Gay rights activist Stuart Milk makes his way to a Human Rights Campaign tent, perching his sunglasses mid-forehead to reveal his eyes. He talks with a volunteer too young to remember a time when being out of the closet and at an event like the Charlotte Pride Festival could mean violence or death, tragedies he knows all too well.
As he spoke on the Wells Fargo stage later in the day, Milk reminded the crowd of how his late uncle Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office, in 1977, gave his life fighting for acceptance.
"My uncle knew he was going to be killed," said Milk, referring to Harvey's assassination in 1978. "He took that bullet for you and for me so that we would be able to celebrate today."
For the first time since it began in 2006, the Charlotte Pride Festival extended to two days, hosting about 45,000 visitors. The festival was held Uptown for only the second time in its history, taking over South Tryon Street between Fourth and Stonewalls streets. In past years, the festival was held at smaller venues like Marshall Park, Gateway Village and the NC Music Factory.
In another first, a pro-LGBT Christian organization drowned out the yearly slate of anti-LGBT Christian protesters. Thirty volunteers from the Christian ministry CanyonWalker Connections, founded to repair strained ties between the church and LGBT Christian community, formed a "Wall of Love" in front of the anti-LGBT protesters holding signs saying "Fear God" on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Those from CanyonWalker Connections countered them by singing "Jesus Loves Me" and holding homemade signs. The naysayers eventually moved down the street.
"We are standing to say this has got to stop," said organizer Kathy Baldock, one of only three Evangelical Christians who combated the anti-LGBT protesters last year. "God loves everybody. God loves his children. We're just trying to sing love."
The Shiprocked Crew from the bar Snug Harbor's Thursday night dance parties took over the Wells Fargo stage, where drag performer BethAnn Phetamine danced and lip-synched on top of giant speakers. Kids as young as 4 watched Phetamine dance to Lady Gaga's "Heavy Metal Lover" as sparks flew from the performer's costume. Phetamine, who grew up in a small South Carolina town, hopes Shiprocked's mixture of carnival pageantry and go-go dancing inspired people of all ages.
"We just opened up so many views to children, older people, to teenagers," she said.
Stuart Milk was only 17 when his uncle was assassinated by a colleague, California Board of Supervisors member Dan White. Stuart never came out to his uncle, but Harvey already seemed to know the truth about his nephew. He reminded Stuart that being different meant he could do great things. Stuart Milk went on to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2009 on his uncle's behalf. He serves as president of the Harvey Milk Foundation.
"My legacy is our collective legacy," Milk told me in an empty café on East Boulevard before the Pride Festival. "I don't have a legacy for myself, I have a legacy for us, as a people, we're together. You and I are sitting on this blue planet, swirling through space. What a miracle is that?"