It’s was a humid, overcast afternoon on the day of Salisbury Pride. Thousands of excited visitors crowded the city’s historic downtown. This summer marked Salisbury’s eighth annual LGBTQ pride festival. That’s unprecedented for a city of 34,000 in North Carolina.
LGBTQ Pride celebrations have been held in North Carolina’s major cities for decades. But they are much less common in the state’s small cities like Salisbury.
The city was built along the state’s first major railroad. It was poised to grow as one of the state’s largest transportation hubs and had an industrial-based economy for many years. It’s also home of the beloved North Carolina soft drink, Cheerwine, and the regional grocery chain, Food Lion. Today, Salisbury is a quiet, close-knit city. Locals walking downtown often run into several friends and neighbors, and know the main street’s business owners well.
This year, Salisbury Pride’s sponsors donated more than $25,000 to help make the event possible. And the festival was bigger than ever, with organizers estimating as many as 7,000 people attended the one-day festival. Food trucks and vendors lined Fisher Street, and energetic drag performers took to the stage.
Halfway through the festivities, Salisbury Mayor Al Heggins, took to the stage and read the city’s proclamation, declaring June 23rd ‘Salisbury Pride Day.’
When Beth Meadows, president of Salisbury Pride, moved here in 1989, she couldn’t have imagined an LGBTQ pride celebration in Salisbury.
“I thought there were no other gay people here,” Meadows said. “I was like ‘Oh my god, what have I done’?”
Salisbury Pride started eight years ago through PFLAG, a support group for families and friends of LGBTQ people. Mike Clawson is Salisbury PFLAG’s chapter leader, and he didn’t see a reason not to have a pride parade.
“We live here. This is our home,” Clawson said. “Instead of going off to Charlotte, [let’s] celebrate our own community here.”
Building A Festival From the Ground Up
After two years of negotiating with the city government about who should host the pride event, the Salisbury Rowan County PFLAG chapter hosted Salisbury’s first pride festival in 2011.
On the day of the first Salisbury Pride, tensions ran high between participants and protestors. Meadows estimated that close to 100 people arrived to protest the event.
“The first Pride was one street long, it was a block,” Meadows said. “We had police vans, we had SWAT, we had fire department, we had ambulances. There were more police vehicles there than we had vendors. I can just remember that day thinking ‘Let me get through this day, just let us get through this day and nothing bad happen.’”
Another challenge for that first pride celebration was paying for it. Salisbury organizers pulled off the first event with just $2,500.
Donations for the first pride came from individuals and small businesses, as well as corporations. A few members of the Salisbury Pride board worked at two significant local corporations, Frito Lay and Food Lion. Frito Lay chipped in to sponsor Salisbury Pride, and so did grocery giant Food Lion, which has its corporate headquarters in Salisbury.
Partnering with Corporations
Even though sponsorships from these hometown corporations were vital to getting Salisbury Pride off the ground, some LGBTQ activists across the country are wary of accepting corporate sponsorship. Fletcher Page, LGBTQ Resource Navigator for the Campaign for Southern Equality, questions corporate motivations.
“Showing up and writing a check, that is not enough,” Page said. “Show me how you treat your trans employees. Show me how you treat your black trans women, in particular. And then, maybe I’ll believe you.”
Page believes that a corporation’s sponsorship of pride might not be a reliable measure of that company’s LGBTQ inclusivity. Instead, he believes, inclusivity means showing up for the LGBTQ community after Pride is over. And he suggests that companies focus on teaching skills that LGBTQ people need to survive, such as offering free classes on applying for loans or budgeting.
Food Lion’s support of LGBTQ issues has evolved over the years. And like many corporations, the company recently implemented new diversity and inclusion efforts.
“I worked for Food Lion from 1975 to 1991,” said Mike Clawson, the PFLAG organizer who first championed Salisbury Pride. “When I was working for them they weren’t so LGBT friendly, at least not here in Salisbury. But I think they just grew as a corporation. Food Lion has always been a sponsor of PFLAG events and pride events.”
Today, Food Lion facilitates a group for their LGBTQ employees. One member of the Salisbury Pride board, Maryja Mee, is chair of Food Lion’s Friends Business Resource Group and believes the company has good intentions.
“We're just part of Salisbury. I don't think they're looking for anything more than to be supportive of Salisbury Pride,” Mee said. “I'm very proud when I'm working a festival and somebody comes up and says, ‘I didn't know you were supportive!’”
Food Lion did not respond to WUNC’s requests for comment.
Placing Southern LGBTQ Organizing in Perspective
In a small city like Salisbury, finding the funds to sustain long-term LGBTQ organizing can be difficult. Reverend Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, the Executive Director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, says that there is a lack of resources for LGBTQ organizing in small cities and towns in the South.
“We still see very limited resources moving into organizing that’s happening in small towns, cities and rural areas,” Beach-Ferrara said. “You’re kind of out there in the wilderness. You’re trying to launch an LGBTQ org in a community where there’s never been one, where you’re going to face a lot of political hostility.”
Beach-Ferrara explained that finding funds for Salisbury Pride is very different than fundraising for San Francisco Pride, or even nearby Charlotte Pride. She says that rather than asking whether taking funding from corporations is the right thing for LGBTQ organizers, we need to think about what it takes to make LGBTQ organizing work in long-term in the South and in communities beyond major urban areas.
“You have to be scrappy and you have to say, 'What relationships and resources do I have in my life and my network that we can engage in this work'?”
Beth Meadows says she has seen Salisbury become a safer and more accepting place for LGBTQ people over the past eight years.
“I think we as Salisbury Pride have made that happen in our community where people can feel safe being themselves,” Meadows said.
After Beth and her partner Julia packed up their car to leave the Salisbury Pride after party, Meadows added: “I kissed her before we got in the car. We just don't even think about it anymore. Eight years ago, you couldn't do that.”