Pride Planners: How We’ll Celebrate Despite Anti-Drag, Anti-LGBTQ Laws

(Bloomberg) -- In state legislatures across the US, lawmakers have introduced a record number of anti-LGBTQ bills this year, including anti-transgender and anti-drag laws. For organizations that produce the hundreds of annual Pride celebrations around the country, the show was always going to go on. The root of Pride, after all, is protest.

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The current iterations of Pride are manifold, including festivals, parades and marches. They are also major economic drivers. LGBTQ nonprofits rely on Pride events to fund year-round programs, and local businesses bank on crowds spending money at bars, restaurants and hotels. The National LGBT Chamber of Commerce estimates that LGBTQ-owned businesses contribute more than $1.7 trillion to the national economy each year. Much of that can be generated during Pride events, which typically occur in June.

Read more: The Business of Pride, 50 Years After Stonewall

In the wake of increasingly hostile laws at the state level targeting LGBTQ people, organizers in Tampa and St. Cloud, Florida, canceled their events, citing the state’s political climate. Many groups are closely watching state courts, where pending lawsuits will determine whether they’ll be able to stage drag events during Pride.

A ruling in Tennessee regarding a state-level anti-drag law is due on Friday, June 2; as signed by Governor Bill Lee, a Republican, it would classify drag as an “adult cabaret performance,” ban performances on public property or in places where a child might see one, and put performers at risk of being charged with a felony.

Pride organizers in Tennessee still plan to include drag performances in the hope that the lawsuit brought by Friends of George’s, a Memphis nonprofit, will triumph. If not, they say they have contingency plans. Whatever the ruling, protecting and supporting their performers is their avowed top priority, as Pride organizers operating in other hostile environments say.

Read more: Drag Shows Are the Next Target for Republican Lawmakers

Bloomberg spoke with Pride organizers in seven cities across five states impacted by such laws. They discussed their security and sponsorship concerns, how they intend to protect performers in drag and others as they prepare to take the stage, and why they’re anticipating higher-than-ever turnout as an act of defiance and solidarity by the community.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Memphis Pride Fest, Tennessee, June 2-3

Lawmakers in Tennessee have introduced at least 26 anti-LGBTQ bills this year, according to a count by the American Civil Liberties Union. Five have been passed into law, including a bill blocking doctors from providing gender-affirming care to transgender and nonbinary minors.

VANESSA RODLEY, President, Mid-South Pride: We know that what we have to do is really important, so we are trying to make sure that we are the most visible we ever have been for Pride. We have to deal with protesters every year. But now, the level of hate is so high. It's very stressful knowing that you're going to have 50,000 people at an event, and you are responsible for their safety.

We meet as a team weekly and I meet with the sheriff's liaisons and the police liaisons every month. It is very scary and stressful, but it's what's needed. We're working with Homeland Security, FBI—everybody we can—to still provide a safe space.

I sit as a board member of Friends of George’s, the nonprofit theater group that filed the lawsuit to stop the drag ban, and I also help with Tennessee Equality projects. So I went down to Nashville for Day on the Hill and talked to senators and House representatives.

If you look at the demographic of these people, there’s an enormous amount of White men making all these decisions. There's not much diversity, there's hardly any women. And if you look at everything that has happened between March, April and May—between removing people from office and putting forth these bills—they're clearly showing that they don't speak for our people. They have awoken something that they're going to regret.

When I talk to people in the middle, they're blown away. As soon as you get their attention, they are shocked by what's going on. I'm hoping that that's a ripple effect. And as they're doing all this to spark their base for the presidential run next year, they're also awakening our base.

We can't lose our focus on the big part, which is getting people registered. We even have shirts that say “Vote with Pride.” If we can get these people out to vote, we can actually steer some of this directive. We cannot fix issues nationally unless we fix them locally.

I fight opposition all year, so I'm excited to show everyone that this can be done and that it is family-friendly and it is beautiful. It's Pride for everybody, no matter who you are or what you are. If you are loving and accepting of everybody, come feel that love, feel that community, see everybody around you, and hopefully you leave feeling a little bit better about yourself.

KC PrideFest, Kansas City, Missouri, June 9-11

KC PrideFest serves communities in both Missouri and Kansas. Lawmakers in Missouri have introduced at least 48 anti-LGBTQ bills this year, while Kansas lawmakers have introduced 14 and passed three into law, including one that bans transgender girls from joining school sports teams that affirm their gender identity.

JAMES MORAN, Director of Education and Community Outreach, Kansas City Pride Community Alliance: Kansas City started its Pride celebrations decades ago, and we had a wonderful march and parade through the city. That got suspended for a while by the choices of those who were organizing Pride Fest. Since our new board took over three years ago, we brought it back.

Our first year, we had something like 10,000 people at our festival. Our second year, we had around 40,000. This year, we expect to grow even more. We've got something like 150 vendors, numerous sponsors, two different stages, activities for families and kids of all ages.

We're really bringing all that we can, with the theme of empowerment, and are excited about our scholarship for students who are LGBTQIA and live in our immediate area. We do have a lot to face and a lot that's coming our way. But how better to use this annual festival and celebration than to strengthen our community?

No one knows what it's like here. We've got two state legislatures at our backs. We've got our little blue sanctuary. But it’s a unique Pride because of our location and our relationship to the governments around us.

We have dismay and disbelief, but the state legislature is absolutely inspiring new civic engagement and political involvement, especially among youth and trans rights groups at the grassroots level. I think this greater engagement—and our deliberate space-making for LGBTQ youth—is gonna coalesce into something really powerful.

If now isn't the time to step up into leadership, when is? When we come to a point where we are the center of these culture wars, this is what we're called for. Those of us who have the privilege to be able to work on behalf of our community, this is the moment where we can put our privilege to good use.

I feel that there are more eyes on us. For a long time, our community was able to live our lives a little bit, outside of that mainstream spotlight. That separation came with plenty of negativity, but it also allowed us a little bit more freedom to be ourselves.

Now it feels like a greater spotlight. We could try to hold back and be as palatable as possible, but I don't think that's in our nature. I think we're taking the superior route of just being loud and proud—watching our backs, but being the flamest flame that ever flamed.

Sandhills Pride, North Carolina, June 10

Lawmakers in North Carolina have introduced at least 12 anti-LGBTQ laws at the state level this year. In December, a drag show produced by Sandhills Pride was on the receiving end of death threats from far-right groups; the show was ultimately paused due to a power outage resulting from an attack on power substations in the area. This will be Sandhills Pride’s first official Pride month festival.

LAUREN MATHERS, Executive Director, Sandhills Pride: It was a rough year coming out of December. The local community was shaken by the attacks against the drag show, specifically. There was a lot of pushback at first, but there was also this incredible wave of support. I am still in awe because it is still very difficult to be an out member of the LGBT community in this region, and we deserve to celebrate.

I would love to have drag at Pride because it is part of our history. But our first and foremost thought is to keep our community safe. We do not need to put anyone through what we were put through. And it's been happening across the entire country. We're not special in this. Our performers have been dealing with this every day for years—every time they get on stage. But in this tiny little community, it was difficult.

We wanted to create a space with a little bit of something for everyone: face-painting, an art booth, some LGBTQ history, as well as information about current laws and policies that are out there so that people can educate themselves. We have entertainment coming in from local artists. We do have to have some level of security available to us, and they are going to be present. We’re anticipating 500 people total, including vendors, performers and attendees.

The [regional areas] we serve are challenging because there are a lot of folks that really work against equality for the LGBTQ community. There's a lack of understanding. We want to show the entire range and spectrum of what the LGBTQ rainbow means, what Pride means.

We're a presence that really does give back, and I don't think people see that enough. It's been important to me that we create partnerships with businesses and organizations that have never really had the opportunity to step up and say: “I want to make it a safe space for everybody to be here.”

It's not so much excitement as, “Oh my gosh, we're doing this thing.” But I'm very excited. It’s exhausting to hold hate, it's exhausting to hold anger. And it's impossible to move forward or support people in love and acceptance from those places.

Part of doing Pride Fest is establishing that this is the space that we want to serve from. It’s our way of saying, “Let’s have a nice day and find and learn and educate and enjoy and listen to music and come out and feel safe and supported together.”

Right now, I think the most important message that anyone can say is “You're not alone.” No matter how small your town, no matter how far away you are, you're never alone. There is a community of people who are working very hard to support you. This is a community that you can come into and say, “I feel like I'm home.”

Lexington Pride Festival, Kentucky, June 24

Legislators in Kentucky this year have introduced at least 11 anti-LGBTQ bills and have passed two into law. Both bills target transgender and nonbinary youth, including an omnibus bill that bans gender-affirming care for transgender youth and would allow school employees to misgender transgender and nonbinary students.

JEREMY ELLIS, Chair, Lexington Pride Festival: We used to hold our Pride Fest right in the heart of downtown at the Robert J. Stephens Courthouse Plaza, which was surrounded by restaurants and bars that bank a lot of their yearly revenue on that day. When we announced a change in venue to a park that's well outside of our downtown, people got really torn up about that. Now, we’re moving down three blocks.

We are definitely the largest public event that Lexington holds, and venues rely on that money. Over the years, our event has grown exponentially, to about 70,000 people. It was really difficult to accommodate that amount of people in our old space. The Central Bank Center is 100% Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant, and it’s indoors, so it allows us to be more temperature-controlled.

Lexington Pride specifically is the main fundraiser for the Lexington Pride Center, which was the first Pride center in the state of Kentucky. We offer resources to the LGBTQ community in central Kentucky throughout the year. When most people think of Pride, they think of it as a big party, but it's really our main source of revenue for the year.

Our Pride costs about $150,000 to produce, and sponsorships make up about a third of that. Kroger and Jim Beam are both top-level sponsors this year. We always get a lot of pushback that Pride always seems really corporate, but what they don't understand is: Pride costs a lot of money to produce.

People are rearing to get out and get their voices heard. We've had a groundswell of movement here in Lexington and across Kentucky—people really fighting back. We're going to get more attendance than in the past, because people are more aware of the issues that we're facing moving forward. We really need to step up and fight the legislation against the trans community.

Nashville Pride Festival, Tennessee, June 24-25

MAC HUFFINGTON, President, Nashville Pride: The major thing was the drag ban. How is that going to affect us? Were we going to be able to have drag and if not, what does a festival look like without drag? We wanted to make sure that any information we put out there was truthful and still hopeful.

Of course, the main acts like Fletcher are awesome; you can't leave the main stage acts out. But drag is entertainment, drag is art. We have not put on any drag show at our festival that would qualify under any of the obscenity laws.

I also own two pageants. I'm a drag girl, so I'm just elated that we are gonna have our own stage, and we're also gonna have drag on the main stage. We’ve been speaking with the ACLU and lawyers and other organizations. Pride is gonna put on a legal festival, and we're still going to have our Pride pageant.

Our police department, our fire department, our medical staff, everyone is on high alert to make sure that this is a safe event. Every year there's some incident, so safety has been increased. But we learn every year how to do things better.

We sell tickets as a safety strategy—you have to pay to come in, and there are rules and regulations of conduct inside of the festival. So whether someone LGBTQ or a protester doesn’t follow those rules, we can ask them to leave.

Last year there were over 75,000 attendees, and this year we're projected to have about 100,000. There probably are some folks afraid, but more people have responded, wanting to be in the parade, wanting to be vendors, wanting to be sponsors. Knowing that Pride is going to go on, knowing that Pride will have drag, there's just such an excitement in the air.

With everything we've been through, this year is going to be very historic, it’s going to mean a whole lot to a whole lot of folks who just want to be themselves.

Knox Pride Fest, Knoxville, Tennessee, Oct. 7-9

JOHN CAMP, Executive Director, Knox Pride Community Resource Center: We moved Pride to October last year because we are queer 365 days a year—and because it’s 102 degrees in June. Pride in October means 68-degree weather, and students from the University of Tennessee can celebrate.

We still have about 28 events for June right now, and about 11 or 12 community partner events that we'll be supporting throughout the month. It is still an important month for us, but we saw a profound change with the diversity of folks who showed up at an October festival.

This year, Pride Fest is a march. It's a protest. It's a fest, but it's really important to show a united front. Folks don't always realize there's still a fight left. If we can get everyone mobilized, we can get them registered and out to vote. We can start flipping seats. We're gonna be heard, we're gonna be seen, and we're gonna continue to fight until our entire community feels safe.

What we had decided originally was: If we couldn't have drag performance, if we couldn't have transgender folks that are able to be who they are on stage or in public without risk of being arrested or harmed, then we would have no entertainment. If we couldn't showcase all of our community, we would have none.

We've been able to work out an agreement where the city mayor is very much on board with us continuing Pride as normal. And [Knoxville Police Department] here in Knoxville is also willing to make sure everyone is safe and taken care of. And no one's gonna have to worry about being arrested for being who they are. Our county mayor is a different story, but World’s Fair Park—our venue—is controlled by the city mayor.

In 2018, we had about 35,000 people, and in 2022, we had 84,000 people. The biggest thing that will change this year is it will be more politically leaning. A queer-owned corporate sponsor dropped out just because they didn't want to be political, which is more disheartening than a major company dropping out. It’s sad when it's a locally owned business. Unfortunately, a lot of corporations aren't willing to be on one side or the other.

My question will be—once we get through this year, depending on how political we move—what will it look like next year? The goal is to make as much money this year, bank it so we're good to go for next year. We’re a 501, so we have to be careful about how far politically we go, but we are very comfortable getting us as close to that line as we possibly can.

Phoenix Pride Festival, Arizona, Oct. 21-22

Lawmakers in Arizona have introduced at least 11 anti-LGBTQ bills this year. Governor Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, last month vetoed a bill that would ban school employees from referring to a transgender or nonbinary child by their name and pronouns unless the child’s parent approved it.

JEREMY HELFGOT, Spokesperson, Phoenix Pride: Our Pride Festival and parade is in October to avoid the summer heat, but we will be active during Pride month with a number of events, as well as some civic engagements like Pride flag raisings.

We have a vibrant and very active drag community in Phoenix. You can see a professional drag performance just about every night of the week. We're talking about something that has a very real economic impact on people's lives—not only for the performers, but for the venues who host performances and the people who work at those venues, for people who do the ancillary work: costume designers, wigmakers, people who do makeup and choreography and music for these performances.

We’re excited to present our drag pageants, but obviously there is concern. Drag culture is under severe attack. We've seen toxic actions coming out of the Arizona legislature. Thankfully, our current governor, Katie Hobbs (who is a former employee of Phoenix Pride), has been a longtime ally of the community. She has already made clear that she will veto these bills. It still sends a terrible, chilling message, and it creates doubt and uncertainty for those in the community.

We had more than 30,000 attendees at the Phoenix Rainbows festival in April, and our signature annual event draws crowds at and above 50,000. We use 35 acres of festival space, seven stages of live entertainment.

Part of building safe spaces is the sense of welcoming and acceptance, but we also have to take into consideration physical security. We work constantly with public safety partners at the local, state and federal level.

LGBTQ+ folks are part of the broader community. These are friends, family members, neighbors, co-workers, teammates, people who are ingrained in our everyday life around us. And these are people who deserve the same respect, the same dignity, the same honor and the same rights as everyone else.

The fallout from that has spread beyond the chambers of our legislature into extremist activity down at the community level in particular. These individuals are mobilizing, they're showing up in person, they are showing up—in many cases—armed. It's a very real and serious threat that we have to take into consideration constantly.

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