Here is a photo used today in one of the local newspapers from a time over a decade ago when John, our friend Bryan from Ireland and meself were photographed by the local press as we marched. Long before the local “liberal” preachers who were afraid to be shown we marched, long before the local politicos we marched, long before the politically correct folke we marched, long before the who’s who we marched. It makes one proud in an humble way.
In 1992, the official North Carolina state LGBT pride march made its way through Asheville, marking a major step in the local community’s struggle towards public equality. Photo courtesy of John Yelton
Going public: the struggle for LGBT equality
Asheville held its first gay pride event in 1988. It wasn’t publicized, there were no marches, and few photos have survived of the gathering behind what’s now Club Hairspray.
“Folks parked their cars so that no one passing by on the street could see or recognize anyone,” John Yelton recalls. “Definitely no press was alerted or allowed: It was a dangerous thing to do. Pride? Times sure have changed.”
Over the next quarter century, however, LGBT Ashevilleans would come out of the shadows, demanding equal rights with an increasingly public presence.
In 1992, a statewide pride march made its way through downtown Asheville. And in May 1994, mere months before Xpress’ first issue hit the stands, 1,300 people crowded the Civic Center for an Asheville City Council meeting. Two weeks earlier, Council member (and future mayor) Leni Sitnick had proposed a resolution protecting city employees from discrimination based on their sexual and gender identity, among other criteria. It had passed on a 4-3 vote. The hourslong debate on a second reading saw many locals condemn the LGBT community. Even Sitnick asserted that the measure “is not a gay rights ordinance,” and provisions explicitly protecting LGBT people were removed from the final draft in favor of more general protections. Even so, the measure was approved by the same narrow margin.
Flash-forward nearly 20 years, and the Council chamber was again the site of lengthy debates over LGBT rights. In 2010, some new Council members pushed for domestic-partner benefits for city employees. Supporters said it was a civil rights issue, while noting the LGBT community’s growing clout.
“The gay community votes with its dollars,” then Council member Esther Manheimer said as she voted in favor of the move. “And they are an economic force to be reckoned with.”
The fight was far from over, however, as the measure drew stringent objections from then Mayor Terry Bellamy in particular. Two years later, a more sweeping resolution supporting LGBT equality saw hundreds of people show up to debate the issue and Asheville’s changing values. Ministers such as the Rev. Wendell Runion asserted that this was “not in line with the values of our community.” Bellamy, meanwhile, blasted her opponents, calling some criticism aimed at her “a lie from the pit of hell.”
But supporters also cited the city’s reputation for tolerance. Yvonne Cook-Riley, a transgender Buncombe County native, said, “Asheville has afforded me the right to walk down the street without being attacked; to be with my friends and dress as weirdly as we want while having fun safely.”
And this time, the vote wasn’t close. Only Bellamy objected to the resolution, and afterward, LGBT supporters toasted “to equality” as they marked a significant victory in a long war. Just months later, Ashevilleans ensured that Buncombe County was one of the few in the state whose voters rejected Amendment One, a statewide same-sex-marriage ban.
Local activists have also kept the pressure on outside the halls of government. In 2010, a series of alleged assaults on LGBT individuals led to the first We’re Not Bashful march.
The following year, Asheville became the headquarters of the Campaign for Southern Equality and the site of the inaugural event in its WE DO civil disobedience campaign, which has since spread across the Southeast seeking to overturn same-sex-marriage bans.
The Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, the group’s executive director, said Asheville’s history of activism made it an appropriate base for a regional struggle “that usually gets enforced behind closed doors, and the pain usually stays in the privacy of our own lives. But what’s happening right now is that we are making this story public.”
And Ashley Arrington, the community outreach coordinator of Blue Ridge Pride, stresses that while WNC’s more than 80 LGBT groups have made progress, many challenges remain.
“Youth homelessness, adoption laws, fair housing, gender-neutral bathrooms, health care and, yes, even racial equality in the LGBTQ community are still out there to be tackled, and they can and should be on a local level,” she points out.
— David Forbes
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