It had to be different from last year. A year ago our LGBT community, along with their many supporters, friends and family in Knoxville and across the country celebrated PrideFest with a background of a looming supreme court decision with increasing confidence that ruling would legalize gay marriage. The event became a celebration of marriage equality. I’ve never been in a happier crowd.
This year should have been about consolidating those gains and looking at the challenges that still lie ahead, such as state-sanctioned discrimination that a number of southern states have recently enacted or considered. Instead, just seven days before our event, the focus in the LGBT community and far beyond, became the shootings in Orlando in which a gunman took forty-nine lives at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. No doubt many other lives will never be the same as the ripples impact survivors, families and LGBT communities everywhere.
And so it was, that something not on anyone’s mind for PrideFest or the parade became front-and-center in the days that led up to the events. A poignancy settled over the preparations and simple gestures resonated more strongly. The Knoxville Fire Department led the parade followed immediately by what would be a constant police presence throughout the day. I’ve never heard policemen thanked so many times as I heard that during the parade and festival. Supportive comments and actions by KPD representatives through the week laid a foundation for a positive relationship during the parade.
The first banner up displayed the caption, “Knoxville Stands with Orlando.” Numerous other references to Orlando were sprinkled throughout the remarks and banners throughout the parade and the festival. Festival goers signed the banner which lead the parade after it arrived at the World’s Fair Park. Other issues were noted, such as a sprinkling of signs about the transgender laws that have recently been discussed and enacted, but it was Orlando which would be the focus.
As was the case last year, numerous local church congregations participated, including Church of Christ, Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist, Unitarian and the Metropolitan Church of Knoxville. Some brought what appeared to be dozens of members along with ministers, often wearing their stoles or vestments. Important last year, it seemed even more so this year. The church’s relation to the LGBT community is a complex one with a difficult past and present. It’s encouraging to see some effort to bridge differences and acknowledge human commonalities. There is still room for churches from our largest local denomination, should there be any Baptist churches willing to be the first.
The parade had to be the largest ever for Knoxville. I’d be surprised to learn it was any less than fifty percent larger than last year. There were also lots of fun touches, from skateboarding children wearing Egyptian headdresses to dogs on their personal floats. One spectacular addition and crowd favorite was a massive Dolly Parton puppet, larger than life like the celebrity herself, she was surrounded by other Dolly’s as she paraded.
Also striking was the group with the bird puppets, flying in formation and showing their colors. I spotted a number of friends among the group and I suspect my friend Bran Rogers was behind the creatures. All the carriers also sported “Rise” t-shirts to emphasize the theme and it turned out it was Bran and his Theatre Obsolete. Numerous student groups joined the parade which has to be affirming for them and it is always moving to see the Carson Newman LGBT alumni given that if they were out while in school they likely would have been expelled. It has to encourage the current LGBT students there.
Local unions and workers groups joined the parade as did the local Democratic Party. Numerous family members held signs in the parade and along the way with PFLAG Maryville having a strong contingent (there is also a PFLAG Knoxville Chapter, though if they were there, I didn’t spot them). One of my favorite moments along the parade route was watching a woman holding a sign that read, “Proud Pride Mom, Free Hugs, #No Hate,” give those hugs to a number of people marching in the parade. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them wished they could get a hug from their own mothers.
The crowds along the way were amazing: diverse, large and loud. I watched most of the parade on the 100 block where a few had gathered, but toward the heart of Gay Street – toward the intersection of Gay and Union (:-)) – the crowds were so large it was hard to squeeze through and they ran all the way to the World’s Fair site across the Clinch Ave. viaduct. As I walked the parade route, this is where I first encountered protesters. At least one of the two groups on Gay Street had a megaphone and the crowds were so loud as they roared approval for the parade participants that they could not be heard.
Police also carefully stood guard in any spot which included protesters. A group situated themselves near the end of the parade and then they, or all the groups converged just outside the site of PrideFest. Helpfully, while they were given freedom to have their say, it was from across the street, not inside PrideFest. Police kept a constant vigil to make sure the conflict did not escalate. Police were also poised all around the perimeter of the site, which helped it feel safe, but also which underscored the fact that members of the LGBT community have had their feeling of safety shattered by Orlando.
Pridefest included a large number of vendors, free HIV testing, and food trucks. As with the parade, the crowds continued to be large. Weather was very good, though after the parade and a bit of the festival, I needed shelter. I stayed long enough to hear Mayor Rogero’s great opening statement. I’ll not attempt to replicate the parts I can remember, simply because it was so well written. I hope the city will release it to the public so a larger group can appreciate it. We also stayed for the Knoxville Gay Men’s Chorus and Knoxville Opera, both enjoyable performances.
In the end, it was another day to be proud of our city. Yes, there were protesters, but they probably amounted to less than half a percent of the people present and I suspected some number of them were from out of town. I reminded myself that in the not-too-distant past the numbers may have been reversed, with a small number marching while large crowds deriding them and we are certainly no longer there. I hope that the inclusiveness on display Saturday stretches past the borders of downtown. I hope our city can be a place where everyone is welcome.
Program note: The photographs shown here represent a small portion of the photographs I’ve taken and kept. I’ll have more later today or tomorrow on Inside of Knoxville’s Facebook Page. Be sure to check it out.