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A look at LGBTQ history and Pride Month events across Western North Carolina

Pack Memorial Library in Asheville is hosting a June exhibit on local LGBTQ+ History.
Pack Memorial Library in Asheville is hosting a June exhibit on local LGBTQ+ History.

June is federally recognized as LBGTQ+ Pride Month. Across Western North Carolina, Pride proclamations and event support have been on many local town government agendas. While some WNC communities are hosting their first-ever Pride events this year, others are looking back on the LGBTQ history in the region.

UNC Asheville Professor Amanda Wray founded the LGBTQ+ Oral History Archive with Blue Ridge Pride Center in 2019.

“Asheville has a really inclusive reputation but Appalachia in general has a reputation that is rather negative in the way that (some) talk about inclusivity,” Wray told BPR in 2019.

“I feel like we make gay people invisible when we don’t talk about them or when we focus on this dominant narrative that Appalachia is not inclusive.”

Wray, who is from rural Kentucky, has been interviewing LGBTQ people from across the region and has over 100 interviews - most of which are digitized and accessible online on Blue Ridge Ridge Pride or UNCA’s Special Collections websites. The collection also includes physical artifacts, such as books, buttons and T-shirts. The archive expanded to Jackson County in 2021.

Early Pride marches and celebrations in North Carolina ran as statewide events, with an annual Pride Parade moving to different cities, including in 1992, when it first came to Asheville. An LGBTQ+ history exhibit is on display at Pack Memorial Library through June 29.
Early Pride marches and celebrations in North Carolina ran as statewide events, with an annual Pride Parade moving to different cities, including in 1992, when it first came to Asheville. An LGBTQ+ history exhibit is on display at Pack Memorial Library through June 29.

This month there is an exhibit of local LGBTQIA+ history at Pack Memorial Library in downtown Asheville.

Materials curated in the exhibition represent contributions from UNC Asheville undergraduates and community volunteers from 20 to 95 years of age.

The exhibit highlights the first Pride event held in Asheville. Wray says the event was held at Hairspray, a local lesbian bar, in 1989.

Rosie Coates, born in Franklin, was interviewed about the event for the archive. She was a bartender in Asheville at the time and says they put the event together in about a week.

“Basically a little Pride thing behind [the bar] and we put together a Pride and had it on a Sunday. We probably had maybe 200 or 300 people,” Coates said. She added that the event raised funds for the predecessor of the Western North Carolina Aids Project (WNCAP) through festival games.

The first Asheville Pride was held three years after the first Pride Parade in North Carolina. The statewide march rotated cities and was first held in Durham in 1986, Wray said. However, an earlier march, called “Our Day Out” is recognized by many as the first Pride event in North Carolina. The June 1981 march followed the murder of Ronald “Sonny” Antonevitch who was sunbathing with other men on the Little River in North Durham.

“So they did this march during the trial ... Many people cite this as the first lesbian gay march in the state,” Wray said.

An estimated 300 people took part in the march and vigil.

Asheville hosted its first statewide Pride parade in 1992. Coates was there and remembers around 1,000 people in attendance. She remembers marching downtown.

“On the sidewalks, all the way down City County Plaza. All the way up, coming up College Street: There were Christians, religious people with signs. KKK people filled the sidewalks yelling and screaming and spitting and, you know, screaming atrocities at us and we're all just you know, walking down the street with our little gay flags and signs,” Coates said in the oral history interview.

She remembers protesters spit at Pride participants.

“They spit at us but they were like, ‘Don't let them spit at you or you'll catch AIDS and stuff like that.’ But that was really the biggest thing that happened in Asheville. That just showed the conflict between the groups, you know, but after that happened it was done. That was it. Like it's just going to get bigger - and it did,” Coates said.

Wray says that 2000 was the last year that a statewide Pride was organized as many cities started hosting their own events. She says Western North Carolina Pride events have expanded in the last 10 years.

“People are having their own local Prides and I think that visibility is good and I think they're all going to be different,” Wray said.

“It's nice that there are hopefully more people coming to the table devising what should LGBTQ Gatherings look like and feel like for us, for our community as well as for our Allied communities.”

This year there are a number of LGTBQ+ Pride events scheduled for Pride month across Western North Carolina.

Haywood County

Waynesville is set to host its first official Pride event at the end of the month. Kick-off is June 28th. A parade will be held on Saturday, June 29, which starts with speeches from community leaders. The parade will march from town hall to the Frog Level business district. There are also Pride events scheduled on Saturday night and Sunday. Check out the full schedule here.

The Smoky Mountain News reported that there was pushback against the street closures but some business owners involved in the opposition have already apologized.

Jackson County

Last month, Sylva Town Commissioners approved a proclamation to support LGBTQ Pride month. But there continues to be tension in Sylva after town commissioners voted against the permit to close Main Street for the annual Pride parade in September. Council member Natalie Newman stepped down in April, in part, because of the vote. Protests to allow the parade have continued but the organizing group announced this week it is “closing.”

Sylva Pride was founded to host a Pride parade and event in downtown Jackson County starting in 2021. At the second Pride parade, there were over 500 attendees and in 2023, organizers said that the parade was larger than the previous year.

Sylva Pride has an ongoing community calendar for Sylva LGBTQ events.

Qualla Boundary

Nudale Adantedi was founded in 2021 to support the fight for same-sex marriage on the Qualla Boundary, the sovereign nation of the Eastern Band of Cherokee. The name means “to love differently.” In 2023, the group updated its name to Unequolada to be more inclusive to “Rainbows, Rainbow Hearted.”

The group is hosting an LGBTQIA2S+ Archival Collections Gathering this month. The event was scheduled for June 15 but has been rescheduled TBD.

Transylvania County

The town of Brevard approved a proclamation to support LGBTQ Pride Month on June 3.

In 2023, a drag event was canceled after threats were leveled on social media. The person who sent the messages, Joseph O’Neal, later turned himself in to police, according to the Transylvania Times. He pled guilty and was sentenced to 12 months probation. At the end of May, the drag performers went on at the same brewery – the one year anniversary of the threats. The newspaper reported that there were a few protestors but that it was a peaceful event.

Henderson County  

In Hendersonville, there is an annual Pride Picnic that started in 2019. This month, WLOS reported that there were over 60 vendors at the event making it the largest picnic to date.

Henderson Pride has an event calendar on its website. The next event is a Pride Ride on June 28.

Macon County

Macon Light held a summer Pride fundraiser for the Macon County Public Library, Smoky Mountain Harm Reduction and the Downtown Doof at Downtown Fitness on May 31.

Downtown Fitness, which owner Rick Tarleton calls the “first Queer/Trans-owned safe-space in Macon County,” is hosting an LGBTQ+ art market and Sideshow event on June 29. This will be the second act of this event, the first was on June 1.

Buncombe County 

Blue Ridge Pride, based in Asheville, is an LGBTQ support organization that focuses on the 23 westernmost counties in North Carolina: Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Buncombe, Burke, Caldwell, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Swain, Transylvania, Watauga, Wilkes and Yancey.

Blue Ridge Pride has an ongoing community calendar highlighting Asheville LGBTQ events including multiple Pride events this month. Blue Ridge Pride takes place in September.

Is your community hosting a Pride event not included in this list? Please send an email to news@bpr.org

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.