CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Estimates that Charlotte’s annual Pride Festival would draw 55,000 to uptown this weekend might have been on the low side, given the thousands who converged Saturday afternoon on Tryon Street.
It was standing room only along the three blocks of Tryon hosting the festival, with tens of thousands more expected later in the day for live shows featuring nationally known entertainers such as Grammy Award-winner Mya.
Activities continue Sunday with the first gay pride parade held in Charlotte in 19 years.
The two-day event is billed in advance as the largest gathering of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender individuals ever in the Carolinas. It is also considered groundbreaking for Charlotte because the parade on Sunday will feature for the first time a sitting city mayor, Patsy Kinsey, as well as two openly gay City Council members.
“Enjoy your pride!” a smiling Stephany Mahaffey, a 32-year-old Charlotte resident, told complete strangers Saturday, as they squeezed past her on the street.
“This is about people getting together, finding a sense of community and being safe. It’s about letting them know it’s OK to be gay, and ignoring those who say otherwise.”
Many took that idea to heart, showing up in all manner of gay pride regalia, including two male models who wandered in nothing but bikini-style underwear. Their pair was promoting a line of clothing by designer and Bravo TV personality Andrew Christian, who also attended the festival.
“What am I most worried about?” said model Jon Varak, 22, of Tennessee, as he stepped into the crowd of gawking men. “Sunburn and tan lines.”
Matt Comer, who is among the event organizers, said crowds were running better than expected Saturday afternoon and speculated the event attendance might surpass crowd expectations.
Protesters were also in attendance – about 30 on Saturday afternoon. They carried signs condemning the LGBT community and passed out information, and at least one stood in the middle of the intersection of Tryon Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, holding a 5-foot-tall crucifix made of aluminum siding.
Arguments with protesters erupted on occasion, but no arrests were reported early in the day, Comer said.
A team of 25 volunteers called Partners In Peace wandered through the crowd, defusing arguments before they escalated. Mahaffey was part of the team.
“We’ve had some arguments, but it’s been going OK. It’s tough for some to take it when someone is standing right there, condemning them,” she said.
“When the protesters get too loud, we sing ‘Yes, Jesus Loves Me’ to drown them out. It works.”