Sitting down in January to talk about the first gay pride event in Charleston, organizer Lynn Dugan said this would be a building year.
"If it's small this year, that's fine," she said.
After a recent meeting on security and stage preparations with her top volunteers, we asked Dugan how many people she was expecting for the May 15 event.
"You mean at the parade, at the rally, or the party?" she asked. It's evident that "small" is now off the agenda.
The event website, charlestonpride.org, had more than 66,000 hits in April. The parade down Montague Avenue in North Charleston's Park Circle (updated: at 11 a.m.) will have 35 organizations represented, including local open-door churches, area gay-straight clubs, and other regional Pride festivals. The rally at Riverfront Park at Noisette will have speakers and musical acts volunteering their time, as well as vendors and organizations from around the country. The party at the Citadel's football stadium (the irony isn't lost here) is headlined by the Village People's Randy Jones and gay performers Jipsta and GMG.
The eventual turnout will be hard to gauge. The Upstate's first Pride march last year brought out more than 400 people, but police estimated more than 8,000 headed to Finlay Park in Columbia for the annual S.C. Pride rally last September. It's safe to say organizers are expecting somewhere between those two numbers. It's the first pride event in the Lowcountry, but Charleston's appeal as a tourist destination may boost turnout — Out magazine shined a spotlight on the city in a travel feature last fall.
"It's time," says Dugan. "It's really way overdue."
The festival's theme is It's Time to Bridge the Gap. Along with the group's logo of a rainbow-adorned Ravenel Bridge, the idea is to bring people together. Indeed, Charleston's gay community has been loosely organized amongst nonprofit and support groups like the Alliance for Full Acceptance, but education and advocacy programs took priority over the time-consuming proposition of a pride event and the laborious organizing that would go along with it to secure venues, entertainment, permits, and promotions.
After a stinging defeat for gay marriage rights in California in 2008, gays and supporters rallied across the country, including hundreds who marched from the S.C. Aquarium to City Hall in Charleston. For years, Dugan has organized her own lesbian networking group, the Charleston Social Club. She says the rally inspired her to put together a larger community event.
Roughly two dozen volunteers have held 10 fundraisers over the past few months. They've reached out for advice and support from pride organizers in Columbia, Augusta, and Savannah; their organizations will be represented at the local parade and rally.
"We're bridging the gap between the communities," Dugan says, anxious to play off the theme.
The gay community won't be standing alone on Saturday, either. Straight allies will perform, including local folk singer Danielle Howle and the band A Fragile Tomorrow. Fragile's 18-year-old straight drummer, Dominic Kelly, has become a volunteer for the event, and he's excited to perform at his first pride rally.
"I've always wanted to get involved," he says. "I'm very interested in civil rights and you need straight people on your side to be successful."
The rally will also include speakers from the Stonewall Democrats, the American Civil Liberties Union, and a presentation honoring gay war heroes. Elke Kennedy of Sean's Last Wish will speak. She's been an advocate for hate crime reform since the death of her gay son.
The road to the rally has had some bumps. Festival organizers have faced a challenge in finding sponsors due to the late start in organizing the event and the fact that it's brand new.
"It took some time to get people to trust that this is going to happen and to give their money," says Dugan.
Organizers proudly announced Mayor Keith Summey would be the grand marshal of the parade. But well-groomed eyebrows were raised across the Lowcountry when Summey noted in a Post and Courier interview that he'd agreed to the honor only in his role as mayor, not as an LGBT advocate.
"This is not in any way saying that I am supportive of their lifestyle," he said.
The mayor later told the City Paper, "Though I do not agree with everyone's lifestyle, I firmly believe in everyone's equality." In a letter of support for the Pride program, Summey notes his personal pride that North Charleston is hosting the event and says city staff stand ready to make it a memorable one.
Dugan and her team have remained supportive of Summey. The group hopes to keep the event in North Charleston next year.
"He's a visionary," says co-organizer Paul Rakoczy.
North Charleston spokesman Ryan Johnson says the city has received both support and opposition regarding the festival. "It's the normal complaints you'd get from a polarizing issue," he says.
Most of the storefronts along the parade route will be closed during the march, due to the sleepy-town nature of Saturday mornings on East Montague. But the community is still showing support. The Mill, a live music venue in Park Circle, will host a float in the parade and will have gay-friendly act Tung and Groov playing on Saturday night. And the Greater Park Circle Film Society is holding the gay-themed Real Grits Pride Fest this weekend.
Peeking our head into McGrath's Ivy League Florist last week, the staff noted the city was hosting a beach and reggae street party that night and there's no difference between the two. They're happy to have anyone's business.
And organizers don't want to carelessly squander all of that goodwill. Guidelines have been set up for the parade and rally to be a family friendly event: no assless chaps, g-strings, or jock straps.
"The Dykes on Bikes have to keep their tops on," Dugan jokes.
That kind of risque attire may be what you've seen on the nightly news, but (with apologies to parade float artisans) the parades for these events are typically yawn-inducingly tame. But there's always one hand-over-your-mouth float or one older gentleman in bondage gear. They're invited, but they just need to leave the toys at home.
"Everyone is welcome, as long as they're dressed appropriately," Dugan says.
There was some confusion that the guidelines would prevent drag performers from participating. They are more than welcome. Dugan even says drag queens are a must.
"That's an integral part of any parade," she says.
The end result will hopefully be a diverse crowd.
"When the (Charleston) community comes out, they'll realize what's going on here. They're going to be shocked at the size of the (gay) community here in Charleston," Rakoczy says. He also hopes they'll walk away educated about equality. "Liberty and justice for all is not just words."
Noon Opening, "Star Spangled Banner," Taps, flag presentation, 95SX's Two Girls and a Guy, and the Lowcountry Highrollers
12:20 Musical performance by Jamison Alley
12:50 Speaker Elke Kennedy, founder of Sean's Last Wish
1:10 Musical performance by The Dirty Martinis
1:40 Drag performer Celina Drake
1:55 Speaker Susan Dunn with the American Civil Liberties Union
2:10 Musical performance by Elaine Townsend
2:40 Mr. and Miss S.C. Pride
2:50 Drag performer Mike OxBig
3:05 Keith Riddle, president of the Charleston chapter of the Stonewall Democrats
3:20 Musical performance by A Fragile Tomorrow
4:10 Musical performance by Danielle Howle Band
4:50 Closing, 95SX's Two Girls and a Guy
Sat. May 15
9 p.m.-12 a.m.
$10, $30/door and open bar
The City View Club at Hagood Stadium
68 Hagood St.
If you attend Fabulas, the official Charleston Pride party, feel free to dress up as a sailor, a construction worker, a police man (or woman), a biker, or a Native American (though there may be some issues of political correctness with that last one). But whatever you do, do not dress up as a cowboy. Randy Jones, one of the original Village People, will be at Fabulas, and he played the cowboy. So please leave the hat and boots at home. The night will also feature music from Jipsta (a.k.a Nasty Boy), GMG, and DJ Trev. The Red Hot Rebelettes will bring their burlesque to the party, and guests will be greeted by drag king Mike OxBig, a mystery drag queen, and Mr. and Miss S.C. Pride. Regarding this eclectic lineup, Lynn Dugan, organizer for Charleston Pride, says "The Pride festival's theme is It's Time to Bridge the Gap. We'll bridge the gap between generations." —Susan Cohen
Other Pride Events
June 19: Augusta Pride, prideaugusta.org; Upstate Pride, upstatepridesc.org
June 24-27: S.C. Black Pride, southcarolinablackpride.com
Aug. 26-29: Myrtle Beach Pride, myrtlebeachpride.com
Aug. 29-Sept. 6: S.C. Pride, scpride.org
Sept. 11: Savannah Pride, savpride.com
Oct. 2: Charlotte Pride, pridecharlotte.com
Oct. 9-10: Atlanta Pride, atlantapride.org