It really wasn't that long ago that a same-sex couple had to be careful just walking down a Knoxville sidewalk, or dining in a crowded Old City restaurant. To sit too closely together, or hold a look just a beat too long, was to invite hostility—or even outright violence.
Knoxville has certainly come a long way. This year's PrideFest, Knoxville's pre-eminent lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) celebration, is shaping up to be the largest and highest-profile LGBT event Knoxville has seen in quite some time—perhaps ever.
Since the first local pride events in 1991, Knoxville's LGBT community has experienced its share of both progress and dramatic setbacks. Due in part to mismanagement and budget woes, several years passed without any pride activities to speak of. And as local community activist Ed White remembers, early organizers and participants alike were faced with a very real threat of violence.
"One guy I knew in the early pride days—connected to UT's Gay and Lesbian Student Union, not Pride—got his throat cut and survived, circa 1991 or 1992, but never pushed to get the police to find the perps," says White. "It's long been in the back of anyone's mind when deciding to stand up and lead a queer organization in public, that you never know when some hate-filled idiot is going to target you or someone you know. That hasn't changed in my mind, even with a more tolerant society in recent years.
"There have been many ups and downs since 1991, and often uncertainty about whether the movement to change hearts, minds, and public policy locally would succumb to inertia, apathy, and a lack of hope."
Some local leaders who have been active since the 1970s are still here, but many more have left the area. A not-insignificant number have been lost to AIDS. But, as White points out, Knoxville's LGBT community has persevered and succeeded in bringing about change, greater tolerance, and understanding in the larger community.
President Obama's recent proclamation that declared June LGBT Pride Month was a nice gesture, but it was a little like declaring August hot. Since 1969, members of LGBT communities all over the world have recognized June as a time for celebration and solidarity. (The timing is an observance of several days of rioting at New York City's Stonewall Inn that began on June 28, 1969, when LGBT patrons of the popular bar took issue with police brutality and corruption. Though gay pride groups were formed in America as early as 1924, many think of Stonewall as the beginning of the LGBT rights movement.) Major pride events can attract several hundred thousand participants; attendance at this year's San Francisco Pride, the world's largest event of its kind, is expected to easily exceed one million.
Knoxville's own PrideFest might not be looking at those kinds of numbers, but the event has enjoyed significant growth over the years. "I remember standing on the steps of the City County building with just a few hundred other brave souls at my first Knoxville Pride in 1996," says Kathrine Weeks, who will provide sound production for this year's event. "Last year's PrideFest drew [nearly 2,000] straight and LGBT people from the region. It's not that there are more LGBT people here, it's that they are less afraid of getting beaten up or losing their jobs—or their lives—for just being who they are."
PrideFest serves as a nifty social barometer for Knoxville's LGBT community—and, by extension, Knoxville as a whole. White remembers some unwelcome guests at Knoxville's first official Pride Parade in 1991: "[There were] some ugly protesters in attendance… led by an East Tennessee figure who's popped up in the news more than once since 1991. At the time he had been in the news organizing a paramilitary-type squad with guns out in Loudon County threatening to protest our parade, making veiled threats about not coming with violence in mind but being ready for it."
No such protesters have marred recent pride events; they've gone smoothly, without the threats and hate speech that earlier organizers were forced to deal with. But few would consider it unfair to say that Knoxville isn't exactly a bastion of progressiveness and liberal thought. Even without the threat of violence, surely it would be a challenge to organize such an event here—right?
"Knoxville is more liberal than you might think," says Weeks, who reports nothing but positive experiences with the City of Knoxville special event staffers and facilities maintenance crews whose cooperation is vital to the event's success. "I have only positive things to say…. Not once in all my years of working with Knoxville's LGBT events have I ever detected that we were being treated differently."
Like last year's event, PrideFest 2009 was organized by unpaid volunteers from the Knoxville Human Rights Group, an organization formed in 2004 by the national Human Rights Campaign. In addition to PrideFest itself, the Knoxville Human Rights Group has spearheaded the organization of nearly a dozen pride events throughout the month of June.
Ernie Hoskins, a member of the Knoxville Human Rights Group and a key organizer of PrideFest 2009, agrees. "Knoxville is coming around," he says. "It's not as conservative as you might think. People for the most part have been very receptive to our cause, and more than willing to help out in any way that they can."
Todd Cramer, head of the Knoxville Human Rights Group, sums it up nicely: "While Knoxville as a whole is not liberal, equality and freedom are not expectations that are unique to liberal people. They are foundations upon which this country is built and they're at the core of most Knoxvillians' beliefs."
Unfortunately, it's not all good news for Tennessee's LGBT community. For a bit of perspective, consider this: California's controversial Proposition 8 was approved by a relatively narrow margin, with 52 percent of voters pulling the lever to deny marriage rights to the state's same-sex couples. A similar referendum in Tennessee, on the other hand, was approved in 2006 by a disturbing 81 percent of voters.
"In Tennessee, we need to remember that we have no state protections against job discrimination," says Christopher Sanders of the Nashville-based Tennessee Equality Project. "Hate crimes were up 13 percent against our community last year, according to the TBI's figures. We have significant battles to fight here."
According to Brent Collins, Social Committee chairperson for the Knoxville Human Rights Group, that's why events like PrideFest are crucial to the LGBT community. "Pride festivals are known the world over as a time to celebrate LGBT communities, and the positive impact that we, as LGBT, can have on the communities where we live," he says. "It's a time when those in our local communities who are struggling with issues regarding homosexuality can gain more knowledge and acceptance of us as individuals…. The more positive information we put out to our communities as a whole, the more integrated all peoples can become, allowing an atmosphere of acceptance for all."
These sentiments are echoed by the theme of this year's PrideFest: "It's not a gay thing or a straight thing. It's a human thing."
"We just want to be treated like humans," offers Tylor Loposser, a graphic design student who donated his services to PrideFest. "We don't want special rights—just equal rights."
Cramer thinks the anti-gay sentiments espoused by advocates of the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment have created a backlash among fair-minded and socially conscious individuals.
"This change has not just been in Knoxville, but we've certainly felt it here as well," he says. "These challenges to someone's basic rights of freedom, equality, and fairness are illogical and unjust. And once people stand up, speak for themselves, and tell their stories, Knoxvillians—like so many other Americans—have said, ‘Enough.'"
In Knoxville, this year's Pride Month has featured a greater variety of events and activities than ever. Several things that have been missing the last few years, like the Pride Parade, have returned and a number of new events have been added.
These new additions include Eat OUT with Pride nights at local restaurants (Market Square's Oodles Uncorked and Turkey Creek's Fleming's Prime Steakhouse), an art auction at Candoro Marble Co., and a first-ever fashion show and auction at the Fairbanks. Several popular events from last year have returned, including Heritage Night, the ReelKnox Film Screening, and Knoxville's longest-running pride event: the 25th Annual Pride Picnic, hosted by the Metropolitan Community Church of Knoxville.
All of these events lead up to PrideFest 2009 on Saturday, June 27, from 3 to 10 p.m. in Market Square. (The event will be preceded by the Pride Parade, which will begin at 2 p.m. at the State Street parking garage.)
In addition to a wide variety of activities and vendors, PrideFest will feature a line-up of both local and regional entertainers. "Every year the talent we attract to the festival gets more and more impressive," says Weeks, whose responsibilities extended to booking and scheduling entertainment for PrideFest's main stage. "There'll be music for all tastes."
Groups performing this year include, among others, local singer/songwriters Karen E. Reynolds and Kate Oliver, Heiskell (as in Judybats vet Jeff Heiskell) and Lexington, Ky., rockers Chico Fellini.
The organizers of PrideFest 2009 hope the event will attract a diverse group of people from both within and outside the LGBT community. Children are welcome; PrideFest is a family-friendly event, complete with kids' activities. "Knoxville PrideFest itself, and all events that we are putting on, are for the community of Knoxville as a whole," says Cramer. "Who doesn't love a parade? Who doesn't love good music, good food and good art? We've got a little of all of it and we welcome everyone to come enjoy."
"The heterosexual community and the homosexual community are not that different from each other," observes Collins. "I personally hope that with this PrideFest, along with other activities, the local LGBT community can show Knoxvillians that we're just like everyone else. We go to work, we go to church, and we support community activities, such as charities and cultural activities. We have families who work in and support local businesses and organizations.
"And yes, we'll have a whole lot of fun along the way."