Dozens of rainbow flags flew over tents and adorned clothing while drag kings and queens performed on stage in June to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community during Columbia's Outfest.
People said they attended the event to connect with other members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
“(Outfest) is a great way to meet people who have similar interests and are going through the same things that you are," USC alumni Chad Tyndall said. "As a queer individual, especially when you are young, it’s harder to feel accepted. So that’s why we’re out here — to show support and to show that it's okay.”
Attendees said that events like Outfest and Columbia’s Famously Hot Pride Parade as well as one of the local gay bars, PT’s 1109, are some of the most accepting and positive environments for queer individuals. For some, these places represent a safe place not found in other parts of their lives.
“I grew up being closeted, and I still am with parts of my family and it just feels so good to come out here and be exactly who I am,” biology graduate student Kristiaan Merritt said.
While those interviewed agreed with the positive environment created for LGBTQIA+ people at pride events, there were more mixed opinions about the support of the wider Columbia community. Some saw Columbia as growingly supportive.
“It’s kind of shocking how many people support the gay community here in Columbia because it is South Carolina,” alumna global studies student Caroline Bevis said. “All of us are able to come together and support each other, and it’s a beautiful thing.”
Meanwhile, others think that Columbia still has further to go before creating a truly safe environment for queer people.
“Within the LGBTQ community, there is support that is very divided, very casual,” Clay Owens, an Outfest attendee, said. “I would say that South Carolina has a surprising amount of tolerance ... but I think we’re still in a huge amount of discrimination and misunderstanding.”
For some, the solution to this problem lies in taking more direct political action against anti-queer legislation.
“We are living in a state that just banned trans people from participating in sports in all their schools, especially because they're trying to push a budget now to ban LGBTQIA books,” Sarah Raysor, an Outfest participant, said. “I just wish this sort of crowd, this sort of energy happened whenever our laws and government are directly attacking us.”
Gov. Henry McMaster signed a bill in May banning transgender women from participating in women’s sports.
Multiple people also mentioned increasing safety by implementing a hate crime bill as South Carolina is one of only two states without one. Others think change can come through an increase in the visibility of the LGBTQIA+ community in Columbia and an emphasis on inclusive education for people of all ages.
“I just don't want people raising their kids and looking at gays and stuff as the problem or anything because I'm a nanny,” Ben Jackson said. “So I try to teach them that it don't matter how your hair is, whatever, it’s not ‘This is a girl shirt.’ ‘This is a boy shirt.’”
Anna Flynn, a 2015 USC alumna, said that USC was active in putting on LGBTQIA+ events like Birdcage and Drag Fest during her time at USC, but that she hopes to see the university do even more.
“Expanding upon the visibility ... in just the clubs and groups that are offered at USC. The classes that are offered, I think a lot of them should be a lot more focused on LGBTQ+ issues,” Flynn said. “So I think there are some steps being made towards that, but there needs to be a lot more.”