Pride Month: Knoxville Proud 

Pride Parade, Gay Street, Knoxville, June 2018

This week marks the end of Pride Month for 2018. Last week Knoxville celebrated our Pride Parade and Festival downtown and it was a wonderful event that highlighted the absolute best that this city has to offer in terms of inclusivity and love. The crowds have been estimated to be just below 30,000 in attendance which, from what I have read, would make this year’s Pride Festival the largest in Knoxville’s history. What I took away most from Knox Pridefest is that this celebration was not just about being gay or bisexual or transgender, but rather about the community and sense of belonging and place that the LGBTQ have made in our corner of the world. I was not just proud to be gay at Pridefest; I was proud to be a Knoxvillian. I want to end this month on a high note and discuss some of the great things about Knoxville and how they relate to the LGBTQ community. Think of this as an advertisement to prospective gay citizens thinking of moving here.

I have to start by highlighting the very large population of LGBTQ people in Knoxville. We are a medium size city in the South, and yet we have a massive population of gay men and women and transgender persons. I can easily say that I know hundreds of gay people that live in Knoxville, and even after 12 years I meet new people every day who have lived here just as long as me, but we had never crossed paths. Knoxville’s Gay population is also very active in events and volunteering for things that matter to the LGBTQ community. Knox Pridefest is a free event, unlike Nashville’s, mainly because of the continual series of small fundraiser events thrown throughout the year:  Everything from special pride nights at restaurants to art shows and even underwear & fashion shows are all attended by sizable crowds and help sustain our Pride.

I think around 50% of the gay people I know living in this city either moved here to go to school at the University of Tennessee or moved here for a job at UT or Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Both UT and ORNL help foster an environment that values education and diversity here in East Tennessee. Having the flag ship state university in Knoxville helps keep the city young and helps add excitement and creativity to our local art and culture scene. Even with all of their flaws, the impact these two massive institutions have made on the local economy and also in elevating Knoxville as a whole cannot be overstated.

Rossini Festival, Knoxville, April 2015

Arts & Culture in Knoxville are highly valued. The LGBTQ community has a very close relationship with the arts and Knoxville is no different. With annual festivals for the Latin, Asian, Greek, Italian, German, Arab, & Irish communities, it is safe to say that our city likes to share in culture and celebrate diversity.

Women’s March Knoxville, January 21, 2017

Having an activist spirit is a thing to be valued in the gay community. Complacency is dangerous and Knoxville has had a courageous history with activism of various sorts through the last half century. The large college population mixed with the large LGBTQ population has really given this city an inclination towards activism other cities may be missing. Maybe it is because people have such pride in our local community, but participation in events to show support for a minority group always draws large and active crowds.

Beginning decades ago with LGBT Rights marches and the creation of Knoxville 10%, Knoxville LGBTQ activism eventually transitioned into a response to the AIDS Epidemic with the forming of Knoxville AIDS Response (ARK), The Red & Green Party, Summer Swing, & eventually Positively Living. Today Summer Swing & The Red & Green Party are major Knoxville fundraisers to help Positively Living provide a wide range of services to the East Tennessee community living with HIV & AIDS.

One of the more important moments in my life happened In June of 2017 when the Knoxville Gay Men’s Chorus was invited to participate in Capitol Pride and the National Equality March in DC. My friends in the KGMC invited me and anyone else who wanted to join them on this trip. I do not know the exact number of Knoxville citizens who went to DC for the March, but I know that we filled two Allegiant Airplanes. Nothing Too Fancy sold dozens of extra Pride shirts that said “KNOXVILLE” in a rainbow spectrum so all of us could represent our city with Pride as we marched down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Later, the DC Gay Men’s Chorus came to Knoxville and sang with our KGMC and presented a separate concert as part of our Pridefest. This story always reminds me that the image we present when we participate in major events outside our city and state can have a big impact on how we are seen by the outside world. Knoxville was seen by the DC Gay Men’s Chorus as a smaller city with an active and proud LGBTQ population.

Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir with Members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Choir, Knoxville, October 2017

Late last year the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus chose Knoxville as one of their stops during the Lavender Pen Tour, a concert tour through primarily red states that continue to struggle with LGBTQ equality. The men of the SFGMC could have easily assumed that our city was small and backwoods and unfriendly to the “other”, but by the end of their short stay the men in the chorus were so pleased with our city that they decided to stay later on their last evening in town in order to hold an outdoor concert in Market Square.

It’s only fitting to mention Market Square because no community is complete without places for entertainment. In previous articles I have shown that downtown Knoxville has held a special place in the hearts of the LGBTQ community as the primary home of a lot of our early bars and clubs – our only places of acceptance at the time. As the city has grown and changed and become more accepting of gay and transgender people our choices for places to find entertainment and meet friends has opened up to include most of downtown Knoxville. As younger people, intellectuals, and non-natives moved into downtown Knoxville they formed a welcoming and outgoing climate not just for tourists but people from all different backgrounds.

Edge, Knoxville Pride 2018
Pride Parade, Gay Street, Knoxville, June 2018

Just because Knoxville has become more welcoming does not mean that our bars are no longer necessary, quite the opposite. When a gay youth takes the first steps towards acceptance and meeting people and making friends, the options are still pretty limited, especially for someone in a new city. Similar to any other bar in Knoxville, social media apps make it is easy for gay and straight people alike to meet and go on a date, but to have a place to feel comfortable with your friends and to meet new people in a relaxed environment is a human need.

I go to Edge Knoxville to watch Drag Race with my friends on weeknights and I always make a point to end a three-day weekend with Karaoke at XYZ. What makes both of these events even more special is that they regularly have straight people come into the bar and participate. In some cases, the people that come into the bar may be questioning or scared, and seeing happy, healthy gay men and women enjoying themselves might be what they need to accept themselves.

I also believe 100% with my heart that gay bars will never go away in Knoxville because of one major thing: Drag Queens. These long-held ambassadors to our community are the embodiment of sass and camp and they are fiercely protective of gay culture. So many allies have become a part of larger gay tribes through going to watch drag shows in this city over the years. Drag Queens are a part of the gay cannon that I have always appreciated and even if you read these articles and don’t like much of what I say I will plead with you to go do at least one thing: Go see a drag show or watch some of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Knoxville’s Drag Queens take their roles very seriously, investing large amounts of time, money and effort and I think these performers continue to be the most vivid face of our greater community.

The last thing I would like to highlight about Knoxville is something I cannot stress enough to people who have never been here: our city loves us. It’s easy to be cynical and brush a statement like this to the side, but let me explain.

Let’s start with Knoxville’s current Mayor, Madeline Rogero, who has marched in our pride parades and has written statements of praise and support for the LGBTQ community for years. Mayor Rogero was an early supporter of marriage equality and was the only Mayor in Tennessee to sign the 2015 Amicus for the SCOTUS support of marriage equality. Rogero also sent a letter to President Obama in 2016 in support of the creation of the Stonewall National Monument in NYC and has had the Henley Street bridge lit up in rainbow colors for support of the LGBTQ community during both times of celebration, like marriage equality, and mourning during the immediate aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting. Knoxville could not ask for a more welcoming Mayor who is supportive of diversity in all forms.

Pride Parade, Gay Street, Knoxville, June 2018

Anyone who watched our Pride Parade this year knows that our churches support us and love us and welcome us with open arms. I saw religious groups from all backgrounds marching with their LGBTQ members and holding signs of love. Some of the best outreach programs for gay youths struggling with their sexuality or gender identity are, in fact, churches in the Knoxville area. For a fairly comprehensive list of welcoming and pro-equality churches in Knoxville and the surrounding area please see this link.

Knoxville’s businesses have also become overwhelmingly open about their acceptance and love of all Knoxvillians, no matter their orientation or gender identity. For a great list of restaurants and bars and shops which support the LGBTQ community, find a 2018 Pride Book for a list of the places that sponsored a fundraising event to help sustain our Pridefest.

I can’t talk about our city and the support we receive in the gay community without mentioning the people who keep us safe every single day. Regardless of whether we are celebrating Pride, marching for women’s rights in Market Square, or just enjoying a Sunday Funday downtown, our police officers and firefighters help keep all of us safe regardless of our background or identity. The fact that Knoxville takes the safety of our citizens in these events so seriously should be commended. One of the sweetest things I saw on social media last weekend was a Facebook post by the Knoxville Police Dept wishing us a happy Pride and thanking us for being so kind to them during the day’s festivities and thanking them for their service.

I bet you thought that a lot of the reasons I’ve stated to love Knoxville today are are true for anyone looking for a new city, regardless of orientation or gender or ethnicity. This is because when a city truly is welcoming and diverse to all peoples, you can start to see the similarities among our citizens, rather than focusing on the differences.

No matter what initially brings them Knoxville, whether that be school or a job or even a vacation, gay people fall in love with this city just as easily as straight people do. Knoxville is more than a physical place in some ways, it is a culture and a friendliness that can be intoxicating to experience. The feelings of pride and nostalgia you feel when you walk through market square on a pretty afternoon when dozens of people are walking around and enjoying themselves, is something shared by all people, both gay and straight. I once read a quote that goes “Share our similarities, celebrate our differences”.

For the past month the LGBTQ community celebrated our differences, but on most normal days we share in our similarities with everyone else we know. We like the same movies and eat the same foods and cheer for the same sports teams. You’d be surprised to find out how boring I can be on any given day during a normal work week.

So, I’d like to end with the thought that identity can be multi-layered and most of our identity is something we have built and worked on and created. Gay people sometimes have a harder time  finding where we fit in the world, but once we do we want to celebrate it with our community. The fact that Knoxville’s Pride has grown so much shows me we are a great place to help people find who they are and begin celebrating their pride. I am a proud member of the LGBTQ community.

We are all proud members of the Knoxville community.

Happy Pride Month Everyone

P.S. In the comments please write one to two sentences saying something you love about Knoxville. It does not have to be gay or straight, as long as it’s something kind about Knoxville.