Sylva shows community ‘Pride’
Under bright blue skies filled with hot sun, Sylva hosted its inaugural Sylva Pride celebration this past Saturday. Over 500 people nestled into the small, burgeoning mountain town to celebrate and show support for the queer community.
Sylva Pride, the group that put the event together, was created by Western Carolina University professor Dr. Travis Rountree.
“When Sylva Queer Support and Education was forming, I noticed that a lot of our youth — high schoolers and middle schoolers — and folks of all ages, it’s one of the first things they wanted here in Sylva was a pride,” said Rountree.
Sylva Queer Support and Education is a group that formed over the summer in an effort to provide support and education to queer people and allies of Jackson County.
“We’re aiming to make Sylva a better place and create a welcoming environment,” said founding member Chris Bryan.
Drag Queen Danielle Mayes performs at the family-friendly drag show. Hannah McLeod photo
The celebration was a day-long affair. Setup began at 10 a.m. with live music by Shell Lang. More than 20 businesses, nonprofits and organizations arranged tents around the perimeter of Bridge Park in downtown Sylva, including Sylva Queer Support and Education, WNC Aids Project, Southwestern Community College, Western Carolina University, Jackson County Public Health Department and Nudale Adantedi. These groups and several others provided information for attendees and activities like face painting and T-shirt screen printing.
In order to keep attendees safe and comfortable, Sylva Pride strongly encouraged masks and used a wristband system. At the check-in table, everyone was offered a free wristband. A green band indicated handshakes and hugs were welcome, yellow indicated people should keep their distance when interacting and red indicated people should be vigilant in keeping six feet away.
WCU and BlueRidge Pride were under one of the tents at Bridge Park. Together, they have been working to collect and archive the experiences of the LGBTQ community in Western North Carolina in the form of oral history. The groups not only had a station where people could sit and listen to these collected stories, they also had a booth where people could record their own experiences for the archive.
Another group in attendance, Nudale Adantedi, is dedicated to the fight for equal rights for LGBTQ people of the Cherokee Qualla Boundary. Nudale Adantedi is a tsalagi word meaning “different hearted,” or “different spirited.” According to the group, these members “held special roles in our community, were loved, and respected. The EBCI has strayed far from our traditional values of matriarchy and embracing our nudale adantedi kin.”
Following another set of live music at 11 a.m. by the Swing Low Trio, the Pride Parade took place through downtown Sylva at 12:30. Organizers, performers and attendees marched from Bridge Park, up Schulman street, down Main Street and back toward the park on Spring Street.
Before the crowd stepped off, Rountree took a moment to recognize the work and sacrifices made by the LGBTQ community that allow events like Sylva Pride to take place. He noted that pride started as a police riot in Stonewall Tavern in New York City in 1969 as a reaction to police brutality. Rountree says the lives lost and the people hurt during Stonewall, gay bashings, nightclub bombings and the AIDS epidemic paved the way for celebrations like the one in Sylva.
“Pride is gathering here together in this space, in this moment to show love to ourselves and our community. It’s giving voice and space to those who have felt the darkness or oppression that comes with our identities. It’s not only belonging here, but staking a claim that this town and that these mountains are ours too, that we can and will hold ourselves up high and be visible in this place,” said Rountree. “We walk in the street today in celebration, but also to acknowledge all those who came before us. Let’s now move forward in tribute to them and in joyous and steadfast determination and celebration to show visibility and pride for our past present and future LGBTQ community members.”
When the parade turned onto Main Street, it encountered the only two hecklers of the day. One man stood with a sign around his body that read, “Turn to Jesus, Study the Bible.” As marchers rounded the corner onto Main Street, the man began to yell at the crowd, but his remarks were quickly drowned out by the excited shouts and cheers of the parade participants.
Following the parade was a family-friendly drag show at Bridge Park. Despite direct sun and technical difficulties, a crowd of several hundred people waited patiently for the show to begin.
“In being from the mountains, in being queer, in being a trans woman, I never thought that this would happen. The gay rights movement has just exploded, like never before,” said drag show host Buelah Land. “We are here celebrating love and diversity in all forms. In all shades of the rainbow, we are here making a difference, changing hearts and minds.”
As each drag queen sashayed to the stage for her performance, she was met with the cheers and clapping typical to a good drag show. However, new for the queens and perhaps something unique to this show in Sylva, were the obstacles in place for the queens. As they did high kicks, cat walks, floor work and vogued their way around the stage, the queens had to dodge all the children sprinting to the front, eager to dance and hand the queens a dollar.
The inaugural Sylva Pride Celebration relied heavily on community support. Rountree has plans for Sylva Pride to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in order to be able to pay performers and put on entertainment and educational events throughout the year. However, this year, everyone who helped out, performed and attended was donating their own time and energy.
Several businesses in Sylva created displays in their doors and windows as a sign of support and celebration. Ilda Italian Restaurant promoted a cocktail special, “il Primo,” meaning “the first,” in celebration of Sylva’s first Pride event. White Moon Coffee Shop created the “Divine’s Matcha” drink special for the occasion.
Drag Queen Danielle Mayes performs at the family-friendly drag show. Hannah McLeod photo
The crowd at the celebration spanned all ages. Toddlers and young children danced alongside drag queens at the family-friendly drag show at Bridge Park following the parade. Parents held even younger children under the shade of umbrellas and tents, safe from the hot sun. Students and teachers from WCU and SCC showed their support as well.
“I’m here because it just feels awesome to be supported by the community that I go to school in. I just think it’s lovely that they’re doing this and it’s awesome that it’s the first annual one,” said Kinley Cook, a student at WCU.
Cook and her friends took pictures in front of the new mural in downtown Sylva. Across the street from Bridge Park, panels painted the colors of the rainbow and smooth sloping mountains adorn the bottom of the building with the words “You Belong Here” in the center. Main Street Economic Development Director Bernadette Peters and Travis Rountree coordinated with the owners of the building in the effort to get the mural done. Artist Worth LaRose and her wife Sarah LaRose collaborated on the design and creation of the mural.
“I’m here at pride today because this is a monumental moment. It’s the first Pride of Sylva. And I recently also came out as bisexual, so I figured I might as well come and celebrate,” said Megan Gorman, a student at WCU.
“I was super excited about pride because I’m here supporting my two best friends and it is so important to them, so it’s important to me,” said Gorman’s friend, Leila Figaroa.
After the event, as participants drifted out of the park to eat, drink or return home, there seemed to be a collective sigh rippling through downtown — success, support, love. Not only had the first Pride celebration in Sylva’s history gone off without a hitch, it had gone better than imagined. Activists say that change moves at the speed of trust. The inaugural Sylva Pride celebration may have taken place long after some would have wanted it, but it took place right when organizers trusted the community to make it work, right when the community was ready to make it happen.
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I was hoping to join in Sylva's Pride celebrations but couldn't because of recovering from surgery. It was great to read about this extensive and creative celebration. Travis Rountree is a wonderful person and the community is so lucky to have him at work on this event and the archive. Congratulations on a wonderful event.
Send these freaks back to Asheville where they belong.
That looked so cool! Everything I hoped it would be. The only reason I wasn't there hanging with you is I'm a disabled senior and don't have a vehicle. Next time, hopefully!