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5 Star Stories: History of Mid-South Pride

Updated: Jun. 1, 2021 at 11:33 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Every week we bring you stories about people, places and things that make you proud to call the Mid-South home, and this week’s 5 Star Story is about Mid-South Pride.

Mid-South Pride is a 100 percent volunteer-based, community-driven organization dedicated to serving the needs of the LGBTQ+ community and its partners through community events, activities, entertainment, and celebrations of diversity.

Mid-South Pride kicked off Pride Month in Memphis this year with a colorful and energetic Pride on Wheels caravan parade, a substitute for the usual yearly parade on Beale Street. This year’s route started at Tiger Lane, then traveled down East Parkway to Young, from Young to Cooper and from Cooper to Union. Then, the caravan moved on from Union to Danny Thomas and onward down Beale Street, stopping in front of the New Daisy to show some spirit for the cameras.

The caravan of trucks, cars, floats, motorcycles, and scooters then continued down Beale to 2nd Street. Over 100 units were featured with participants of all ages and backgrounds, including church groups, performing arts groups, museums, high school and college groups, senior groups, non-profit organizations, city and county leaders, local businesses, and corporate brands. Corporate brands included St. Jude, Nike, New York Life, T-Mobile, Ikea, FedEx, International Paper, AutoZone, First Tennessee Bank, Kroger, Lowes, Gold Strike Casino, and many more.

“We want people to feel comfortable,” said Vanessa Rodley, president of Mid-South Pride. “We want people to feel like it’s okay no matter who they are and safety inclusion and all that is our mission.”

But, it wasn’t always this way. Pride is now celebrated in June around the country as a tribute to the people who participated in the Stonewall Riots, which were a series of spontaneous demonstrations by members of the gay (LGBT) community in response to a police raid that began in the early morning hours June 28, 1969 at the Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village neighborhood in New York City.

Customers of the Stonewall, and other Village lesbian and gay bars, and neighborhood street people fought back when the police became violent. The riots are widely considered one of the most important events leading to the gay liberation and the fight for LGBT rights in the United States.

“There was always this cloud hovering over that you could get arrested, " recalled Vincent Astor, a longtime Memphis gay rights activist and author.

He’s also an LGBTQ+ historian who’s seen and heard a lot throughout his years living in the Mid-South. Astor collected a treasure trove of photographs, periodicals, newspapers, flyers and other LGBT paraphernalia throughout the years, and donated it to Rhodes College and OUTMemphis with the bulk of it (28 boxes) going to the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library and entitled the Vincent Astor Collection.

“All we had in the days when I came out were beer bars and the bars were the socializing venues for that time,” said Astor when asked how he became an LGBTQ+ historian. “But I was not a beer drinker, so I drank Coca-Cola all night. So, I actually remember the 70s.”

Pride events were held in Memphis as early as 1976 with a “Gay Day at the Park,” a picnic in Audubon Park that was reported by Gaiety newspaper, a now defunct local publication that was the first to carry articles focused on the stories and concerns of the LGBT community in this area.

“The activism started being organized after the 1979 Gay and Lesbian March on Washington. Two young people, Bill Johnson and Rick Sullivan, came back to Memphis and decided they would organize,” recalled Astor.

That activism gave rise to Gaze newspaper, geared specifically to the Memphis gay community and run by the then newly formed Memphis Gay and Lesbian Coalition, which is now called OUTMemphis.

In 1980, the first Pride Week Picnic was held in the backyard of a coalition member and the first Gay River Cruise on the Memphis Queen II Riverboat followed the next year by the first Pride March from Peabody Park down the sidewalks of Cooper Street to Overton Park.

The 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation was a large political rally in Washington, D.C. An estimated one million people attended and it had a similar affect as that first march, leading to the formation of a new activist group called Memphis Pride.

Astor was one of the group leaders and recalls why the Pride march, which lost popularity within a couple of years, switched to a parade.

“Memphis Pride had been chartered and I was one of the chairs and we decided to turn it into a parade because a march is serious, but a parade is fun,” he joked.

The first Memphis Pride Parade was based in midtown and wound from Madison Avenue and McNeil Street to Avenue and Cooper Street. Pride Festivals and other gatherings, events, and groups followed and floundered. Mid-South Pride was founded in 2004 to continue the work of Memphis Pride, which folded in 2003.

“When I first started with the organization, you know, there weren’t Prides in Arkansas and Mississippi or any of those. So, Mid-South really encompasses this whole area. It’s our job and responsibility to keep the festival and these events family-friendly, safe and be open and inclusive to everybody,” explained Rodley.

Mid-South Pride also hosts a pageant every year, except in 2020 due to COVID-19 guidelines.

The reigning Mr. Mid-South Pride is Justin Tate Allen, a native Memphian with a passion for theater and inclusion.

“I said to someone else that of course I want to uplift my LGBT+ brothers and sisters, but I also want to make it a thing to where it’s not just about LGBT+ people. I want to make it an all- inclusive thing. Mid-South Pride it should be about all of us being free to be who we are, holding hands, enjoying each other. There’s no boundaries there, you know, your sexual orientation has nothing to do with who you are. [It’s only a] small piece of who you are are,” said Tate.

In 2010 when Mid-South Pride moved the parade and festival from midtown and Peabody Park to downtown on Beale and Church Park, organizers said attendance more than doubled along with revenue. The organization could finally cover all of its expenses, and then some.

“Everything we raise goes right back into our events or festival. If it doesn’t, then we donate it,” explained Rodley.

She added that last year due to the pandemic and the number of people needing help to put food on the table, Mid-South Pride donated to organizations that helped fill that need, like the Mid-South Food Bank, Hope House, My Sister’s House, and the Memphis Animal Shelter.

“We picked things that help our demographic in our community but also like, you know, the fur babies because they’re part of us, too, [and] a lot of people couldn’t support their animals and were dropping them off.”

Mid-South Pride also helped with the rainbow crosswalk on Cooper Young when it was painted, sponsoring the color purple.

“And the reason is when you take the red and you take the blue together and you get purple. So, you know, there’s a lot of division, and so we find inspiration everywhere, right,” enthused Rodley.

Pride in the Mid-South has gone from one generation to the next, one organization to many, but the mission of Mid-South Pride remains the same. As Astor put it, “Every year, you will find somebody scared to death in that crowd who’s come from some place rural. Somebody in that crowd, this is their first time and they’re scared. They don’t know what to expect and it helps them. It helps them discover themselves. It helps them. That is the main reason that we do Pride, for the people that have never had that help that need that support.”

Most of this year’s Mid-South Pride festivities are virtual once again since the majority of events were planned in advance of COVID-19 restrictions being lifted.

For a more complete look at the history of Pride in Memphis and a list of this year’s events and activities, click here.

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