When I moved to the small southern city of Roanoke, Va. fifteen years ago from the DC metro area, I was a little nervous about being an openly gay man in the bible belt. I'd never been here before, but my when my boss announced that the company was relocating, I decided to come along. I needed a change of pace from the DC mentality, where people judge you based on who you know and what you can do for them.
I needed a fresh start and putting five hours of travel time between me and my family, who redefine the word "dysfunctional", seemed like a good idea. Three or four coworkers were making the move as well, so there was a built-in support group. I settled into a very nice apartment with mountain views, a pool, clubhouse and tennis courts. With a cost of living roughly a third lower than the DC metro area, I could never have afforded to live like this up there.
Eventually, I found the only two gay bars in town on Salem Ave., an area downtown that most people stayed away from after dark. I met people, made friends and found that Roanoke had a large LGBT community. They even celebrated Gay Pride every year - in September.
When I asked around as to why not June, the consistent answer was that people from Roanoke like to travel to other cities like DC, New York or Atlanta for the bigger celebrations and nobody would be around to attend the more modest hometown event if it were held in June.
This year - the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots - Roanoke Pride celebrates its 20th year, but not in June, which Barack Obama so gratuitously proclaimed as Pride Month.
Roanoke's gay community suffers from a terminal case of low self esteem. As long as they can party on the weekends at their two small-town gay bars and engage in their internet hook-ups, queer Roanokers are content to sit in the back of the bus, not make waves and let the Pride Parade pass them by.
Where's the Pride? It's not about waving a rainbow banner and putting on your best leather chaps or dressing up like a dime-store Diana Ross and dancing in the streets to "I'm Coming Out". Pride comes from within. It's about standing up to your detractors and saying, "I'm just as good as you."
We're fighting for equality here, people!
An article in yesterday's (Saturday, June 13) Roanoke Times profiled the founders of "Pride in the Park", our local LGBT event. In its own way the paper was trying to be timely by showing just how far our city has come in its tolerance for diversity. But the timeliness of the piece was shot down by the very group the story was about.
I can almost hear the phone conversation between the reporter and the spokesman for the event planners:
Roanoke Times: "Hi, I'm (reporter) from the Roanoke Times. We're putting together a story about Pride month. I'd like to ask you a few questions about this year's Pride in the Park."Now don't get me wrong. I know some of the people who got Roanoke Pride started 20 years ago and they are to be commended for their hard work and dedication. But the days of "Pride-on-the-down-low" are over.
Roanoke Pride: "Wow, that's great! We have a lot of really fabulous things planned for this year. Did you know it's our 20th anniversary? By the way, we hold it in September, not June."
RT: "Oh? Why is that?"
RP: "Well, with so many bigger, better Pride events being celebrated in bigger, better cities, we felt we'd have a bigger, better turn-out in September, when nobody had anything bigger and better to do. Besides, it'll give the locals three months to forget that they had to travel 5 hours or more by car, rent an over-priced hotel room and pay way to much for everything they ate just to celebrate Pride during actual Pride Month."
RT: "Oh. Well, I'm sort of on a deadline and my editor really wants a local angle on the whole 'Pride Month' thingy. We'll just play that part down. I promise to write something again in September." (Dammit, I'm never gonna get out of this one-horse town! There goes my freakin' Pulitzer!)
This next part is directed specifically to the organizers of Roanoke Pride:
Every June I'm reminded of the movie "Field of Dreams". If you build it, they will come!
Have some real pride in yourselves and your community and celebrate Gay Pride in June. Give Roanoke's sizable LGBT community a reason to stay in their own home town and still feel like they are part of the larger fight for equality. So what if New York, DC, Philadelphia and all the other cities put on a better show! Our local events may be smaller, but we have nothing to be ashamed of. That is the whole point of Pride, after all.
I went to my first Pride at age 18 in Washington, DC in June, 1978. I drove in from the Maryland suburbs, met up with my friends and we made our way across the city to DuPont Circle. The parade wasn't very long. The floats were thrown together on the cheap with crepe paper and poster paint. Marching bands lead the way followed closely by drag queens waving to the crowds, perched on the back seats of convertibles. The DC Gay Men's Chorus strutted their stuff and sang their little hearts out. Then came the PFLAG contingent, followed by the roar of the motorcycle club, "Dykes on Bikes". There were no corporate sponsors and the Washington media never acknowledged that the event even happened.
The post-parade festival was held at a dirty, dusty elementary school playground covered with broken glass and assorted drug paraphernalia. There were no celebrity guest speakers and the music was performed by local bands.
The only politician who showed up was DC Mayor-for-life Marion Barry, who addressed the crowed over a tinny loudspeaker, saying, "there are two things every politician loves, money and votes, and ya'll got both." Truer words were never spoken. (Thirty-one years later and he still wants our money and votes, but is actively working to make sure we can't get married.)
Every local effort starts small. Some get bigger over the years and some don't. Small towns all over the U.S. hold their own Independence Day celebrations every July 4th, even though a much bigger, better fireworks display can be seen up the road. You do your best with what you've got.
Roanoke Pride has come a long way in its twenty years due to the hard work of a small group of people. It is something we can all be proud of. It is time that Roanoke's LGBT community takes it's place among cities of all sizes by holding our Pride celebrations during Pride Month.
(Read the response from Roanoke Pride's committee chair Karen Gray here.)