KINGSPORT — An estimated 10,000 people participated in TriPride 2019 on Saturday in downtown Kingsport. A handful of protesters showed up and, although they were loud thanks to a megaphone, stuck mainly to an area designated for opponents of the event to have their say.
That group yelled at attendees who were waiting in line to pass through a security checkpoint to enter the festival grounds. A handful of well-dressed men, Bibles in hand, ventured into the festival grounds. Organizers said no one was asked to leave. But that group of men with Bibles did exit the festival after speaking for a time.
TriPride organizers chose to focus on the positive, including the participation in the parade and vendors’ fair of multiple local churches who welcome members of the LGBQT+ community. A welcome letter from Kingsport Mayor Pat Shull and booths and sponsorship by many of the region’s largest employers also were touted as examples of progress toward meeting the TriPride board’s goals.
“Pride at its core promotes the visibility of a group of people who have historically felt the need to be invisible,” said George Chamoun, TriPride founder and board vice president. “When you have all the biggest employers showing up, that says this is a safe place for you to work. When you have a letter from our Kingsport mayor, that says this is a safe place for you to live.”
Chamoun said symbolically the number of vendors (110 this year) and sponsors for TriPride showcase the region as a welcoming place. The event helps build an inclusive “brand” for the region. And that is strategically good when it comes to keeping and recruiting good workers and community members, he noted.
“People don’t need to leave and move to Nashville or Charlotte or some other large city,” Chamoun said. “They can live here. We want to show the LGBQT+ community they can live here with dignity and a sense of safety. TriPride will put Kingsport on the map as a safe place to live and work.”
Mayor Shull’s letter, printed in the official TriPride event program, noted, “Kingsport is known for its hospitality, better known as the ‘Kingsport Spirit,’ and we hope you enjoy your time in downtown Kingsport and throughout our community.” Shull described TriPride as “a family-friendly event with kids’ activities, music, giveaways and more.”
Families were a common sight at the parade and festival. One protester repeatedly screamed at one woman with a child of about 8-10 years old, “You’re a horrible mother! Horrible! Horrible! Horrible!”
On the flip side, dozens of women roamed the parade route and festival grounds giving free “Mom hugs.”
There were 17 food trucks in addition to the 110 vendors. Vendors included banks, local universities, artists, and several welcoming church groups, which also marched in the parade. They included Episcopalians, Unitarian Universalists, Presbyterians, and United Methodists (members working with the group Reconciling Ministries).
“We are here to share the love of Jesus with those who are here,” said Rector Johnny Tuttle of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. “There is a deep need, I think, for the church to be present at things like this to maybe start to pay some reparations, on the church’s behalf, for the damage done to the LGBQT+ community. The church should be the first place where the Divine image in every human creature is treasured, for every person is identified as the beloved child of God, and where the love of God is celebrated in all its forms. Certainly the church should say to our LGBQT+ siblings, ‘God loves you, and so should we.’ But we should also look to our LGBQT+ siblings and say, ‘You have something important to reveal to us about the relentless and indiscriminate love of God.’ ”
The Episcopal Church welcomes LGBQT+ people, ordains gay clergy and performs same-sex weddings.
“We’re asking (new members) to become followers of Jesus Christ,” Tuttle said. “That is a significant change. But we’re not asking them to deny who they are.”
Pastor Brandon Berg of First United Methodist Church in Bristol presided over communion at the festival and said: “Jesus invites everyone together and shows us an inclusive way of being family together at the Table. As a United Methodist pastor, I want LGBTQ+ persons to know they are beloved of God, who created them perfectly.”
“My faith informs me that people are inherently worthy beings, regardless of their sexuality,” said Rev. Jeff Briere of Holston Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. “My faith and human decency compel me to accept people as they are, not as I think they should be.”
This year’s parade drew twice the number of entrants as last year. And for the second year in a row, Timberfell Lodge and Campground won “Best Float” for its homage to the 1980s and specifically to the Castro section of San Francisco. Oh, they had a unicorn, too.
It has been 50 years since what is considered the birth of the modern movement for gay rights: the Stonewall Riots, in New York City, in which patrons at a bar raided by police fought back. On Saturday, TriPride 2019 became the first LGBQT+ Pride parade and festival to take place in Kingsport. And police were there, keeping the peace. But festival goers and organizers alike said it went deeper than that when it came to the police presence. They said the professionalism and friendliness of local law enforcement showed how far things have come since 1969.
“Now they are here as our friends,” Chamoun said of local law enforcement. “They’ve been nothing less than courteous and friendly. It is kind of healing some very old wounds.”
The event was held in Johnson City last year and organizers plan to hold it in Bristol next year.