The annual gay pride festival on Saturday drew hundreds of participants to Duke University’s east campus, despite nonstop rain that sent visitors scurrying for cover under rainbow-themed umbrellas, vendor tents and stately shade trees.
Though it was numbered as the state’s 31st gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender festival, the event was in some ways historic: the first GLBT festival here since the U.S. Supreme Court established gay marriage as the law of the land.
The participants themselves noted how accepted gay life has become, as entire families explored the grounds with their pets, and church booths distributed gay-friendly materials about their congregations. Corporate tents – representing GlaxoSmithKline, Verizon Wireless, Microsoft, SunTrust Bank, Biogen, Food Lion and others – courted passersby with free samples and brochures.
“It’s more of a family atmosphere,” said Chris Lange of Raleigh. “It strikes me as any other typical carnival or celebration.”
Lange, 46, a technical writer, was at the event chaperoning his ninth-grade daughter and her friend. This being his first visit, he said he was surprised by the number of churches with vendor booths.
St. Francis of Assisi in Raleigh, for example, has had a booth here for the past 12 years, featuring the church’s long-running GLBT Ministry.
Veteran activists, however, focused on immediate challenges rather than celebrating recent accomplishments. They said as long as public officials in North Carolina and other states can opt out of performing gay marriages, and as long as Congress hasn’t passed a federal anti-discrimination law protecting gay citizens, their mission is far from accomplished.
“There’s still a very high suicide rate among LGBT youth,” said Jane Paris, a founding member of the St. Francis GLBT Ministry, which was formed in 1999. “There are still things to do.”
Some acknowledged they are wary of a potential backlash in response to the nation’s widening acceptance of gay family members, co-workers and neighbors.
Serving as a constant reminder of their vigilance was a small group of protesters chanting across the street from the festival. They wielded outsized placards emblazoned with words like “sin,” “freaks” and “hell forever.”
John Short, director of N.C. Pride, the event organizer, noted that there were many more churches with booths at the event than protesters with anti-gay signs. The supporters included Mormons Building Bridges, a small group not operating under the auspices of the Mormon church, offering hugs and distributing rainbow stickers reading: “Hugged by a Mormon.”
It was the first time the Mormons had a booth here, said organizer Jennifer Sudweeks, who came prepared to give out 1,000 stickers and a corresponding number of hugs. Sudweeks said many here are either gay or came in support of a gay relative or friend. She said her gay sister left the Mormon church 20 years ago and has turned her back on religion.
Down the lawn from the Mormons stood the vendor tent of the St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Durham. Church member Wynn Cherry, a retired high school English and Latin teacher, said in two weeks the church will host its first lesbian wedding. Several months ago, Cherry noted, the church held a “reaffirmation” service for a transgender member.
Nearby, Good Graces Dog Treats displayed an array of home-made snacks by owner and baker Blair McKinney.
“Gay dogs need treats, too,” McKinney said. “We don’t dog-scriminate.”