Charlotte Pride Fest was in full swing on the 8 blocks surrounding our store this past Saturday, August 16. It was, of course, a festival atmosphere. There were plenty of colorful characters milling around (literally and figuratively). Early on I passed a young man in naught but rainbow striped briefs and very fuzzy, very pink boots. Rainbow-colored signs and articles of clothing formed the the backdrop of a crowded Tryon Street.
But along with the festivities came the religious protesters. There were Christian protesters preaching about perversity, judgment and repentance. Wherever those preached, I also saw other protesters holding signs with affirming slogans and messages of acceptance. The tension was palpable. I watched as passersby tried to make sense of these spontaneous clusters of opposing activists.
I saw one such scene while on delivery at Third and College. A preacher decried the perversity of homosexuality in the solemnest tone, his voice projecting from a surprisingly loud and clear P.A. system. I could understand every word from a half-block in either direction. The man looked like an older Christian Bale, if Christian Bale were a Texan car salesman. He was dressed in a long-sleeve button-down shirt and slacks. He wore a horseshoe mustache and slicked-back hair. He paced back and forth and spoke with a clear, penetrating diction. He and two or three other men stood in a tight pack. After a few moments waiting at the light, the preacher stopped and an old fashioned gospel song played from the speakers, filling the intersection.
On the same corner was a group of four or five women, all holding hand-drawn signs. One sign had a rainbow-colored fish and the words “God loves gays.” Another had a message citing a bible verse. The women milled about and talked to strangers.
I talked to both groups of protesters later. The women gave me a sticker advertising the site christiangayok.com. One of the men named Tom Barry described himself as a bible-believing Christian and claimed no affiliation with any particular organization. He did, however, mention the organization Operation Save America. I found the organization’s website, and on it a pamphlet entitled “Homosexuality vs. Christianity: Should We Build Bridges or Storm the Gates?” The pamphlet does not recommend building bridges.
Beverly and Donna, together 22 years and married
I saw similar scenes in other spots throughout Pride Fest. Fundamentalist Christian preachers shouted about sin, perversion, repentance and judgment. protesters with gay Christian organizations crowded around them with handmade signs and spoke to festival attendees one-on-one. I couldn’t help being drawn in by these moments. They were a mixture of excitement, horror, absurdity and drama. I wondered how much these scenes, as polarized as they were, revealed the cultural realities relating to homosexuality in the wider Charlotte community.
None of the protesters were violent. The preaching kind were the minority, outnumbered by the other Christian demonstrators. All of the protesters as a group were themselves a drop in the bucket, a tiny fraction of the tight-packed mass of humanity spreading over the pavement in every direction. Most of the festival goers were carefree, there for the good time, and only stopped momentarily to indulge their curiosity before moving on. I wondered about the large, invisible populations of Charlotte who either don’t care what gays do or disagree with homosexuality on a moral basis, but in ways that are respectful of human dignity.
I tried to take some video of one of the prostestor clusters, but alas, most of what I captured was sheer confusion. In this video, for example, there are two protesters with shofars, one in support of gay religious freedom and one speaking out against homosexuality. I struggled to focus on one speaker at a time, but the clip gives a sense of what it was like to be there.
The tension of the day came to a head for me later, when I had the chance to speak with Flip Benham, former director of Operation Save America, and one of the street preachers with him, Curtis Fennison. I began to take Curtis’ photo and ask him about his religious stance against homosexuality. Meanwhile, a man walked up, observed Mr. Fennison talking to me and began expressing his disgust at Fennison’s message. The man then turned to me and began berating me for supporting biggotted hatred.
Curtis Fennison, of Operation Save America, with his shofar
I found myself following after the man, trying to explain that I was reporting, trying to capture multiple perspectives. The man was visibly upset and described having been taunted and verbally abused all day. It took several minutes of explaining, but eventually the man calmed down. He looked at me and asked, “You mean you’re on our side? You don’t hate me?” “No, I don’t hate you,” I said, at which point he gave me a hug. I felt compelled to apologize again for the confusion, although he still seemed distressed. Eventually I walked away, still feeling awful. My roommate and coworker, Mickey, told me that he saw a preacher make a gay man cry. It was disheartening to see such hate, even in isolated incidents, and to see the hate flying in multiple directions.
Shelby and me
Fortunately, the whole of the event wasn’t totally dominated by the religious tension. I caught up with a coworker and wandered around, introducing myself to the most interesting people I could find and taking their picture. I posed for a photo with a drag queen named Shelby, and I met a self-described “gaytheist” named Justin. Justin held a sign that said, “Ignore the biggots. Nobody invited them.” I asked if he was with a church. “F-ck no!” he laughed. “I’m just a drunk asshole who knows how to use magic markers.” “And glitter, too,” I said, admiring his handiwork. I learned that Justin was with the Charlotte Atheists and Agnostics, although he took his role decidedly unseriously.
Take a look at my Flickr album Humans of Charlotte Pride for a look at the more playful side of Pride.