This was my first year working for Savannah Pride, a local LGBT non-profit organization that puts on the annual Pride Festival in Forsyth Park every year. I’m not very good at event stuff, but I tried to help in whatever way I can, which meant assisting the visiting talent and guarding one of the fences to make sure no one tried to hop it.
It’s still hard to believe Savannah has a pride celebration at all. Pride is excess and energy and sex, and Savannah is a sleepy, picturesque, conservative little town on Georgia’s coast — a hamlet of old buildings, cobblestone streets, oak trees, elegant squares, and Confederate statues. It’s not as bad as the rest of the state; as a port city, it’s naturally more diverse, more strange. In its history, a unique array of people have been marooned here — pirates, Jews, hustlers, queers. Time moves slower here. You strike up conversations with strangers on the sidewalk and pour drinks in the early afternoon.
Our Pride isn’t the loud, corporate spectacle of larger cities — it’s a festival with booths and vendors and a little stage where musicians play. There’s no parade, no march, no sex. But it’s nice. Now that it’s ended and I can reflect on it, I feel blessed to have been a part of it. I’ll also confess that I was initially wary to get involved.
Many of my friends, as well as many local citizens, have criticized Savannah Pride for putting up a fence and charging admission. During our planning meetings, I learned how much it costs to put on this event — to rent chairs, pay security, print fliers, hire performers, cover performers’ travel costs, pay for their hotel rooms, and so on. I quickly understood why the admission fee is necessary to make this event happen and I tried to explain that to people every time I heard someone grumble about it, which was often. But in the months leading up to the festival, another conversation began taking place between me and my friends: is pride still necessary?
It’s an interesting question and I couldn’t answer it right away. I went to college the year Grindr hit the app store, the year “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed. For four years, I’ve watched country after country all over the world legalize same-sex marriage. Since moving to Savannah, a steadily progressive climate is all I’ve known. Most of us believe it’s a matter of time before same-sex marriage is legal nationwide here.
All this seemed impossible to me five years ago, so I can’t imagine what gay elders must be thinking — the men and women who lived through the darkest days of AIDS and now see LGBT characters on mainstream TV. Has this change happened too quickly or not quickly enough? And what is its future?
I grew up on a farm and my parents worked diligently to keep the outside world away from me and my sister, perhaps believing that the gay impulse would fail to develop if left unaided by secular influence. Dad selected which TV channels we purchased and installed a parental blocker on our dial-up internet that blocked gay sites. As a result, I went to college knowing nothing.
When I went to college in 2010, I didn’t know how to have safe gay sex. I didn’t know about Stonewall or Gay Rights. I didn’t know my cultural heritage. I had no idea what a drag queen was. I didn’t know gay sex roles or how to use a condom. I didn’t even know gay people existed outside of large metropolitan areas like New York and San Francisco, and I certainly had no idea they’d be everywhere once I got to college. I came into the modern world with the mentality of 1978 and it was a painful adjustment to realize how behind I was.
Pride festivals began as a movement in New York with the riots at the Stonewall Bar in Greenwich Village. Since then, pride events have spread across the globe. During my first two years of college, many of my peers, guys in their twenties who grew up surrounded by messages of tolerance and queer freedom, rolled their eyes when the festival came around.
“Why do gays have to remind everyone that they exist?” they said. I did not grown up the way they did — my life before college was a prison of censorship — and Pride was a big deal to me. But I wanted to belong and tried to see the event through their eyes. “We don’t need pride festivals anymore,” they said. “They just reinforce the fact that we’re different and need to show off.” And it did seem a little gaudy, a little pointless. As more states passed same-sex marriage and more queer representation was seen every year in music and media, it seemed, for all purposes, like we had won. What more was there to win? We had won public opinion. History was tilting confidently in our favor.
Then I was schooled by the owner of the organization. “Things may be OK now,” he said, “but they can always change. And don’t trust appearances. Last year a local gay man got gay-bashed by visiting tourists. The doctors had to rewire his jaw.”
We talked about the state of LGBTQ people in homophobic countries — in Russia, in parts of Africa, even in the progressive capitals of the West like London and New York. Violence was still common and in some places, it was assumed. And then I began, at last, to recognize the violence of my home — the true ramifications of censorship, the dangers of it. It was a kind of violence, and whether it was done out of love or religious fervor, it still hurt me. I made unsafe sexual decisions and faced their consequences with terror. And I had it easy. Over the years I’ve heard horror stories from other queer people born in the South who were beaten, abandoned, and subjected to dangerous, nonscientific “conversion therapy.” And I realized that Pride is not a localized event. It does not exist to celebrate the progress of a single place. Rather, it exists to celebrate the idea of progress and to challenge the places where progress hasn’t happened. It is their antithesis and a beacon of hope to the members of our tribe living them.
“Gay people from Tennessee, Louisiana, South Carolina, they come to Savannah on Pride weekend,” the director said. “They don’t always buy tickets or come in, sometimes they just walk around the side, but they see us. They know that we are here.”
After working for the organization, I respectfully disagree with my peers. My pre-college life is why Pride must exist — because visibility is more than spectacle. It’s a light in the dark.
Please support this blog. Every supporter receives personal chats, messaging, and merch from me. Above Image: Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender sex worker and community activist who fought in the Stonewall riots and is one of the reasons why we have Pride today.