Conservatives across the nation ate mountains of waffle fries in support of “traditional marriage” on August 1, hooplah associated with a politicized discussion over one CEO’s opposition to gay marriage. And while local gay rights activist Amy Sarah Marshall said she was appalled by the local turnout for “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” here in Charlottesville, she said part of her was glad to be able to point to such a clear demonstration of views opposite to hers. It helped justify her own desire to get Charlottesville’s first gay pride festival off the ground.
“It was out there, and it was concrete,” she said. “It’s hard to describe the need for a festival when [the opposition] is just a feeling we get. But to actually see it, it helped us see what was out there.”
At 2pm Saturday, September 15, Cville Pride, a local network of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or “questioning” individuals, will host Charlottesville’s first ever Pride Festival in Lee Park. Organizers designed it not so much as a political rally, but as a family-friendly festival for all ages, genders, and sexualities, featuring food from local vendors, live entertainment, and activities for kids.
Marshall, president of Cville Pride, said she hopes the festival will spread awareness about Charlottesville’s LGBTQ community and provide support for people in the area who may have felt like they were alone.
Marshall knows the feeling of isolation and being singled out as different from the rest of society, and said she’s been through the wringer with some of her own friends and family.
“It’s a feeling I don’t wish on anybody,” she said.
After falling in love with her best friend and coming out as a lesbian, Marshall went searching for other LGBTQ Charlottesvillians. Cville Pride grew quickly, she said, and people started thinking a festival was not only possible, but necessary.
Response to the festival has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive, she said. Nearby eateries, including Fellini’s, C’ville Coffee, Zazus, and Escafé, jumped at the chance to get involved, and local groups like the Charlottesville Lady Arm Wrestlers and Derby Dames also plan to attend. Marshall said organizers have even had to turn away regional performers because the agenda filled up so quickly.
Most exciting to her, Marshall said, is the wedding vendor table, with information on LGBTQ-friendly venues for wedding ceremonies, and places in Washington, D.C. to get legally married. Virginia provides little protection for LGBTQ individuals, she said, as same-sex marriage is illegal, and the Commonwealth still allows employers to fire based on sexual orientation. She said such laws make her feel exposed and unprotected, but she was ecstatic when President Barack Obama announced his stance in support of gay marriage in May of this year.
“A lot of people initially were disappointed that it had taken so long,” she said. “But I don’t care. It was a huge symbolic gesture, and symbols matter.”
City Councilor Dave Norris will emcee at the Pride Festival and introduce the performers—which include singers, poets, and drag queens—and said he agrees with the sentiment of “it’s about time,” especially when nearby cities have hosted similar festivals for years.
“If Harrisonburg can pull it off, there’s no reason why Charlottesville can’t,” he said.
Norris said he’s proud to have seen no local opposition to the festival so far, and he sees Charlottesville as a progressive city where more and more people are opening up to the idea of LGBTQ lifestyles and rights.
“More people are understanding that allowing equality and enshrining equality in the law is not going to be the downfall of western civilization,” he said.
Karen Barker serves on Cville Pride’s board, and said she’s always been passionate about LGBTQ rights, but is even more so now that her teenage son has come out. She said she often sees members of the gay community hesitate to speak up for themselves out of fear that society will not accept them.
“As a straight ally, I’m not timid to say these are my friends,” she said. “They deserve to have the same rights we all have.”
Barker said involvement with Cville Pride has been a lifesaver for her son, who has developed confidence and established a close circle of friends through the network since coming out earlier this year. He has struggled with strangers on the Downtown Mall approaching him to make hateful comments, but she said overall, her son’s generation is far more accepting than her own.
“I definitely think attitudes are changing for the better,” she said, noting that even her son’s more conservative peers seem less judgmental than when she was growing up.
As the volunteer coordinator for the Pride Festival, Barker said she’s looking forward to seeing “lots of happiness and lots of support” at the event.
“I hope to see people who maybe thought that they were alone come to the event and see that there are hundreds of people like them,” she said.