Last month, the Rev. "Flip" Benham stood in Marshall Park and proclaimed victory: Charlotte Gay Pride was finished. No longer would such perversion take place at the downtown park. His proclamations weren't just limited to the obliging audience of TV camera crews. He also addressed Mayor Pat McCrory and the city council on March 27. "Charlotte Pride is back in the closet," Benham told the council. "And it's back in the closet because the church of Jesus Christ came out of the closet. And because you, city council, helped us to do that very thing."
It's unclear what McCrory thought of the accolade: He thanked Benham as he does most speakers, but didn't say anything more. Nor did the mayor reply to a request for comment from Creative Loafing. But people at the Gay & Lesbian Center, headquarters for Charlotte's GLBT community, say Benham's declaration of triumph may be a little premature.
"That the opposition has claimed victory is even more of a call to action," said Laura Witkowski, executive director of the G&L Center, though she admitted the Pride fest is getting off to a late start. The Gay & Lesbian Center has stepped in to help organize the event after previous years' organizers grew tired of putting on Charlotte Pride year after year. "Charlotte deserves to have an event like Pride," said Witkowski, who enumerated several events planned to raise money for this year's Pride, including a dog wash, but she stopped short of naming a specific date for the event. Nor would she say whether Pride will be outdoors this year.
"We know that there are people who will not be super happy to find out about Pride, and we want to make sure it is as difficult as possible for a disruption to happen," she said.
People like Benham and his Operation Save America organization. Other conservative groups have protested Pride and harassed attendees by preaching to them, but Benham and the OSA have been the loudest opponent. He still claims victory, even if Pride takes place somewhere other than its usual spot in Marshall Park. "Whatever they do in the closet, that's up to them," said Benham. "They're foul. It's awful. It brings death."
Last year's Pride may not have been the first time opponents interrupted the festival, but many attendees said it attracted the most vociferous opposition. Witkowski said the protest -- in which religious groups preached and sang over a sound system set up along the periphery of the park -- is not what caused Pride's previous organizers to drop out this year. Still, she said Charlotte's acceptance of gays and lesbians isn't what it could be. Witkowski, who moved here from Michigan more than a year ago, said she remembers grumblings at city council meetings in Detroit, but nothing as overtly homophobic as she has witnessed in Charlotte.
She wants attendees this year to not have insults and judgments hurled at them when they're trying to spend a nice day with friends. "You're dealing with folks who are basically telling you you're going to hell," she said. "That's difficult for folks to take, and I think it's unwarranted."
Witkowski and others said Charlotte is a city that remains in flux on the issue of homosexuality. Many people moving here were transferred from larger cities in other parts of the country. For gays and lesbians, especially, events like Pride are a reflection of a community's open-mindedness. For newcomers, Pride is a good opportunity to meet new friends, make business contacts and become comfortable in a new environment. "The fact that there is a public Pride event, even for people who don't attend, sends a strong message: It says, 'Wow, they must have an active gay community here,'" said Darryl Logsdon, a member of the Gay & Lesbian Center's board of directors.
Joe Campos, another board member, said having a Pride festival is an important way to attract creative and talented people to Charlotte. "When people are looking for relocation, people are looking for places to visit, they want to see some type of tolerance," said Campos, who moved here from Providence, RI, two years ago. "That's what Pride allows us to do. It's evidence of tolerance, fair-mindedness, acceptance."
Monica Simpson, one of the coordinators of Charlotte NC Black Gay Pride, worked at the Gay & Lesbian Center when it opened in 2003. She recalled hearing stories of gays and lesbians who had moved here and felt adrift. "A lot of people that move here feel as if they are just, like, stuck, and they just don't know which way to go ... It's just really important to have celebrations where people are affirmed and they have chance to meet people."
Charlotte NC Black Gay Pride didn't face the same opposition last July when it held its first festival, though some opponents, including members of several African-American churches, came to witness to attendees. "It wasn't anything major," said Simpson.
She said Operation Save America left the African-American version of Pride alone last year. One explanation could be that the black gay pride events weren't as established and weren't held in places as public as Marshall Park. Or, Simpson suggested, the protestors may not have wanted to appear racist. A third possibility, she offered, was that perhaps protestors were worried about being with "hundreds and hundreds of African Americans in one place."
"I'm so not the type of person that plays the race card," said Simpson. "But that's the only logical explanation."
Now planning its second year, the Black Gay Pride festival also hasn't drawn the public enthusiasm or press coverage that the inaugural Pride event attracted, said Simpson. "In year two, it's just like, 'Oh, they're doing it again,'" she said. "But we don't have any doubt in our minds that everything will be great."
Benham's declarations of victory notwithstanding, Witkowski expects protests to continue at gay pride celebrations in Charlotte. "I have a feeling they'll come out stronger than ever," she said. "I don't think they're going to be happy with being proven wrong."