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Remembering the first PrideFest

Was it a march or parade? Would the mayor be recalled?

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This year's PrideFest promises to be a mix of fun, parades, information and celebration. But it hasn't always been that way.

The first PrideFest was in Durham in 1986. But it had a forerunner five years earlier.

"The '81 march, 'Our Day Out' in downtown Durham, is the one that I identify as the first gay pride march in North Carolina," recalls Sherri Rosenthal. "There were police protecting us, and almost no one as spectators except for some folks who were pretty down and out.

"Sometime in the next months, the Klan applied for a permit to march in downtown Durham. The Herald-Sun ran an editorial saying that they were opposed to the expenditure of any public funds for police or other services on behalf of extremist groups like gays and the Klan that 'parade their twisted morals.' That was the last of several times that I canceled my subscription to the local paper, and I have never subscribed again."

There were some quiet, almost private, pride events, in the intervening years--dinners and picnics held in June (when the LGBT communities in larger areas traditionally held their pride events to commemorate the Stonewall riots in New York that mark the start of the gay rights movement). Durham writer and activist Mab Segrest remembers one in particular:

"I was just back from a vacation on Fire Island, and there was a picnic sort of tucked way back in Umstead Park. I went and there was this big banner that said 'G/L Pride.'

"It seemed so anonymous. I wanted to fill in the letters, spell out 'gay' and 'lesbian,' and get it out of the park. Something more public," she says.

Some of those involved in organizing the '86 event remember Segrest as the one putting out the call to organize. She demurs, saying, "There were a bunch of us."

Durham activist Mandy Carter thinks the idea may have come out of conversations at meetings of the Triangle Area Lesbian Feminists group.

"I remember us saying, 'Why are all these pride marches happening and we don't have one here in North Carolina?' And someone said, 'Well, why don't we have one here?' And that led to thinking about actually doing it," she says.

"What I remember," says Durham's Meredith Emmett, "was that there were several people who had been to pride events in bigger cities, who had lived in Boston or been to New York, and there had been enough things happening locally to kind of coalesce around this idea."

These conversations would have been happening in 1985, when the LGBT community was still hurting from the homophobic campaign Sen. Jesse Helms ran successfully against Gov. Jim Hunt. That Helms' reelection was part of a nationwide Republican sweep into office just made it all the more depressing.

Then, too, AIDS was finally being felt in the gay men's community outside of the large urban areas. "Because of AIDS there were a lot more connections going back and forth between the gay men's community and the lesbian community," Emmett says, "and that sparked the desire to do a bigger event."

For many reasons, it seemed to a lot of people like it was time to do something.

"I remember one of the early meetings, we were sitting in the Durham County Public Library, and one of the first questions was 'Are we going to call it a march or a parade?' Carter says.

"If it was a march, then you were making a political statement," Durham's Betsy Barton explains. "And if you were saying parade, then you were just talking about celebrating. There was a spirited debate about that."

Segrest adds: "We had a debate, too, about whether to have a drag queen perform during Pride. We were worried it would get sensationalized. I remember it did happen, and it was a very hearty rendition of 'Where the Boys Are.'"

Nobody remembers where they found a female impersonator who did Connie Francis.

For myself, I recall the very last organizing meeting before the march itself.

We were in the building at 604 Chapel Hill Road in Durham, where the Institute for Southern Studies and Southern Exposure, the War Resisters League and other groups had offices. Mab Segrest took the floor and brought up the possibility of the Klan coming. She had this image of pickup trucks and shotguns.

It wasn't such an outlandish thought. The Klan violence at a demonstration in Greensboro had only been a few years earlier.

The room got very quiet. One by one, the dozen or so people in the room said the same two things: that they'd had the same thought and had been afraid to mention it, and that, yes, they still planned to march. It was that important.

The Klan failed to show, but that doesn't mean the 1986 Pride was without controversy. In fact, it touched off an effort to have the mayor of Durham recalled.

"I had gone to Wib Gulley, who was mayor, to get him to sign a proclamation for Pride," Segrest says. "Which he did, and it fanned the flames for a recall.

"There were tables with petitions in front of the post office and at the malls. They needed however many signatures and they didn't get them. There was also a very dramatic City Council meeting. Because of the recall stuff, the progressive community all mobilized."

Carter remembers some of the anti-gay rhetoric flying around was actually incorporated into the march. "We had those buttons--I still have them in a jar--quoting some of the fundamentalists calling Durham 'Sodom on the Eno' and the 'San Francisco of the South.'"

Barton recalls another controversy over a gay-themed display at the public library.

"That made news. There were letters to the editor the entire summer. I actually have a little clipping file of those letters," she says. "It was like 25 books at the top of the stairs in little glass cases. But the letters went on from June to August. That would never happen now. That just marks to me how things have changed."

Things certainly have changed.

"That first Pride kicked off a whole series of Prides across the state that were mobilizing points and really were pulling people for a while," Segrest says.

For almost a decade, N.C. Pride alternated between the Triangle and other cities in the Carolinas like Charlotte, Asheville and Wilmington.

"I can't remember why that kind of petered out and Durham kind of picked up Pride as a yearly event. I do think it's a shame that that statewide mobilizing didn't keep on going. It's just that over the decades, different personalities come forward and there are different sets of energies and so forth."

Of course, when Charlotte, Asheville and Wilmington created local Pride events, it made it unnecessary to rotate the one event around the state.

"People are doing stuff in their backyard, and that's neat," Carter says. "And 20 years later, we're still doing a big event every year. That's something!"

"I think it's interesting to look back. Right after we got done with the '86 March, there was the '87 National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights," she adds. "To me personally, that will forever go down as one of the most important moments of my life. We were so revved up, so jazzed."

Segrest says, "I used to remember this stuff better than I do now. I do remember all the excitement of the recall, though. That was what really made that first Pride. And that Wib won so handily in the next election. He had made this stand for gay rights and survived the fundamentalists.

"I think it really opened a space for a lot of stuff to happen. It was kind of a referendum in a way. It felt like we had really turned a corner."

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