20 Years of Charlotte Pride

40 Years of Legacy: 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of Charlotte Pride and the 40th anniversary of the first Pride events in Charlotte and North Carolina.

by Matt Comer (he/him/his)
contributing research by Kayla Schultz (she/her/hers)

special thanks:
Christina Wright (she/her/hers)
Chief Advisor, Charlotte Pride History Project
Joshua Burford (he/him/his)
Charlotte Pride History Project researcher

This article is a feature of Pride in the Piedmont: Past & Present The Charlotte Pride History Project. The Charlotte Pride History Project is a program of Charlotte Pride. The Project seeks to document, collect, preserve, and present local and regional LGBTQ and Pride Movement history in Charlotte and the Carolinas. In 2022, the Project will present a physical, traveling community history exhibit, made possible by a grant from North Carolina Humanities, a statewide nonprofit and affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Writing to a close friend on January 27, 1975, Don King, a new-to-Charlotte newspaperman recently hired by The Charlotte Observer, beamed with enthusiasm and hope as he relayed “an exciting event or happening” taking shape in the Queen City.

“[F]or the third week in a row a group of persons interested in forming a gay alliance of some sort met,” wrote King. “[L]ast night we met and 22 were there including a 32-year-old Northerner who said he was in on the founding of the GLF and GAA in New York,” he continued, referencing the post-Stonewall activist groups Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance. The fledgling Charlotte activist group, for which nearly 50 years later only two physical pieces of evidence exist in the historical record, had just taken their first official action toward organization, appointing five people to its governing committee.

Even in the mid-‘70s, the Gay Liberation Movement — spawned from the riotous violence sparked by police brutality at New York City’s Stonewall Inn in June 1969 — had difficulty breaking into Charlotte, still then a sleepy southern city full of banks and churches with nascent dreams of becoming a “World-Class City.” While Georgia’s Gay Liberation Front was taking hold and successfully hosting the South’s first gay Pride march in Atlanta in 1971, a small handful of people in Charlotte would begin the Queen City’s own Gay Liberation Front chapter. The effort lasted just 18 months, opening the doors for King and others to try again mid-decade.

Even with a rebirth of a GLF/GAA-style group in Charlotte, the kinds of early gay activism, public demonstrations, and Pride marches popping up in cities across the nation would not be seen here.

“It seems that right now there are going to be no marches of any sort,” King wrote in his 1975 letter, foretelling sentiments he would share in another letter to the same friend one year later: “Well, little Charlotte is still little Charlotte. Nothing radical is happening here…”

Charlotte’s movement for gay rights would remain relatively stagnant for the rest of the 1970s, save for the founding of North Carolina’s first but short-lived gay newspaper, the Charlotte Free Press, in 1975 and the 1977 start of Dignity, a local chapter of a national LGBTQ Catholic support group that would later morph into a largely nonreligious social group called Acceptance. Local oral historian Christina Wright argues that Charlotte, like other mid-sized southern cities of the time, would experience Gay Liberation on a different timeline, emerging only in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s and really only finding its sustained organizing power in the face of the unfolding AIDS Crisis.

The First Prides

As shaky as it was, the groundwork laid in Charlotte in the mid-1970s would pave the way for the growth of some of the city’s first successful LGBTQ organizations. King’s Acceptance acted as an activist training ground. Out of it, Charlotte’s Gay/Lesbian Switchboard was formed. And, it was Acceptance where King met Billie Stickell and the two formed Queen City Quordinators. More popularly called “QCQ,” the group would eventually take on the responsibility of fundraising for Charlotte’s growing number of LGBTQ organizations.

It was in June 1981 that QCQ hosted North Carolina’s very first Gay/Lesbian Pride Week events, a full week before Durham would host the state’s very first Gay/Lesbian Pride March. The week-long series of events included workshops, nightlife parties, an afternoon outdoor disco, a concert, softball tournament, and a rally featuring Boston activist Brian McNaught and Philadelphia’s Barbara Gittings, a founder of the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis and an early co-organizer with Frank Kameny of some of the first gay rights pickets of the U.S. government.

By 1983, Charlotte’s grand Gay Pride events had shrunk, with a small event hosted in the parking lot of The Scorpio. Darryl Logsdon, who would later join the board of QCQ and help produce its newsletter, Q-Notes, happened upon the parking lot Pride.

“So, I show up,” Logsdon recalled in an oral history interview in 2015. “And their Pride event was in the parking lot of The Scorpio… [It was] extremely lowkey, shall we say. … My personal goal from that point was, ‘Okay, next year at Pride, we need to have a public event, and it needs to be in a public space like a park or something outside.”

Logsdon’s youthful enthusiasm and zeal was lost on others. “Everyone was horrified. ‘That’s not possible in Charlotte,’” he said. But Logsdon was determined, and so it was in June 1984, QCQ hosted its first public Gay Pride event in Park Road Park.

“At first glance, it was a typical Sunday afternoon picnic at Charlotte’s Park Road Park,” reads a Charlotte Observer article from June 25, 1984. “After four years of organized celebrations of National Gay Pride Week in Charlotte, mostly in borrowed or rented facilities, Sunday’s picnic was the first really public event.”

Charlotte’s Pride events would follow a similar pattern throughout the rest of the ‘80s and into the early ‘90s — small, but public, Pride picnics first hosted by QCQ and later planned by Q-Notes, which transitioned from QCQ’s newsletter to a formal monthly newspaper in June 1986.

The Year that Changed it All

While Charlotte continued to host Pride picnics and other events, it was the Triangle region which saw sustained Pride marches. Durham had hosted the first Pride march one week after Charlotte’s events in 1981. Five years later, Durham would pick up organizing again, after which the NC Pride March, and later a festival, would become an annual event. It was hosted primarily in the Triangle, but began traveling the state in the 1990s.

Charlotte placed a bid in 1993 to host NC Pride in June 1994. The local steering committee was intent on making Charlotte’s event different from others in the state. Expanding from just a march, NC Pride in 1994 also included an opening event on Friday with comedian Lea DeLaria, an all-day expo with workshops, vendors, and nonprofit exhibitors, an interfaith service at Marshall Park, an evening banquet, an AIDS vigil, and a Saturday night dance at Founders Hall in what is now Bank of America’s headquarters on Tryon St. On Sunday, the event culminated with the march and a rally.

Marchers at the NC Pride March in 1994 hosted in Charlotte. Credit: Sue Henry, courtesy of King-Henry-Brockington LGBTQ Archive, UNC Charlotte Special Collections.

When all was said and done, Charlotte’s NC Pride event was the largest the state had seen since its first events 13 years prior. Nearly 4,000 participated in the march, nearly 2,000 danced the night away at Founders Hall, and hundreds more attended events throughout the weekend.

It was an amazing feat considering just how different event organizing was at the time.

In June 2019, four of the 1994 NC Pride organizers, including Logsdon, gathered for a panel discussion reflecting on that event’s 25th anniversary and what it had meant for the city.

Kimberly Melton, a member of the ’94 steering committee, reminisced during the panel on how difficult it was to get the word out, pointing to steering committee co-chair Sue Henry’s community bulletin board at her Rising Moon Bookstore as a central information hub.

“There was no internet. There was no cell phone,” Melton recalled.

Riding high off the successes of the 1994 event, organizers realized that Charlotte needed an annual celebration. Out Charlotte, an annual LGBTQ arts and cultural festival, was born, masterminded by NC Pride ’94 co-chair Dan Kirsch. Attracting national playwrights, authors, artists, and speakers, Out Charlotte was everything an annual Pride celebration could have hoped to be.

Charlotte Pride is Born

In 2000, after several successful years with Out Charlotte filling the void of an annual Pride celebration in the Queen City, some community members felt the time was right to give Charlotte’s LGBTQ community an extra boost for visibility. The Charlotte of 2000 was not the “little Charlotte” of Don King’s early organizing days. The AIDS Crisis had lent urgency to the need for LGBTQ Charlotteans to organize, to advocate, and to be visible. The late ‘80s and early ‘90s had seen an explosion of growth and new organizations — giving rise to groups still with us today, like PFLAG Charlotte, Time Out Youth, RAIN, and more. Charlotte had even hosted PFLAG’s national conference in 1993.

Despite all that progress and growth, organizers of Charlotte Pride felt their city’s community wasn’t as visible as in other cities, and they saw an annual Pride event as a means to empower others and bring a spotlight onto the lives of LGBTQ people.

“We want everyone to know that it’s ok to be who you are, that we are a diverse crowd and we are proud of who we are,” Jeff Schmehl, a founding director of Charlotte Pride, said in a press release from April 2001. “The LGBTQ Community has been overwhelmingly supportive and we hope to make this an annual event.”

Schmehl and fellow organizers’ hopes for an annual event would become a reality. Starting in 2001, Charlotte Pride hosted festivals in Uptown’s Marshall Park every year through 2005.

The first Charlotte Pride logo, top left. The first Charlotte Pride Guide in May 2001, right. A map of the Charlotte Pride Festival, Marshall Park, bottom left. Courtesy of King-Henry-Brockington LGBTQ Archive, UNC Charlotte Special Collections.

The visibility they had hoped for? It came, too. And it came fast. It didn’t take long for anti-LGBTQ protesters to start taking notice of the new gay festival in Uptown. Flip Benham, the leader of Operation Save America and a street preacher infamously known for his bombastic, in-your-face anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ protesting, was intent on ensuring future Charlotte Pride events were halted.

In November 2004, Benham’s twin sons David and Jason, with others, appeared before Charlotte City Council. The Benham brothers called the event “filth” and “vile.” Jason told Council it had the responsibility to “deny [Charlotte Pride] every permit that they ask for.” Another speaker at the meeting described “acts of lewdness,” “pornography,” and “profanities from the stage,” specifically citing some drag performers’ costumes, dance routines, and interaction with children.

The Benhams wouldn’t get their wish; a permit was issued and the 2005 event moved forward. Undeterred, however, the Benhams simply increased their protest presence, descending with hundreds of others on Marshall Park that year and, according to some organizers, causing significant disruption.

David Stout, then associate editor of Q-Notes, remarked that protesters’ “blaring music and anti-gay rhetoric definitely made me feel very harassed.”

One organizer remarked, “The presence of Operation Save America, I think, has made it unpleasant for many people. At this point, I’m not sure what’s going to happen — but we’re working on what to do.”

The next spring, Charlotte Pride organizers announced they would not host an event in 2006, leading Flip Benham to claim credit for ending the annual celebration.

“They very quickly … started sending out announcements in their newsletters and on their websites that they were responsible for derailing Pride and that it wasn’t going to happen this year and that it was all because of the efforts of Operation Save America,” recalled David Moore, then the editor of Q-Notes, in an oral history interview this year. “That really drove me to the point of we can’t let this happen, because we can’t let Operation Save America say that they’ve derailed Pride. We have to do something about this.”

Q-Notes publisher Jim Yarbrough remembers getting dressed for church on a Sunday morning when he received a phone call from a local news station.

“They wanted my comment on Flip Benham’s suggestion that he has stopped Pride from happening in Charlotte,” Yarbrough told an oral history interviewer. “I said, ‘Absolutely not. There will be a Pride. Flip Benham cannot claim that he has stopped Pride. There will be one. I can’t give you a date right now, but there will be a Pride.’ I hung up the phone and said, ‘Oh no, we have to do a Pride.’”

Yarbrough and Moore went to the Lesbian & Gay Community Center of Charlotte’s executive director Laura Witkowski. The three picked up the pieces and reorganized into a rebranded “Pride Charlotte.”

Taking lessons learned from 2005 and prior years to heart, the event moved to private property, setting up the event at Gateway Village, a partially enclosed promenade and events venue located at Trade and Cedar Sts. in Uptown. There, organizers could control the entry and presence of protesters.

They also formed a new volunteer unit, Partners in Peace, to nonviolently interrupt any acts of intimidation by protesters. And, addressing concerns that prior events had maybe gotten a little too risqué, they set new parameters for stage entertainers’ language and costuming.

Back to Main Street

From 2006 to 2010, Pride Charlotte steadily grew its attendance and size. By 2010, the annual event had outgrown its space at Gateway Village and moved to partially private property and public street space in and around what is now the AvidXchange Music Factory and grew their attendance to around 10,000 visitors.

Several years removed from the clash with protesters in 2005, some community members had grown tired of seeing their local Pride event tucked away into a private corner of Uptown, and requests were mounting that Pride Charlotte take their event to to the heart of the city.

Dave Webb stepped in to help lead Pride Charlotte events just as others were beginning to question its location. He shared some of those concerns and questions himself.

“Having lived in Atlanta for 30 years and seeing how out the community was and how the parade and everything, just like any big city, was on the main drag, just like New York — they didn’t hide it in some little side street,” Webb recalled in an oral history interview. “So, when I came here and we were talking about locations, I said this needs to be on Tryon.”

Working through some hesitation among fellow organizers, Webb pushed forward. That year, the event was moved to S. Tryon St., taking over just three blocks of space from Stonewall St. to Third St.

The event’s location wasn’t the only thing being questioned by community members. Since 1994, no Pride march or parade had occurred in Charlotte, and the community was clamoring for one. Plans were made in 2012 to expand Pride Charlotte’s event to two days, utilizing Saturday and Sunday for the festival and hosting a parade on Sunday. At the same time, city boosters were leading Charlotte into a bid to host the 2012 Democratic National Convention, where President Barack Obama would be nominated for a second term in office. Hopes for a parade in 2012 were put on the back burner when organizers realized the logistical challenges of such a big expansion of the event, planned to occur just one week before the start of convention activities.

The parade would have to wait until 2013.

In the meantime, committee members with Pride Charlotte and board members of the recently renamed LGBT Community Center of Charlotte were beginning to realize the event’s growth — from an estimated attendance of 10,000 in 2010 to some 45,000 in 2012 — required a different kind of organizing structure than the one the community center had provided since 2006.

“Pride Charlotte has reached the point where the current Pride committee is ready to be independent,” Scott Coleman, chair of the LGBT Community Center’s board, said in a release at the time. “In order for the annual Pride event to continue its growth momentum, and be taken to the next level, it makes a lot of sense for it to be an independent organization focused on delivering a consistently amazing annual festival.”

Many of the committee members who had heralded leadership positions with Pride Charlotte continued on in their roles as they reinstated the original Charlotte Pride entity founded in 2000. Work began immediately on planning the 2013 event — this time with a parade.

A ‘City Signature’

The first Pride parade in Charlotte since 1994 kicked off at the corner of N. Tryon and Ninth Sts. at exactly 1 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013. As it processed down Tryon, marchers came to Charlotte’s Independence Square at Trade and Tryon Sts. For two hours, thousands of marchers and brightly decorated, rainbow-festooned floats crossed through the square formed by the intersection of two ancient Native American trading paths where, as legend has it, Charlotte declared their independence from Great Britain, British General Cornwallis called the city a “hornet’s nest of rebellion,” and where President George Washington, residing at an inn just off the square, had the gall to dismiss little old Charlotte as “a trifling place.”

The Charlotte Black Pride float passes through Independence Square at Trade and Tryon Sts. during the Charlotte Pride Parade in 2019. Credit: Grant Baldwin/Charlotte Pride.

Like the mainstream city boosters clamoring for Charlotte’s “world-class” status throughout the latter half of the 20th century, Charlotte Pride organizers set out to ensure the parade and its accompanying two-day festival would become an iconic civic event — never again to be dismissed or shuttered away in some far-off corner of the city.

It wouldn’t take long.

In 2014, just one year after the introduction of the parade, event attendance more than doubled from its 2012 numbers, marking a milestone 100,000 visitors. The growth in out-of-town visitors led Charlotte’s tourism officials to remark that Charlotte Pride qualified as one of Charlotte’s “city signatures.”

Charlotte Pride was just getting started, though. In 2017, with only four years of parade organizing under their belt, organizers announced that the Charlotte Pride Parade surpassed the 70-year-old Thanksgiving Day Parade as the largest in the city when counting the number of marchers and floats. Come that August, 4,500 marchers, 152 total entrants, and nearly 40 floats passed through Independence Square. When all was said and done, some 150,000 visitors had celebrated Pride in Center City Charlotte that year.

The growth has left an indelible mark on longtime Charlotte Pride organizers like Riley Murray, who first joined as an organizer in 2005.

“It’s emotional now,” Murray said in an oral history interview. “It’s amazing to think we only had 1,500 people in 2005 and, to look at it now, it’s like, wow.”

More than a Festival

One can search the historical record and find multiple turning points for the Pride Movement in Charlotte. For today’s Charlotte Pride, perhaps the most significant turning point came in the face of the near exponential growth it saw in under a decade. That kind of growth would take intentional organizational capacity building and a refocus on the kinds of work the organization would undertake — not to mention an exploration of what kind of resources would be required to see it all through.

The same year the parade became the city’s largest, Charlotte Pride hired its first sustained full-time staff and began building up its portfolio of community programs and services. What was once a small, volunteer committee tasked with planning and executing a once-annual weekend event has grown into a year-round service of love and dedication from a diverse mix of board members, a large volunteer leadership team, staff, and community partners.

For years, Charlotte Pride board members had been envisioning how the organization could live out its core mission to enrich, empower, strengthen, and make more visible LGBTQ people in Charlotte and the Carolinas. The visibility part had proven itself with each year’s festival and parade. Organizers began tinkering with community programs like Reel Out Charlotte, the Queen City’s Annual LGBTQ Film Festival, as well as new events and community partnerships to serve women, the city’s growing Latinx and immigrant community, the transgender community, LGBTQ people and communities of faith, and more.

Charlotte Pride also worked to mend old self-inflicted wounds. In 2005, the city would see the birth of Charlotte Black Pride after Black LGBTQ community members and their desire for a more inclusive local Pride event went ignored by Charlotte Pride leaders.

Jermaine Nakia Lee, a founder of Charlotte Black Pride, recalled getting the runaround from past Charlotte Pride leaders when he and other Black community leaders held meetings and conversations with them to offer ideas for reaching out to Black and Latinx community members.

“And then, Charlotte Pride would happen, and there would be no difference in the programming and no diversity in the programming,” Lee said in an oral history interview. “After a while, after just giving the benefit of the doubt, we realized that this isn’t going to happen. And that actually motivated us to really get firm in our plans to establish Charlotte Black Pride.”

Monica Simpson, also a co-founder of Charlotte Black Pride, noted the lack of diversity in the community’s and Charlotte Pride’s leadership at the time.

“Back in the day, as things were getting started, it was really difficult for folks like me to see themselves reflected in leadership,” she said in an oral history interview. “So, we felt like we needed to do something that really centered us and centered our communities and our needs, and that’s why we created [Charlotte Black Pride].”

Today, the relationship between Charlotte Black Pride and Charlotte Pride is different, more positive, and more collaborative — through years of intentional work, conversation, and partnership. The two organizations often describe themselves as siblings today — with Charlotte Black Pride offering a permanent space to celebrate Black LGBTQ people.

“What we were doing with [founding] Charlotte Black Pride … we understood that wasn’t a temporary something,” Lee recalls of the decision to start the group and the intention to keep it going. “What’s wrong with having a Black gay cultural celebration? There’s nothing wrong with that.”

A COVID Anniversary

Charlotte Pride’s last major in-person events were held in 2019, when the festival and parade reached another milestone attendance record with 200,000 visitors. In 2020, Charlotte Pride was due to celebrate its 20th annual events — all turned virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As Charlotte Pride celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, it will do so with a hybrid of virtual and smaller-scale in-person gatherings.

The abrupt pandemic-caused transitions in 2020 and their continued impact this year have given Charlotte Pride the opportunity to show its programmatic chops through a variety of community services and programs.

The most significant has been the organization’s commitment to supporting those most in need as a result of the pandemic and resulting economic downturn. In 2019, Charlotte Pride unveiled its COVID-19 Community Relief Program. In partnership with the United Way of Central Carolinas and Foundation for the Carolinas, with additional support from Charlotte Black Pride and private donors, Charlotte Pride awarded more than $16,000 in direct emergency assistance grants to more than 160 community members. That program has been reimagined in 2021, with hopes of establishing a permanent Charlotte Pride Community Relief Program. In Fall 2021, another round of $15,000, will be granted directly to individuals in need.

That spirit of solidarity has extended to other acts of service. A Weekend of Service saw more than a dozen community organizations together with 300 individual volunteers partnering with Charlotte Pride to give back to the community in various volunteer service projects in August 2021. On Nov. 13, Charlotte Pride will host a community conference and job fair. The next day, thousands of donated clothing items and other resources will be available to community members free of charge at the Charlotte Pride Free Store.

The Next 20 Years

Fifty years ago, one of the city’s earliest, most outspoken, and most iconic community leaders lamented that Charlotte wouldn’t be hosting any marches any time soon. He was right, of course, but he —perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not — began planting the seeds for a community that would grow to heights unthinkable in the mid-‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s — when nearly all LGBTQ people lived with the daily fear of losing their jobs, homes, and lives.

Forty years on from Charlotte’s and North Carolina’s first Pride events and 20 since Charlotte Pride’s founding, the city and state around us look different. Our Pride events are larger. Our community’s voice stronger. Employment protections and marriage equality are written in law.

But a movement never stops moving, and neither does the community’s needs. The same issues faced by most LGBTQ people 40 or 50 years ago remain largely unaddressed for transgender and gender non-conforming people, and especially Black and Brown transgender women — critical needs oftentimes ignored outright by gay and straight people alike.

What does the next 20 years hold for the Pride Movement in Charlotte? The next 40? It’s hard to predict the future, and we won’t know until we get there. But one thing is certain: We won’t get there without each other. And that’s what this year’s special 20th anniversary is about. It’s about You. About Me. About Us. All of Us.

The Gay Liberation Movement which spawned our Pride Movement today found its strength and inspiration in the acts of resistance, courage, and bravery of people society had cast to the curb: Black and Latinx trans women like Miss Major, Marsha P. Johnson, and Sylvia Rivera, butch lesbians like Stormé DeLarverie, bisexual women like Joni Sobel, gay men like today’s publisher of Philadelphia Gay News and Gay Liberation Front co-founder Mark Segal, and the young, houseless street hustlers, sex workers, college students, closeted professionals, and others whose names most of us will never know.

The sacrifices of the past decades have led us to the amazing opportunities ahead of us — opportunities to serve, to love, to build our community, and, most importantly, opportunities to ensure the Liberation Movement lives on stronger and better than we or our forebears could ever imagine. ▼