With “Pride Month” celebrations, Hendersonville, and North Carolina, inch forward

Hard to imagine we’d be here in this day, in this time, in this place.

The Charlotte Observer contributed a timely, if slight, feature this weekend, an exploration of rural Hendersonville’s nascent “Pride” celebration, yet another marker of North Carolina’s quiet LGBTQ revolution.

The word “revolution” is appropriate, with support for same-sex marriage surging to an unlikely 62 percent in North Carolina, a state that had overwhelmingly, heedlessly, passed a constitutional amendment to ban the practice in 2012.

The apple-picking, right-wing city joins a modest list of North Carolina locales crawling — or is it sprinting? — forward on LGBTQ pride, a few scatterbrained years after state lawmakers buffeted decency and fairness alike in crafting HB2 — a noxious anti-gay, anti-trans, anti-humanity law that’s deposed but, after all, not really dead.

As The Observer reported, Hendersonville Mayor Barbara Volk got behind the “Pride” event quickly, even if some of the city’s queasier and non-secular denizens stumbled over the plan.

From the feature:

Travis Parker, the pastor at Zirconia Missionary Baptist Church, said he went to rally outside the meeting because he was offended that the proclamation had effectively put the entire city’s support behind homosexuality — a sin according to the Bible, he said.

“Nobody said they couldn’t have a picnic,” Parker said, but “for the mayor to speak on behalf of all of Hendersonville was offensive to many people.”

The council itself was no less divided. The pride proclamation, said Mayor Pro Tem Ron Stephens, has stirred up more uproar than any other issue in the 12 years he’s been in office.

Like Stephens, the rest of city council — including three Republicans and one unaffiliated member — said they felt Volk had gone over their heads to support an issue they did not feel should get an official backing from local government.

“I don’t know that it’s the government’s job to endorse certain lifestyles and ideologies,” Stephens said. “When you know it’s a hot button issue, common sense says you just generally stay away from it.”

All four of them expressed their opposition to Volk on the proclamation, which only requires the backing of the mayor. And now, they say, they’re working to amend city law so future proclamations must be voted on by the whole council.

“It just doesn’t need to be publicized and supported by the city,” Stephens said. “What people do in private needs to stay in private.”

Parker said he led a prayer meeting of several hundred people at the site of the picnic on Thursday evening. They asked that picnic attendees would “see the goodness of God” and that local government would revert from what they saw as a sign of the end of times.

“It’s a great demonstration of love,” Parker said. “Hate would not be doing or saying anything.”

Hendersonville Mayor Barbara Volk was reportedly quick to back the Hendersonville “Pride” event.

Surely, it must be trying to argue for a side that must convince us all their stolid opposition is not springing from a place of hate.

Parker’s condescending notions of “love” aside, what’s remarkable about this feature — which is dutifully and traditionally reported — is that the hand-wringing over this event will not, it seems, win the day. Not in Hendersonville, it seems. Not in North Carolina, even if this state and this country face a bruising road to making all feel welcome, to addressing a deadly mental health crisis fostered by social conservatives.

If ideas can be put to combat, such notions about “right” and “wrong” in LGBTQ equality may be losing, or have lost. North Carolina, as in the greater U.S., is in the midst of a watershed moment.

LGBTQ allies in North Carolina can attest to the vanishingly slight likelihood that municipalities like this — regardless of attendance — would play host to a “Pride” event today. New York City’s gay community may have taken to the streets a half-century ago when police raided the Stonewall Inn, but it’s not hard to imagine many North Carolinians are, still, unaware of that milepost in the modern-day LGBTQ movement.

The Observer feature, however, seems to capture a quietly growing benevolence from North Carolinians, who may have realized that same-sex marriage is law and the state has not descended into hellfire.

From the report:

The story of how Pride came here — a retirement community of 13,000 in the heart of apple-picking country, in a county where Republicans outnumber Democrats 2 to 1 — is, by most measures, a sign of the dramatic shift in public opinion on LGBTQ rights that has taken place largely in Jackson’s lifetime.

About two decades ago, a support group for parents of gays and lesbians here met secretly in a church basement accessible only through a back door, out of fear for their safety.

In 2012, a majority of Henderson County voted, like the rest of the state, to ban same-sex marriage in the state constitution. And just three years ago, North Carolina legislators barred cities from passing ordinances to protect gay and trans people — with the support of many in town.

But LGBTQ Pride events have spread from just one statewide parade to 20 counties across North Carolina, from metropolitan Mecklenburg to places like Salisbury and Burke County.

Hendersonville’s first Pride was unique in that it came from a proclamation by the mayor — a response that has yielded just as much backlash from the city as it has support.

Two days before the rainbow-clad drag queens and pastors danced at the picnic, hundreds descended on the same park to pray for their salvation. That backlash, from religious and political leaders alike, underscores the resistance that remains — especially in more rural pockets of the South like this one.

Many residents think of Hendersonville, in the mountains of Western North Carolina, as everything their hippie neighbor up the road is not: rural, old, conservative.

“We have some people who pride themselves in that we’re not Asheville,” Mayor Barbara Volk said.

But — as with any town in the 1990s — some residents had begun to come out of the closet.

In 1994, some parents formed a local chapter of what was then called Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, putting out no more than a phone number to the public. For years, barely half a dozen people showed up every month.

“We were in the closet, as far as the church was concerned,“ said Jerry Miller, whose son Keith came out as gay while in college. “But we were determined to keep it going, and we did.”

This weekend, Miller, one of PFLAG’s first members, wore a T-shirt with a rainbow-striped apple—a symbol for Hendersonville — that said: “We’re all the same on the inside.”

Slowly, though, Miller remembers the founding of one gay-straight alliance in the high schools, and then three, and then a coalition of gay-friendly churches. The local Democratic Party birthed the LGBTQ Democrats, and that evolved into a group of organizers who decided that they needed more.

It was the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City, the birth of the modern gay rights movement, they said, and they should have a Pride too.

“We knew it would not go over so well with this community,” said Laura Bannister, president of the LGBTQ Democrats of Henderson County, “but we thought we would try.”

Over lunch earlier this year, Bannister pitched the idea of a proclamation to Volk, also a Democrat. She didn’t hesitate.

“We have LGBT people who are our coworkers, who are our neighbors, who are our family,” Volk said, “and I don’t think they should feel that they are second-class, or that they are threatened.”

Hendersonville police told organizers the Ku Klux Klan would likely show up if they organized a parade, so they planned a movie night on Friday and a picnic in the park on Friday instead. They shelled out nearly $500 for off-duty police escorts.

Some of the more welcoming churches in town preached it from the pulpit. Bannister went door to door on Hendersonville’s Main Street, the site of an annual apple festival, asking businesses to put up posters advertising the picnic. Most of them agreed.

That last part is particularly crucial, perhaps the greatest testament to how visibility impacts people and places, people who know a friend or a neighbor or a family member. Businesses a decade ago might have scorned the association with “Pride,” but its association with basic equality endures, and visibility may be at the center of it all.

Three cheers to Hendersonville, but most of all, three cheers to “Pride.”

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With “Pride Month” celebrations, Hendersonville, and North Carolina, inch forward