AFTER YEARS of fabulous frolic and family fun in Forsyth Park, Savannah’s premiere LGBTQ event is taking it downtown—and turning it up.
Saturday, Oct. 28, Savannah PRIDE will bring its all-day festival in all its rainbow-festooned glory to Ellis Square, and girl, there have been some changes.
While the celebration is still a family affair, admission is now completely free, with an optional $5 wristband that entitles wearers discounts at surrounding restaurants and bars. VIPs also have an expanded cozy-zone, and dozens of Ellis Square’s hotels, businesses and museums are offering PRIDE-themed deals and programs. (Attention, LGBTQ sports fans, the massive screen at B&D Burgers is in the PRIDE zone and will be showing the Georgia-Florida game!)
Best of all, the music and activities are no longer cordoned off to the public.
“We are literally and figuratively taking down the fences,” promises PRIDE publicity director Andy Shearer. “Everybody is welcome, from the tourists to the locals.”
But don’t expect anyone to tone down the glitter for the masses. The opening ceremonies blast off at 11am, and Grammy-winning singer, actress and gorgeous gay icon Estelle takes the stage at 2:45pm. Vendors and non-profits will be representing all day, and Location Gallery is going mobile with its kaleidoscopic, multi-artist R.O.Y.G.B.I.V. exhibit (read more on page 30.)
Points of local gay history will be presented with high glam and dry wit by the drag geniuses of House of Gunt, leading trolley circuits as Old Guntry Tours. Enmeshed as PRIDE will be with the rest of the downtown tourism scene, we can only hope that this will result in at least one group of confused Midwestern housewives bound for the Paula Deen bus getting the ride of their lives.
Balloons, facepainting and dancing on the benches will provide extra color throughout the day.
“We want to take this opportunity to reclaim spaces and showcase who we are,” says festival director Dusty Church. “We’re re-igniting our pride.”
The current political climate has inspired elevated visibility and unity from the LGBTQ community, and taking a bold stand in the epicenter of the city’s tourist district not only represents growth for the organization but for the city itself.
“It absolutely makes sense that PRIDE is taking that next step as one of Savannah’s special events. It’s the natural maturation of our city as a destination,” says Visit Savannah president Joe Marinelli. “As Savannah grows as a top tourist destination, we expect Savannah PRIDE to be as big as the Savannah Film Festival, the VOICE Festival and other events that bring people to Savannah.”
In addition to the Saturday extravaganza, hundreds of out-of-towners have already signed on for PRIDE’s line-up of special parties and fundraisers, including a Friday night gala benefitting the new LGBT Center on Bull Street. Costumes are encouraged throughout the weekend, especially at the Masqueerade at the Mansion on Thursday, Oct. 26, where the suggested dress code is “macabre burlesque.” (Separate tickets required; check the Savannah Pride website for outfit inspiration.)
Of course, it’s no coincidence that PRIDE’s main event takes place on Halloween weekend.
“Halloween has always been a gay holiday, from the days of the Castro soda fountain in San Francisco to West Hollywood to the ‘gayborhoods’ of every major city,” reminds Church. “We intend to claim Halloween in America’s Most Haunted City going forward.”
Underlying the celebration are the serious issues that continue to face the gay community, and Hotel Indigo will host several panels to discuss living with HIV, resources for transgender folk and the specific challenges of being a gay person of color.
“We must recognize that individuals in our community face biases beyond their orientation and gender identity,” avows Church. “Intersectionality and inclusion are our biggest priorities this year.”
The jubilation around City Market will be sure to hold a bittersweetness as festivalgoers pause to remember Scott Waldrup, the beloved restaurant manager who served as Savannah PRIDE’s development director before he was killed near Ellis Square on the Fourth of July in a senseless act of violence.
Also permeating the festivities is the admonition that the freedom to be out and proud has not come with struggle and sacrifice. Queer men and women have been fighting for their rights, their dignity and their lives long before 1969’s Stonewall Riots.
A long view of LGBTQ history will be presented at Savannah Pride in a series of panels lent by the One Archives Foundation, the oldest LBGTQ organization in the U.S. The traveling exhibit, featuring rare images and documents along with detailed chronology, debuts this Friday, Oct. 20 at Space Cat Books.
“The kids these days need to know about the people who marched and protested, the ones who have been through more than you can imagine,” says Shearer, who witnessed the unveiling of the AIDS Quilt in Washington, DC in 1987. “What you’re living is linked to the past. All of us are standing on someone else’s shoulders.”
Church, who grew up “behind the orange curtain” of ultra-conservative Orange County, CA, also counts activism as an integral part of his identity.
“I graduated high school the same year of Lawrence versus Texas,” he explains, citing the landmark 2003 Supreme Court decision that overturned sodomy laws in 14 states and decriminalized the sexuality of millions of American citizens. “It was a big deal, a big step forward. But then that same year, a gay couple had their house—their private home—raided by police.”
Church found himself becoming more involved during college and went on to sit on the boards of Los Angeles’ storied LGBT Center and Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Foundation and committed full throttle to political activism when a California proposition to ban same-sex marriage made it to the ballot in 2008.
“Prop 8 is thing that made everything matter. The opposition paid for TV commercials comparing us to pedophiles! It wasn’t a choice anymore. We had to stand up and fight,” he remembers.
The Supreme Court ruled Prop 8 unconstitutional in 2013 and decreed same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states in 2015. Yet the fight for equality continues, from the recent edict banning trans people from serving in the military to unctuous bathroom laws and “religious freedom” legislation being considered in several states.
Identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans and/or queer has always been and continues to be a civil rights issue, and that’s the message Savannah PRIDE wants to send as it takes over Ellis Square and paints the perimeter every shade of the rainbow.
“It’s easy to live in a bubble, but here in southeast, you’re making a statement just by being out,” says Church. “This is—it has to be—revolutionary.”