Rounding off the events of Pride Week, the annual South Carolina Pride Parade and Festival is, by some measure, the largest public celebration of the LGBTQ community in the state, drawing in tens of thousands over the course of a single day.
Located in downtown Columbia, the Parade begins at noon and marches past the Statehouse. The Festival follows and lasts until the sun goes down.
For over a quarter-century, Pride has provided visibility and a sense of place to some of Columbia's most marginalized communities, increasing in scope and scale as the years progressed. (It was originally called the South Carolina Gay and Lesbian Pride March in 1989, and has since expanded to include many other groups.)
This past Saturday marked the 26th anniversary of the event and was the first Pride since the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was legal on a national level.
Two questions remain: how has Pride changed and how will it move forward?
Protesters and the parade
Thirty minutes before the parade, Harold Geddings stood on the State House grounds in a pink wig, high heels and a Soviet-style jacket. Standing around seven feet tall with heels, he held a colorful and carefully-penned poster: “Homosexuality Prevents Abortions.”
Some distance behind Geddings, a small group of white men huddled in a circle, heads bowed in prayer. Colorless signs leaned against their knees: “1 Man + 1 Woman = Marriage” and “Pride goeth before destruction.”
Every year, a dwindling contingent of protesters stand silently alongside the SC Pride parade on the Statehouse side of Gervais St., rebelling against the rise of what they call “alternative lifestyles.”
On the invitation of a friend named Twitch, Geddings intended to protest the protesters. The Soviet uniform — replete with Russian military medals imported from Ukraine — was his way of gleefully trying to offend as many of them as possible.
“This is my one big party of the year,” Geddings said later. “[Twitch] had organized this thing on Facebook, basically, to annoy the ‘angry old white men’ as she put it.”
“So, y’know, I can’t pass up an opportunity like that.”
The protesters, primarily religious Baptists, play an increasingly minor role at the SC Pride parade each year. While last year they could more or less line the length of the State House steps, only a dozen or so showed up to protest Saturday.
Jeff March, the 2015 president of SC Pride, said that Pride's message might be slowly getting through to them.
"You can change them one at a time, and maybe we changed many this year, because that was a third of what was there last year," he said. "Maybe we scared them off."
Yasmine Fields, a black, gay mother of one who came out for Pride, argued with protester Blake Lindsey before the parade began.
“Our authority is not us, but the scriptures,” Lindsey said to Fields. “And the scriptures clearly state that homosexuality — sodomy — is an abomination. And we are standing for that principle, those scriptures.”
Fields’ response was swift.
“A Christian is going to be a Christian whether we’re out here or not," she said. "We’re going to be gay and happy and in love with each other, whether you’re out here or not. So you’ll come out, come waste your time with your bibles and your signs — for what?”
At 12 p.m., the parade began in earnest. Two students groups, Individuals Respecting Identities and Sexualities (IRIS) and FemCo, led the parade down Gervais Street, chanting “Hey Hey! Ho Ho! Transphobia’s got to go!”
Following them, in no particular order, were: roller-derby teams, pro-LGBTQ Christian congregations, mattress stores, a miniature train for kids, vodka manufacturers, presidential political campaigns, local political campaigns and a van sponsored by the Richland County Public Library.
The Pride crowd slowly inched out from the sidewalk into the middle of the street, giving out high-fives, hugs and small multi-colored trinkets. Flashes of recognition sparked occasionally between the people in the crowd and those on floats, accompanied by frantic pointing and waving.
All the while, huge roars went up for each new float. Hugs abound.
On the opposite side, the protesters stood silent and grey, signs at chest level, in one straight line.
Beside them, Geddings and other counter-protesters held signs in support of the LGBTQ community like “Love Never Fails” and “I’m gay and I’m proud.” The protesters, as always, refused to acknowledge them.
“They’ve got every right to be out there,” Geddings would say later. “But I’ve got every right to be out there, telling them they’re idiots.”
Soon enough, the parade was over. The festival began.
A festival in transition
Ed Madden, Columbia’s first poet laureate and University of South Carolina Director of Women’s and Gender Studies, has been involved with SC Pride since he moved to the state in 1994.
Since then, he’s served — at different times — as the organization’s president, vice president and secretary.
If you ask him, he’ll tell you that the biggest change he’s seen with the SC Pride Festival hasn’t just been the huge uptick in popularity — it’s the nature of the event itself.
“It’s a civic festival now,” he said. “It moved from being very political to being very entertainment-oriented. And now it feels like a big civic festival, which I think is so cool.”
For three blocks, from the State House to the South Carolina Art Museum, 120 vendors lined both sides of the street. Alongside food trucks, a whole host of organizations set up shop — temporary tattoo parlors, massage booths, tire companies and even grocery store chains — all of them plastered with colors of all kinds.
Courtesy of SGTV
There’s no question: after the Supreme Court same-sex marriage ruling, many companies have felt comfortable coming out in support as well. SC Pride is now a significant economic enterprise, as well as a social and political one.
Madden couched his assessment of the hard-fought triumph for marriage equality in flowing terms.
“It doesn’t mean everything’s over. It doesn’t mean things are solid. It doesn’t mean that there’s not of a hell of a lot of work to do,” he said. “But the landscape has changed — the horizon of what we can do and what we can be.”
Others saw this popular surge and subsequent public investment as a slight disappointment. Johanna Caple, a third-year sociology student, misses the days when the festival was held at Finlay Park, which Caple said had a more “community” feel.
“I wish Pride was a little less corporate,” Caple said. “I saw a flag earlier that had like a TD bank logo on it. It is cool that we’re getting support from big corporations. But I wish it could be more radical.”
Clarie Randall, third-year biology student and president of FemCo, also noted how so many companies were jumping on the bandwagon.
“We had marriage equality earlier this year. It’s just happening so fast and I think, in a way, it’s a little annoying because it’s kind of 'trendy' so of course there’s, like, Mattress Firm in the Pride parade,” she said.
However, Randall’s general outlook is an optimistic one.
“Even if it is capitalistic, it’s a sign that the tides are changing.”
Even though Pride is about celebrating the triumphs of the LGBTQ community — there is no disillusionment about the challenges that the community still faces.
Devon Sherrell, fourth-year political science student and president of IRIS, keyed in on one of the issues affecting the LGBTQ community South Carolina: that of employment discrimination.
“There’s a saying — ‘you can get married on Friday and fired on Monday,’” he said. “South Carolina has no employment protections for being LGBTQ. So, if an employer wants to fire you because he’s prejudiced against gay people, he can do it.”
While Columbia and Charleston have passed LGBTQ workplace protections to different degrees, there are no state-wide provisions as of yet.
With so much participation from USC students in Pride, another issue inevitably rises to the surface: the state of LGBTQ youth.
And few have had as big of an impact on that group in South Carolina than Harriet Hancock, who was honored on the Pride’s main stage.
She was the central figure in founding the Harriet Hancock LGBT Center, which provided a place for LGBTQ youth to go in the early '90s — long before the days when “safe space” became common parlance.
“I think the Harriet Hancock Center has filled that void specifically in the Columbia community,” said OK Keyes, a USC visual arts and design instructor who works with the Center’s Youth Outloud support program.
Hancock, a lawyer by trade, is often known as the “Mother of Pride” and for good reason — she helped form the group that would eventually call itself SC Pride.
“People always want to know ‘why would you get involved?’ because I am a heterosexual person,” Hancock said. “My son is gay and he had come out to me and I accepted him and understood him.”
As president of SC Pride, March understands that there are more problems ahead for the LGBTQ community.
But, as he stood in the back of the VIP lot during one of the few lulls in activity, he took some time to recognize how far Pride — and the country — has come.
“We still have a long way to go,” he said, “but that is so huge because people of my generation never thought we would see [marriage equality] in our lifetime. This is a big day in South Carolina.”
Tears welled up in his eyes as he turned towards the burgeoning crowd, where, beyond the stage, music played and people danced and everyone was welcome.
“It’s not just a party,” he said. “It’s so much more than that.”