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Winston-Salem PRIDE 2011 embraces a vision of a more diverse and open community

by Keith Barber

Organizers of the Equality Winston-Salem PRIDE 2011 event slated for Oct. 15 include (from left) Dirk Robertson, Philip Kearns, Steve McGinnis, LeDon Lopez, Mary Jamis, Debra Taylor and Mattie Zion. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

During an organizational meeting last week, members of Equality Winston- Salem ironed out the final details of Winston-Salem PRIDE 2011, the first gay and lesbian pride event in the Twin City in 15 years.

Dirk Robertson, parade chief, informed the committee the parade would include 16 floats.

“That’s got to be a Winston-Salem parade record,” Robertson said.

Fundraisers held over the past 14 months generated enough income to procure the floats for the parade. During the process of lining up floats, Robertson said one of the float vendors refused to work with Equality Winston-Salem when he learned the parade was a gay and lesbian pride event.

“I was really surprised but it was another moment when I realized why we need to do what we need to do,” Robertson said. “Even in this hard economy when money is tight, that company was still stubborn enough to say ‘no’ to us and ‘no’ to our money.”

The discussion then turned to parking facilities and a parade protest that would be centered at Winston Square Park. Committee members agreed the best way to deal with the protestors was to simply not engage with them.

Philip Kearns, the head of the entertainment committee, said all those who bring a non-perishable food item to the parade to benefit Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina or make a donation to AIDS Care Service or Equality Winston-Salem would automatically be entered into a raffle drawing.

Raffle prizes include Jennifer Knapp CDs, a T-shirt and gift certificates to local restaurants and health clubs. Knapp, a Grammy Awardnominated singer/songwriter will be the headline act at Winston-Salem PRIDE 2011, taking the main stage adjacent to Foothills Brewery on West 4th Street in downtown Winston- Salem at 3 p.m. on Saturday.

Knapp, who describes herself as a gay person of faith, said she’s thrilled to be a part of Winston-Salem PRIDE 2011.

“I’m celebrated as a musician on nightly basis, but being asked to play in an environment where my sexual orientation is celebrated is an honor,” Knapp said. “It’s a little bit of strange thing to sometimes be invited [to perform] because you’re like everybody else, but that’s also the beauty of it.”

Knapp said one of her goals as an artist is finding a space where she’s identified not only as part of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Questioning (LGBTQ) community but also as a Christian. Winston-Salem PRIDE 2011 offers her that space to be in that safe, accepting space, she said.

“It’s an honor for me to be able to step into that,” she said. “It’s wonderful for us to show the normal, natural side of ourselves that doesn’t take away from the community but adds to it.”

Knapp praised organizers of Winston- Salem PRIDE 2011 and the community for supporting a gay and lesbian pride event of this magnitude.

“It’s a reflection of the diverse community Winston-Salem has,” she said. “It’s really wonderful that it’s a grassroots event.”

Jamis and Equality Winston-Salem co-founder Steve McGinnis are credited with having the vision of a true grassroots LGBTQ event in Winston-Salem. Last week, Mary Jamis, an event organizer, took a moment to reflect on the 14 months of planning and preparation that will hopefully culminate in a watershed event for the gay and lesbian community in Forsyth County.

“It’s an amazing feeling to be a part of all of this, and to see people coming together,” Jamis said. “I’ve lived in this community 25 years and to sit with people who we’ve met through this PRIDE experience has been phenomenal. To see it all coming together is amazing.”

McGinnis said Saturday’s event doesn’t represent the finish line but rather a new beginning.

“I’m already projecting for next year and we have three fundraisers right after the parade,” McGinnis said. “Our hope is so that we do get enough money that we do more than just the parade and we have scholarships for gay and lesbian teens who need the money to go to college — that’s what we’re looking forward to.”

Jamis said Equality Winston-Salem was able to raise more than $2,300 to run full-page ads in two local newspapers. She added that the support of local churches has been an integral part of making the PRIDE event a reality.

Robertson said Equality Winston-Salem’s interfaith consortium had grown to more than a dozen members.

“What’s so special about our interfaith consortium is that almost every major [religious] denomination is in there,” he said. “It’s not one particular sect of religion. We are very proud there are multiple churches in there and we’re working hard to include every denomination.”

Robertson sent out invitations to more than 60 local churches to join the consortium.

“We know this is where the effort is going to be made if we’re going to keep some of these other churches from bullying us and protesting against us,” he said.

Pastor Roger Hayes of the Church of the Holy Spirit Fellowship said the interfaith consortium is a vital component of Equality Winston-Salem’s overall mission of encouraging diversity and inclusiveness.

“It brings a cohesiveness to the LGBTQ community,” Hayes said. “We want to honor that and respect that. Having this interfaith piece means I get to choose what works best for me without having to give up my personhood, without having to give up my sexuality.”

Hayes has been an outspoken critic of the Defense of Marriage Act, which calls for an amendment to the NC Constitution that states a marriage between a man and a woman is the only domestic legal union that will be valid or recognized in the state. The NC General Assembly passed the measure last month. Winston-Salem PRIDE 2011 will serve as an ideal platform for the local gay and lesbian community to clearly state their position on the marriage amendment, Hayes said.

“We do not care to have special rights but we do want the same rights that are afforded to every taxpaying American citizen,” he said. “That’s a myth, that we want special rights. Personal experience with an individual changes people’s minds and this PRIDE event will have the capacity and the potential to bring faces to the [proposed] constitutional amendment.

Dispelling myths about the gay and lesbian community is key to defeating the marriage amendment, which will appear on the ballot during the May 2012 primary election, Hayes said.

“We value family and family structures — we know the importance of family unity,” he said. “To think that the gay community is against family is absolutely ludicrous. Those would be myths and stereotypes that I hope through the interfaith consortium and the PRIDE event that we get to speak out against. We’re not dancing in the streets but we can dance in the streets to celebrate pride in who we are and who God has created us to be.”

Interesting times

With the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act last month, Winston-Salem PRIDE 2011 has suddenly taken on a greater relevance.

“I think we’re living in a very interesting political climate,” Jamis said. “I talk to people who are involved politically across the state

and they’re from other parts of the country and I say, ‘Why aren’t you doing politics where you’re from?’ And they have basically said, ‘North Carolina is such an interesting state because it really is on the verge of deciding who it wants to be.’” “We’ve got to decide, are we going to sort of align ourselves with other Southern states or are we going to be more progressive than that?” Jamis continued. “I have a lot of hope and a lot of faith that North Carolina will do the right thing.”

Sam Parker, director of organizing for Equality NC, said the organization is planning a voter registration drive at Winston-Salem PRIDE 2011. Parker said Equality NC will be asking people to sign a pledge card to vote against the marriage amendment next May.

“The more people we educate about this amendment, the more we can show that at the base of this amendment is discrimination,” Parker said. “North Carolina doesn’t have a great history with discrimination, and now is the time to make that change — for North Carolina voters to make that change by going out and voting against this amendment.”

Jamis said the marriage amendment represents a lose-lose situation for the state’s gay and lesbian community, but the key to defeating the measure is raising awareness and motivating the LGBTQ community to turn out the vote next May.

“That’s a very important piece of this — the get out the vote ini- tiative between now and the primary is critical to raise money and raise awareness,” Jamis said. “We have had tremendous support over the past year from our straight allies. In some ways, I’m not so concerned about our straight allies getting out there and voting. I’m concerned about the LGBTQ community across North Carolina really taking a stand on this.”

Parker said Equality NC’s number one focus is turning out the LGBTQ community to the polls on May 8. The group’s other focus is educating people across the state about the danger of writing discrimination into the state’s constitution, Parker said.

“It’s important for us to have these conversations with family, friends, colleagues and neighbors because through those conversations, someone’s eyes might be opened,” Parker said. “What’s being ignored is this is going to affect straight, heterosexual couples. There are a lot of heterosexual domestic partners that are going to be affected by this as well.”

McGinnis said he’s friends with one of the marriage amendment sponsors, NC House Speaker Pro Tem Dale Folwell (R-Forsyth).

“His children were at the school where I was principal,” McGinnis said. “He’s eaten at my house, he knows my partner and he’s friends with many people on the [Equality Winston- Salem] board and it’s surprising that he doesn’t see what he’s doing.”

McGinnis said he began a dialogue with Folwell in May to dissuade him from supporting the measure.

“What people don’t understand is there is a law banning same-sex marriage in North Carolina,” McGinnis said. “I feel that most people right now if they went and read what they were voting for, they would be voting against gay marriage when gay marriage [is prohibited] to start with.”

The state legislature passed a law banning gay marriage in 1996.

“If you look at the Civil Rights Movement or the Civil War, you can always look at the South as being the one that they’re on that side where there was discrimination,” McGinnis said. “In all of these movements, like women’s suffrage, we’ve never changed the Constitution. We’ve changed laws but not the Constitution.”

Parker said since the NC General Assembly passed the Defense of Marriage Act, there has been an outpouring of support for the gay and lesbian community from people all over the state in e-mails, letters and videos posted online. Parker noted that a number of prominent politicians have stated their opposition to the marriage amendment, including Gov. Beverly Perdue and US Rep. Renee Ellmers, who represents North Carolina’s 2nd District.

Jamis said she is interested to know Sen.

Richard Burr’s position on the marriage amendment. She lauded Burr for voting to repeal the US military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the armed forces.

“I think as a US senator representing our state he has an obligation to take a stand on this,” Jamis said.

Parker said the best thing about Winston- Salem PRIDE 2011 is that it gives Equality NC a chance to get in touch with Winston-Salem’s LGBTQ community and the group’s straight allies and encourage their supporters to out and educate folks in their communities.

“It’s a party with a purpose,” Parker said. McGinnis said one of the purposes of Winston-Salem PRIDE 2011 is to make it easier for the next generation to come out and come out earlier.

Jamis said the presence of Equality Winston-Salem has allowed gay people who are still in the closet to come forward and tell their stories, which are often heartbreaking.

“We’ve heard some pretty awful things that are going on, especially to young people in our community — bullying, church groups that are doing therapies to cure you of your gayness — that is still going on in this community,” Jamis said. “So raising awareness of those types of things is critical.”

Knapp said her personal journey as a gay person of faith resonates with many of her fans, both gay and straight.

“One of the most frustrating things we face is whether God accepts you or doesn’t accept you — any person of faith who is LGBTQ has to face that right away,” Knapp said. “Self- awareness, self-identity and selfdiscovery is always a very spiritual process.

The fact I do identify with Christianity is the language I speak so when the Christian community told me I couldn’t integrate those two things, it was difficult.”

Knapp said her message to young gays and lesbians is that their spiritual lives don’t stop because they realize they are gay and lesbian.

“It doesn’t stop because one segment of Christianity [rejects] you,” she said.

Events like Winston-Salem PRIDE 2011 are so critical to young gay and lesbian people to show them there’s no need to feel alone, Knapp said.

“It’s worth dispelling the myths,” she said. “It’s worth standing up and saying you are a person of value. I think it speaks volumes when local community leaders and religious leaders stand up and recognize that value in the LGBTQ community.”

A growing coalition

During last week’s organizing meeting, Debra Taylor presented the magnetic signs for the parade cars. One of the signs bears the name of NC Rep. Marcus Brandon (D-Guilford), the parade’s grand marshal and the state’s only openly gay legislator.

Brandon said he was surprised and honored when he was selected as grand marshal for Winston-Salem PRIDE 2011, saying the timing of the event couldn’t be any more perfect.

“I think [the timing] is very significant because with the marriage amendment we have to be able to talk about this and not go into the shadows,” he said. “This is a chance for the LGBTQ community in Forsyth County to come together and see how far we’ve come. I couldn’t think of a better time for the LGBTQ community in Winston-Salem to put together a grassroots movement to fight for the rights of the gay and lesbian community.”

It’s no surprise that Brandon has been one of the most vocal critics of the proposed marriage amendment. He said there are a lot of misconceptions about the legislation, and gay and lesbian pride events like Winston-Salem PRIDE 2011 are critical for voter education efforts.

“This marriage amendment is not about marriage; it’s about dignity,” Brandon said. “I’m proud of the organizers in Winston-Salem for putting this event together. This is our chance to say, whether you believe in marriage or don’t believe in marriage, this is about dignity, and you still have to fight for your rights.”

Angela Mazaris, director of the LGBTQ Center at Wake Forest University, said her group is one of more than 40 gay and lesbian and straight ally groups participating in Saturday’s parade. Mazaris said the parade is a great opportunity for the Winston-Salem community to create an inclusive welcoming community for all individuals and families. Mazaris said there is an economic impact to PRIDE events, because it sends a signal to businesses that a community is inviting and welcoming of all people regardless of their race, religion or sexual orientation.

Fifteen years ago, fewer than 10 local gay and lesbian organizations participated in the gay pride parade in Winston-Salem, Robertson said. The fact that more than 40 LGBTQ organizations or gay-friendly LGBTQ organizations are participating this year speaks volumes about the growing support in the Winston-Salem community.

“It’s been a blessing to see how much we’ve grown in 16 years,” he said.

Jamis said Winston-Salem PRIDE 2011 represents a huge leap forward for Winston-Salem in creating a more tolerant, open and inclusive community.

“It’s really important for me that I want to know and be able to tell my children and grandchildren that I was part of a movement to bring equality to this community and across the state of North Carolina,” she said. “I want to be proud of that.”

SCHEDULE OF EVENTS

11:00am Welcome

11:10am Lyn Koonce & Friends

11:55am Laila Nur

12:20pm Harlot’s Web

12:45pm Jeffrey Dean Foster & Birds of Prey

1:20pm Triad Pride Men’s Chorus

1:50pm The Darnell Woodies

2:25pm Philip J. Kearns

3:00pm Jennifer Knapp

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