C'Ville hosts LGBTQ pride festival
Event brings out 3500 attendees, several University student groups
A giant arch of rainbow balloons framed the statue of Robert E. Lee in downtown Charlottesville’s Lee Park Saturday as more than 3,500 people from around the region came to the Charlottesville Pride Festival.
Hosted by the Charlottesville Pride Community Network, an organization focused on supporting the local lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning communities, the second annual event featured 67 vendors, as well as entertainment, food and children’s activities.
The purpose of the festival was to bring an oft-separated community together, said Amy Sarah Marshall, president of the Charlottesville Pride Community Network. Marshall helped found the organization when she came out to her community in Charlottesville a few years ago.
“I asked ‘where are the gay people?’ and I couldn’t find anybody,” Marshall said. “It wasn’t because there weren’t any, it was just because people in this town tend to stick to their corners. It’s a southern city and even racially there’s still a lot of division.”
The festival, which started as a small picnic, has helped LGBTQ people in in the area realize there’s a community here, Marshall said.
“When you think about the history of the oppression and discrimination that we’ve lived under, there’s just like this automatic self-suppression that you do because you’re not expecting it to be safe for you to be open about yourself,” she said.
Last year’s inaugural festival aimed to change that.
“[Last year] I saw so many straight people excited about being able to be supportive,” Marshall said. “And I saw a lot of gay people just crying from joy … So [the festival] has started this whole breaking open of the silence that existed before.”
Drag performers like Dallys Maharis and University alumnus Pearl Harbor were a central part of this year’s entertainment at the festival.
Maharis, a Charlottesville native who served as entertainment director for the festival, has performed in drag for more than 20 years.
“I got involved in drag as a joke — it started one Halloween.” Maharis said. “To me, drag is entertainment, it’s the art of illusion … It’s about becoming a completely different person.”
Among the 67 vendors at this year’s festival were a number of organizations from the University, including the LGBTQ Center, Queer Student Union, Queer Med Students and the LGBT Committee. Queer Student Union Co-President Blake Calhoun, a third-year College student, said University students were excited to go out to the festival.
“We’re here today to show our solidarity with the community,” Calhoun said. “A lot of times at U.Va. we kind of forget the fact that we are part of a bigger community in Charlottesville.”
QSU hosts social events for the University’s LGBTQ communities, as well as drag bingo each semester.
“When I was a first year, [QSU] wasn’t really visible so I kind of just found out about it by chance,” Calhoun said. “I don’t want it to be by chance for others, I want everyone to know what QSU is. We’re here and we’re a resource for you.”
Gary Nimax, the University’s assistant vice president for compliance and chair of the LGBT Committee, noted the festival’s attraction for the entire community — not just LGBTQ individuals.
“I love that I’ve seen so many of my straight friends coming with their children, as well as students, the larger Charlottesville community,” Nimax said. “It’s really an event for everybody.”
The LGBT Committee, started two years ago and officially sanctioned by the University, serves as an advocate for LGBTQ faculty at the University, Nimax said. The committee has pushed for domestic partnership benefits for same-sex couples at the University and has also worked with the Faculty Senate to conduct surveys of LGBTQ faculty.
This year’s pride festival was paralleled by several developments in the local political culture — Charlottesville City Council decided to consider an ordinance that would provide couples’ benefits for same-sex city employees. And last week, Council also endorsed the Pride Festival by officially proclaiming September 14 as ‘Pride Festival Day.’
But the past year has also been marked by several difficulties for Charlottesville’s LGBTQ communities. A day after Charlottesville’s proclamation endorsing the festival, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors considered a similar resolution, but the motion failed. And last year, a gay University student was physically assaulted in a suspected hate crime. The assailant has still not been identified.
“A lot of people in Charlottesville think of the city as a liberal mecca, [and] when you compare it to a lot of Virginia, it is,” Marshall said. “But that doesn’t mean there are legal protections here more than anywhere else in the state.”
Marshall said Virginia law still lacks many protections for LGBTQ individuals.
“You can still be fired in Virginia for being gay,” Marshall said. “There’s no law to protect you from losing your children, and I know people that’s happened to. You can be turned away from housing and you still get beat up and bullied in school.”