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This must be the place: Ode to Sylva Pride, ode to all the colors of the rainbow

Matthew Shepard. (photo: Gina van Hoof) Matthew Shepard. (photo: Gina van Hoof)

Kudos to the town of Sylva for hosting its inaugural Pride celebration this past Saturday in downtown. A day filled with activities, a parade and drag shows all in the name of showcasing and uplifting the LGBTQ+ community that lives and works (and thrives) in our mountain communities. 

A week prior to the Pride celebration, I found myself at the Innovation Station in Dillsboro for a concert to memorialize a dear friend who unexpectedly past away in a car accident earlier this year. That said, as I sipped my beer and mingled with any and all within reach, I found myself in conversation with one of the organizers of the Pride celebration. 

He and I chatted at-length about how great it is to see local residents, whether long-time or new to the area, coming together in solidarity of others who are simply wanting to not only be heard and accepted by their peers, but also, well, loved and embraced as an equal — something at the core of what it means to be human. 

On the drive back to my humble abode in Waynesville from Dillsboro, I kept thinking about how amazing it is to be living in a time when we are not only having a Pride celebration, but also how excited a rural Southern town is to do so, and in plain sight on Main Street and in Bridge Park. This is a far cry from where we stood as a society just a couple of decades ago. 

As a 36-year-old white heterosexual male, I was lucky to be raised in a progressively-minded household. Although my parents were children of the 1940s and 1950s, they both came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, a time period of great social and cultural upheaval — for civil rights, for women, for LGBTQ+ folks, for any and all that felt wrongly displaced or discriminated against in society. 

My mother was (and remains) a vibrant Flower Child of the 60s, while my father, although rough around the edges in his old-school ways, has a heart of gold when it comes to standing up for others who are being treated unfairly, and for what is right in the grand scheme of things. 

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Growing up in the rural North Country, most people around me were the same — white, French or Irish, with many not really ever being exposed to people, places and things different from their daily lives and realities of blue-collar work, drinking at the same neighborhood bar with the same faces on the weekends, and the sporadic spring trip to a beach town either named Myrtle or Daytona. 

Rev up the snowmobile when a winter storm hits. Load up the deer rifle for hunting. Sort out the tackle box for fishing. Buy the 12-pack of Labatt Blue. Cheer on the New York Giants come Sunday. And, most importantly, don’t rock the boat when it comes to being different, let alone someone who is gay and perhaps living in fear of being outed. 

Truth? If you were gay in my Upstate New York hometown, you kept your mouth shut until high school graduation (this was during the late 1990s/early 2000s), where you’d leave town a day later to start a new life in another town, city or state. And always with the thought in mind that maybe someday you’d circle back to that cow town as your true, beautiful self — in hopes the mindset of all who were familiar as a child and teenager had changed for the better. 

As a kid and teenager of the 1990s/2000s, I think of Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old college student who was beaten, tortured and killed in Wyoming in 1998, how I saw the fence he was tied to on the evening news, and it impacted me. It was this sense of deep sadness and sick-to-your-stomach feeling when you’d watch the interviews with his grieving mother, the question of “Why?” posed to such a horrible thing happening to a kind, innocent soul. 

I think of when Ellen DeGeneres came out on national television in 1997 on her sitcom, “Ellen,” and how groundbreaking that was. And then, there was “Will & Grace,” and how pop culture started to (finally) normalize the presence of gay actors and entertainers in the industry. 

And that same could be said about gay musicians/artists (back then Melissa Etheridge, nowadays Lil Nas X) and political entities (back then Barney Frank, nowadays Pete Buttigieg), who finally felt the courage to come out of the darkness and into the light. 

I think of when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage in 2003, and how the divisive issue was all the mainstream news was talking about (or arguing about) for years (and to this day, to be honest). And how, one-by-one, we’re currently at 37 states who have also legalized gay marriage (13 still have a same-sex marriage ban). Society is shifting, albeit slowly, and all for the betterment of humanity to come together as one. 

But, mostly, I think of all of my LGBTQ+ friends that I’ve made thus far. These cosmic beings of personality, perspective and passion. Each has walked a long, hard road, with a lot left to travel. And yet, the progress is real, and tangible. We are so many steps ahead of where we used to be (still so many to go). But, the voices of the disenfranchised are being heard, and being supported — more and more with each passing day. 

Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.

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