor of QNotes, the Charlotte-based LGBTQ newspaper of North Carolina. In addition to those archives — which have been digitized online — Matt also consulted archives from The Front Page, a Raleigh-based newspaper founded in 1979, which merged with QNotes in 2006. The Front Page has not been digitized, but some files are available for in-person research at Duke University and the QNotes collection at UNC-Charlotte also includes volumes 1-27 of The Front Page’s print editions.
Additionally, a phenomenal 2017 master’s thesis by Tina Wright, a UNC-Charlotte oral historian, provided a great deal of information, particularly around the early period of Charlotte queer history from the 1940s through the 1970s.
Finally, additional information on early history came from Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones: Queering Space in the Stonewall South, by James T. Sears.
A special note and acknowledgement: Almost all of the history discussed in the livestream and in this blog post is very much devoid of the narratives and experiences of people of color. Primarily, that is because of how we are handed this history and how it is documented, including even in the initial “rough drafts of history” provided to us by queer media — which, much like mainstream media, is largely if not entirely written and recorded by white men. Charlotte Pride wants to honor and uplift the history of queer communities of color in Charlotte and will plan to provide more in-depth explorations of these topics very soon.
Featured blog photo at top: A scene from the 1981 Pride event in Charlotte. Photo courtesy the King-Henry-Brockington LGBTQ Community Archive, UNC-Charlotte.
1940s-1960s — Crime and Closets
As you might imagine, there’s not a lot of organized community work happening among LGBTQ people during this time period. It’s helpful to think of this time period primarily consisting of “crime” and “closets.” Gay bars are few and far between, and more often than not operated in extreme secrecy and were not documented. What little is documented in the historical record consists of newspaper reports of criminal arrests and convictions under the state’s so-called sodomy laws or “Crime Against Nature” statute.
There are two documented historical items of note, however:
One gay hangout spot is documented. Rumors flew throughout the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s that gay men would meet each other and cruise at the Barringer Hotel’s Hornet’s Nest Lounge. You can read more about this and other early hangout and cruising spots in Wright’s master’s thesis.
Second, a landmark legal case is heard in North Carolina’s Western U.S. District in 1964. U.S. District Court Judge J. Braxton Craven hears an appeal from a gay man convicted under the state’s “Crime Against Nature” law and sentenced to 20-30 years in prison. Craven doesn’t overturn the sentence, but in his opinion does strongly question the necessity for legislating such harsh sentences for sodomy convictions — at the time up to 60 years in prison. I wrote about this case and its history — including the law’s origins dating back to the time of King Henry VIII — in a blog post several years ago. You can read Craven’s opinion online here. And, you can access a history of North Carolina’s so-called sodomy law here.
In the very late 1960s, Charlotte begins to get some of its very first longterm gay bars. The Scorpio claims to be founded in 1968, originally located on South Blvd. and then N. Tryon St., before moving to its present site on Freedom Dr. O’Leen’s is begun around the same time in a building at the corner of South Blvd. and Worthington Ave., which now houses a Dunkin Donuts and Baskin Robbins. O’Leen’s closed in the late 1990s. You can read more about Charlotte gay bar history in an article published by QNotes last August.
The 1970s — A Nascent Community Emerges
In her master’s thesis, Wright makes the argument that post-Stonewall Charlotte had only “tenuous connections” to the emerging Gay Liberation Movement that sprung up in New York City and other major cities after the landmark riots in June 1969.
But there is movement in Charlotte, and elsewhere across the state, though it is mostly sporadic and most initiatives are short-lived:
- The earliest documented evidence of gay activism in Charlotte dates back to October 1971, when three men — Brad Keistler, Charles Shoe, and Charles’ partner Greg, who was black, founded the Charlotte Gay Liberation Front. They distributed fliers in mostly straight-owned bars that read: “We don’t need to hide anymore! The bars are fine for entertainment, but don’t you want to be able to walk down the street holding hands.” The group was small, only about a dozen mostly young, mostly white gay men, but they held weekly meetings, two panel discussions at UNC-Charlotte, and some gay dances. The group lasted only 18 months.
- In 1971, activist Bob Bland moves back to North Carolina after being in New York and he helps to found the Triangle Gay Alliance
- In 1973, rumors of a growing “Gay Liberation Movement” at UNC-Greensboro prompt the chancellor to seek advice on what to do from the UNC System president
- In 1974, students at UNC-Chapel Hill start the Carolina Gay Association, the first such student group in North Carolina and one of the oldest in the country, followed soon thereafter by an official student group at UNC-Greensboro and one at UNC-Charlotte, though it seems to have disbanded shortly after being started
- The same sporadic nature of organizing was also true for North Carolina’s first LGBTQ newspaper, the Charlotte Free Press, started in 1975. It lasted for about two and a half years, before folding, after which another queer newspaper in North Carolina, Raleigh’s The Front Page, would be founded in 1979.
- During the 1970s, the large bulk of community advocacy fell on the shoulders of one man: Don King, one of the city’s foremost early LGBTQ leaders. He worked for the Charlotte Observer where in the early 1970s he began writing anonymous responses to an anti-gay writer’s commentaries and eventually became, as Tina Wright has said — and I agree — the “undisputed champion of the city’s gay community” in the late 70s and 80s. Don passed away in 2014. You can read this Charlotte Observer article, as well as this piece I wrote immediately after his passing. Additionally, an archive of several tribute articles for Don is available here.
- In addition to Don, you also saw a great deal of organizing in feminist spaces by the Charlotte Women’s Center, founded in 1972. For the most part, the community at this time — and this is seen throughout the country — is quite bifurcated, with gay men and lesbian women organizing in different spaces. The Women’s Center has a phenomenal history — including a great deal of lesbian organizing. You can read more about that in a QNotes article I wrote and interview with a longtime lesbian leader who was active with the Women’s Center.
The 1980s — Early Sustainable Organizing and The AIDS Crisis
Pictured above: A photo from Charlotte’s first Pride event in 1981. Photo courtesy the King-Henry-Brockington LGBTQ Community Archive, UNC-Charlotte.
It is in the 1980s that you begin to truly see sustained activism, advocacy, and community building in Charlotte. Some of that work was begun in the very late 70s — like the foundation of Equality NC in 1979 in order to fight the state’s Crime Against Nature law — but in large part, as Wright argues in here thesis — in Charlotte in particular, our first truly sustainable period of queer activism happened as a result of the AIDS Crisis.
Some of the key moments of the 1980s include:
- The formation of Queen City Quordinators in 1981 by Don King and Billie Stickell. The group is one of the very first sustainable, long-term queer organizations in the city, acting as an umbrella and fundraising group for several smaller initiatives and organizations.
- It is in 1981 that Charlotte hosts its first Pride event, planned by QCQ. Very small, it is held at UNC-Charlotte. QCQ actually ends up losing money on this first event, but it provides the very first time a Pride event is held in Charlotte, barely edged out as the first gay Pride event in the state by Durham, which hosts a parade in June 1981.
- From QCQ, you see emerge a monthly newsletter named Q-Notes, in 1983.
- In June 1986, Q-Notes is transitioned into a monthly print newspaper, later increasing its print schedule to biweekly.
- In 1981, Charlotte’s Metropolitan Community Church is founded — possibly the oldest, continuously operating queer organization in the city today. It is followed in 1983 by New Life MCC, which is now based in Gastonia.
- The first reported AIDS case in Charlotte is mentioned by the Q-Notes newsletter in 1983.
- With the AIDS Crisis ravaging across the country, the number of AIDS cases by the end of 1985 nationally rises to 15,527 and the cumulative number of deaths to 12,529.
- In the Fall of 1985, five gay men found Metrolina AIDS Project, the city’s first AIDS service organization and the model for what a great deal of today’s HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment work in the city looks like today. Its early efforts were creative and feisty at times, though anti-LGBTQ restrictions in government funding led to moments when the group wasn’t able to most effectively target its prevention work. But, Metrolina AIDS Project wasn’t without its share of troubles, and the group closed in 2009.
- The late 1980s AIDS Crisis spawns other movements, including more outward political organizing and attempts at representation. QCQ President Robert Sheets mounts an unsuccessful bid for Charlotte City Council in 1987. First Tuesday, the city’s first longterm queer political action group, is founded in 1988.
- PFLAG Charlotte is founded in 1986.
- Pride events in this time period are few and small. QCQ hosts another event in 1983. From 1987-1990, QCQ hosts an annual Pride picnic, later taken over by QNotes from 1990 up until the city hosts the NC Pride March in 1994. You can read a more general overview of Pride history in this article.
The 1990s — Community Infrastructure & Growth
By the 1990s, Charlotte’s queer community begins to grow rapidly and — as a result of earlier organizing work — actually has the kind of community infrastructure it needs to more effectively advocate for itself — infrastructure like a queer press, several longterm and established LGBTQ organizations and leaders.
For the ’90s onward, it’s simply impossible to highlight all of the important work being done, but there are two critically important items of note from this decade that truly shape how Charlotte’s queer community is growing and what it will become…
NC Pride March — 1994
- Co-chaired by Sue Henry and Dan Kirsch, who recently passed away in March (see here for the Observer remembrance and here for the QNotes remembrance), the statewide NC Pride March, which had begun in 1981 in Durham, is hosted in Charlotte.
- The 1994 event ends up being the largest LGBTQ Pride event ever hosted in North Carolina up until that time, attracting about 5,000 people for the march and thousands more at various events including a small festival and conference, a dance, and fundraising event and more.
- This is important because this is really when Charlotte’s queer community takes a very public, very out place in the city.
- The 1994 march is met with protests from across the city and in particular from First Baptist Church, which sits very close to where the march route was going to be.
- The 1994 Pride event is also the catalyst for countless leaders and new initiatives, including co-chair Sue Henry, who ends up mounting a campaign for mayor in 1995.
- With NC Pride we see the creation of an annual LGBTQ event, though not necessarily a true Pride event. In 1995, Dan Kirsch starts Out Charlotte and that runs all the way into the early 2000s.
- Learn more about the 1994 NC Pride March from original reporting by QNotes in its July 1, 1994 print edition here. The coverage starts on pages 10-11.
Angels in America — 1996-1998
- In 1996, Charlotte Repertory Theatre stages Angels in America, a play about the AIDS Crisis and gay men written by Tony Kushner.
- The play is met with a resoundingly loud criticism from conservatives in the city. They object to nearly everything about the play. The subject matter regarding AIDS, the appearance of gay storylines, and most critically, a scene in which there is full-frontal male nudity.
- One of the ringleaders against the play and in particular the nudity in the play is Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory. Additionally, the district attorney is threatening to arrest theatre staff and actors if they follow through with the scene and charge them under indecent exposure laws.
- It’s only about three hours before the play is supposed to begin that a local judge issues a last minute order telling the district attorney not to act on any threats to arrest anyone and the play goes on.
- But the controversy doesn’t stop there.
- Charlotte Repertory Theatre was funded in part by local county tax dollars, so in 1997, the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners vote 5-4 to strip county tax dollars from local public arts programming.
- Now, this controversy gets covered nationally right from the beginning. It is so bitter — with bomb threats and other threats — that when Tony Kushner comes to Charlotte in 1996, his plane is stopped on the runway at the airport and he’s given a police escort. The vote to strip money away from the public arts didn’t help what was already a very bad national reputation. And that reputation was still being said about Charlotte all the way up until the last decade.
- As a result of the controversial vote in 1997, community members organize the Mecklenburg LGBTQ Political Action Committee in 1998 — reminiscent of the late ’80s organizing with First Tuesday. Their goal in 1998 is to unseat five of the county commissioners who voted to strip away arts funding, and they’re mostly successful — defeating four out of the “Gang of Five.”
- For several insights into this controversy, you can consult this short article from CharlotteFive, as well as this interview from Slate, and an older 1996 article from The New York Times.
Some other notable happenings in the ’90s, include:
- Time Out Youth founded in 1991
- Charlotte’s PFLAG chapter and Time Out Youth work together to host PFLAG’s national convention in Charlotte in October 1992
- In 1992, RAIN is founded by the Rev. Debbie Warren
- In 1996, the Human Rights Campaign’s first North Carolina dinner is held, but not in Charlotte. It is first hosted in Greensboro.
The 2000s — A Permanent Pride
As Charlotte’s queer community moves into the new millennium it has all the makings of a more organized, more sustainable community. The foundation of the Lesbian & Gay Community Center, which opens in physical space on Central Ave. in 2003 provides the basis for a great deal of community organizing and will, ultimately, prove to save a potential collapse of Charlotte’s Pride events.
Charlotte Pride as we know it today is founded in 2000 by Jeff Schmehl and holds its first event in 2001, kicking off what will finally become an annual Pride event in the Queen City. The first event is held in Marshall Park, where it stays until 2005. It’s in that year, that hundreds of anti-LGBTQ protesters descend on the event, causing organizers at the time to opt out of hosting another event in 2006.
Amazed at the possibility that the annual event won’t happen again, QNotes publisher Jim Yarbrough, editor David Moore, and officials from the Lesbian & Gay Community Center team up to rejuvenate the event. They rename it Pride Charlotte and, in a bid to control protesters and their activities, move the event from public to private property.
The event remains on private property, first at Gateway Village and then at the NC Music Factory, until 2011 — when the event moves squarely into Uptown on S. Tryon St.
The effects of moving Pride “out of the closet” — that is, off private property and on to a highly visible location in the middle of Uptown — is drastic. Attendance grows from about 10,000 in 2010 to 27,000 in 2011. In 2012, the event expands to two days and attracts nearly 50,000. In 2013, the event produces the first truly local Charlotte Pride Parade, again inflating attendance. By the end of the decade — at last year’s event in 2019 — the event is attracting more than 200,000 visitors.
But not all is roses during this decade. In 2005, Charlotte Black Pride is founded — a direct result of the racial bias and discrimination still rampant in the larger American society and even the LGBTQ community.
The 2010s — Political Power & Challenge
As Charlotte’s annual Pride event is growing, so too does other parts of the community begin to grow and flourish. After decades of building the infrastructure needed to have a sustainable community, with long-term activism and advocacy, an openly LGBTQ person is finally elected to office for the first time in Charlotte. LaWana Mayfield becomes that historic first in 2011, winning a District 3 seat on Charlotte City Council. She is followed by Billy Maddalon, the first gay man to serve on council, when he’s appointed to the body, and then by Al Austin, the first gay man elected to the council.
Open LGBTQ representation on government bodies proves to be the essential tool in moving queer political advocacy forward in the Queen City.
By far the largest historical moment and movement of the 2010s is Charlotte’s effort to pass fully LGBTQ-inclusive non-discrimination and public accommodations protections. Ultimately, that fight results in a step back with the state legislature’s passage of HB2 and HB142 — but it is illustrative of decades worth of community building and empowerment that wouldn’t have been possible without early organizing in the ’70s, the early sustainable efforts toward solidification of a community in the ’80s, the outspokenness of the ’90s, and, finally, the strength and Pride of the 2000s.
What do you want to learn about?
As noted, there’s no way to cover all of the important and essential historical moments of Charlotte’s queer community in a single livestream or blog post.
What topics discussed here do you want to learn more about? Take a deep dive into?
What didn’t we talk about that you have questions on? What issues, people, movements, or topics did we not cover that you would like to see us cover?
Email Matt at email@example.com with your ideas and feedback!
Charlotte Pride Oral History Project
Charlotte Pride continues to work on a local oral history project matching LGBTQ elders with young people. If you are an LGBTQ elder or a young person interested in learning more, reach out to Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.