Imagine the Charlotte Pride Festival without 125,000 people watching the parade float down S. Tryon Street. Or a top-notch entertainer like LeAnn Rimes to close out the two-day celebration.
In the early 1980s, Pride was only a potluck picnic for 100 people — and that was considered a big event.
That’s the beginning of the Charlotte Pride Festival, which returns to the Queen City from August 20-21. From 1981 through 1984, the event was a cross between a field day and a church potluck, says Josh Burford, Assistant Director for Sexual/Gender Diversity at the UNCC Multicultural Resource Center.
The first event was held at UNCC, which was considered on the outskirts of the city at the time. The separateness of the campus, which had an LGBTQ group in the late 1970s, gave privacy to LGBTQ people who didn’t want to be outed. There were volleyball and sporting events. A small group of five people provided covered dishes for the entire community celebration.
In 1984 the Queen City coordinators, a local LGBTQ group, started publicizing a week’s worth of events. At that time, about 100 people attended, the most they had out of any of their earlier celebrations. There was a fundraiser at The Scorpio on Monday, tea dance on Wednesday, a community arts and entertainment event on Friday and the picnic capped off the festivities on Sunday.
Before 1994, it seemed most LGBTQ political organizing happened in Raleigh. “Charlotte at the time was really not conceptualized as a place where political things happened,” says Burford, “which is really weird because although the community up until the mid-80s wasn’t super organized, there was political stuff going on in the 70s.”
This changed when Charlotte hosted the NC Pride March in 1994. It was not a parade, but a march. The distinction between the two terms was important. “It wasn’t so much celebratory as it was ‘come out and see what the community looks like, we have a political agenda, we are doing these things,’” says Burford. “The tone of the pride celebrations were just a little different now as opposed to then.”
Pride transformed in the 90s and 00s: Between 1995 and 2000, the nonprofit group OutCharlotte had cultural festivals exploring LGBTQ culture — not celebrating Pride — in October. The Pride festival debuted in 2001 in Marshall Park. The LGBT Community Center of Charlotte partnered with several other organizations and leaders to plan Pride under the new “Pride Charlotte” brand beginning in 2006 after a mass of anti-gay protesters disrupted the event in Marshall Park in 2005. The festival remained in Gateway Village through 2009, into the N.C. Music Factory in 2010 and then Uptown in 2011. The festival expanded to two days in 2012, hosted just one weekend before the city hosted the Democratic National Convention.
A group of volunteers reinstated the former Charlotte Pride brand in January 2013 and in a first since 1994, announced the return of the Pride March, but this time it would be a parade.
Charlotte Pride attracted 100,000 visitors in 2014 for the annual festival and parade. This grew to 120,000 visitors in 2015, garnering a total economic impact of $11.9 million dollars per the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority. This confirmed what had already been going on for years. “Once we went public in ‘94 with the march, we became sort of an economic catalyst,” says Burford, who also credits the national PFLAG convention coming to Charlotte in the early 90s for the city being seen as an economic engine.
This year may see a return to the event’s early political roots given the controversy surrounding House Bill 2. “I think everyone sees Pride as a place where they can show up and support and give HB2 the finger: we’re going to be here, we’re going to shop, we’re going to eat, we’re going to stay in hotels,” he said. “I wonder if this year’s pride festival doesn’t end up being very reminiscent of our early marches because we have so many things now to be visibly political about on the grassroots level.”