Darius Jones’ mom never took her son to Pride as a kid, but he didn’t know why.
Pride, he would later learn, “wasn’t a place for kids.” At least, it wasn’t when he was growing up.
It’s not that his mother didn’t want him to be exposed to other queer people. She wished she could find a place for him to go. But when Jones was growing up, she felt like the atmosphere of drinking and partying associated with Pride wasn’t a place for a 12- or 13-year-old.
“I wasn’t mad,” he said. “She just didn’t know of anything that she could get me into or take me to that involves the things that I like…. Having that conversation with her, she was like, ‘I thought about it, but I would see pictures and I would hear stories and I was like, there’s no place for you.’”
Jones now serves as the president of South Carolina Black Pride. For him, that experience growing up has informed how he runs one of the state’s largest LGBTQ+ celebrations.
Black Pride still has partying, it still has drinking, Jones said, but the four-day event opens with a praise and worship concert and closes with a unity picnic and cookout.
“We’re not party promoters. We’re pride planners, and we organize for families,” Jones said, though he acknowledged they do have one adult-only event. “We make sure that all of our entertainment knows that it’s family centered. So, when you come, make sure you bring music that you wouldn’t mind your children listening to.”
SC Black Pride isn’t alone in this. A new festival, Park Circle Pride in North Charleston, held a queer youth fest that was only for people 18 and under. And Pride Myrtle Beach, planning its big event for October, has considered adding a bounce house because so many parents and children attended the last Pride event in 2019.
Across the state, more LGBTQ+ organizations are growing their support for queer youth and catering to them at prominent events.
“Getting to see each other and appreciate each other and feel completely accepted and safe is still so important, even in 2021,” said Colleen Condon, a lawyer who also serves as president of the queer advocacy organization Alliance for Full Acceptance.
A year without Pride
Like so many other events last year, the coronavirus pandemic canceled most LGBTQ+ Pride festivals, parades, marches and events in South Carolina and across the globe. Since its inception in 1970, Pride has centered around gathering hundreds to thousands of queer people together to increase visibility of the community and show that they were not going to simply fade away.
Everything about COVID-19, however, made such gatherings extremely dangerous.
Yet, Pride still serves a very important purpose more than five decades later. The event brings queer people together in a way few other events or spaces do. It connects people to advocacy organizations, to health care, to support groups.
For queer youth, Pride is often one of the few times when they can be themselves.
The coronavirus pandemic shut down Pride. It closed in-person support at organizations like the Harriet Hancock Center in Columbia and We Are Family in Charleston. It cut off queer youth, in particular, from their friends, from schools — people and places that can be lifelines for their mental health and safety.
“Our younger generation of LGBTQ brothers and sisters, they use those venues, bars, clubs and hangout spots to escape some of the heartache and pain that they’re going through at home,” said Jones, the organizer of Upstate Black Pride. “A lot of my thought process was around what is going on with the children that are at home? Our brothers and sisters are at home with parents who don’t accept who they are.”
Most notably, Pride is one of the few times when having an LGBTQ+ identity is the norm, rather than making you an outsider.
“There are a lot of people who’ve been very hesitant about going back out and getting to see people,” Condon said. Noting how queer people, and particularly queer youth, have extremely high rates of depression and suicide, she said, “Having that opportunity, I think was really something that honestly is going to be a lifesaver.”
An ‘easy target’
Pride returns this year after four years of the Trump administration issuing policies that undermined the queer community, such as banning transgender people from the military, and a South Carolina legislative session that saw numerous bills against trans youth.
Domenico Ruggerio, the new director of the Charleston queer youth support organization We Are Family, said the slew of anti-transgender legislation seen in South Carolina this year and around the country comes from the fact that trans youth are “an easy target.”
South Carolina lawmakers sought this year to bar doctors from providing gender-affirming health care to minors and prevent transgender girls from competing in K-12 school sports. Their argument has been that children are too young to make such decisions, or that the care is dangerous, though many medical experts and the American Medical Association have stated the opposite.
“It’s absolutely, absolutely been a tough year,” Ruggerrio said. “If you see all of the legislation coming from Columbia that targets the very existence of trans youth in sports and things like that. It takes a toll on youth and highlights the importance of these spaces for them to find a community where their very existence isn’t put into question.”
Both issues failed to even make it out of committee in the face of intense opposition from Democrats, LGBTQ+ activists and state Superintendent Molly Spearman.
Involving children, families in Pride
Ruggerrio said the best way to serve queer families and young people is to involve them in planning services at advocacy organizations and Pride events. The board of We Are Family includes people in their 20s, who just recently spent time navigating life as a queer youth, he said.
“By centering their experiences and by offering support and resources for those members of our community, one, everybody wins, but it also actively signals to them that we hear you and we’re here to support you,” Ruggeriosaid.
Pride isn’t just for queer families. Organizers of events around the state said they love seeing straight couples, especially those who bring their children with them. The exposure helps grow acceptance of the community, said Ivy Hill, the executive director of Gender Benders, a grassroots organization for transgender and gender diverse people in the Southeast.
“Bias is a habit. We can break those habits,” said Hill, who uses they/them pronouns. “One way that we can do that is by getting involved and getting to know more trans and queer people, understanding that there’s nothing there to be scared of or afraid of. Bringing your kids out, showing up to events, getting involved with the community can also have a huge impact on folks who are not trans or queer people.”
Several straight couples attended OutFest and brought their young children with them. While they didn’t know if their children would ever be part of the LGBTQ+ community, they said it was important to expose their kids at a young age to queer people and “normalize” being different.
“Most people who are anti-gay, it’s because they were taught young by their parents that that’s not right,” said Holly McGee, who brought her two sons Ruben, 3, and Cane, 2. “Teach them young that love is love and hopefully they grow up thinking the same.”
Another couple, Katie Mello and Sam Perry attended Outfest with their son, Oliver, for the first time after moving to Columbia a few months ago from Pennsylvania. Perry said she was so excited to hear about the event because she wasn’t sure how welcoming South Carolina was to queer people.
“When we came down here, we didn’t expect anything like this. You hear about the South” and don’t expect it to be welcoming to queer people, Perry said. “This is impressive.
Mello said they hope their child never has to “come out.” She said she hopes son can just bring home a partner someday and not have to worry about labeling himself or struggling with his identity.
“He can just show me his true self without having to explain it,” she said.
Park Circle Pride’s queer youth fest featured a “friendship cruise,” where children and teens were paired up with a partner for the rest of the day’s events, a disco and board games at a Condon’s law.
Simon Cantlon, the organizer of Park Circle Pride, said having these kid-focused events was so important to him because he saw how Pride in its early days was only for people 21 and up, and the queer support outside of it was lackluster, or nonexistent.
“In the 80s, there was nothing. There were no resources. There were all these stereotypes: gay men were hairdressers or interior decorators,” Cantlon said. Now when queer youth attend Pride, they can meet role models from a range of careers and experiences. “I’m glad that times are changing because when I was in my early 20s, gay pride was not for anyone under 21, like unless you had a fake I.D.”
For Jones, having youth-centered offerings is simple: We have a host of youth across the state that not just need our guidance and need our attention, but also need an outlet to be a youth, a child.”
Condon was proud of how the youth fest turned out, but next year she wants to provide more for the parents who bring their children to Park Circle Pride.
“I’m going to make sure we have an event specifically for parents during the same period of time, because some parents are so super supportive and brought their kids up here but then they’re like, ‘Well, now, what do we do?” Condon said.
Hill, whose organization offered a range of virtual services during the pandemic, said they hope to see more “hybrid” queer events in the future. While being forced to go online for the last year and a half wasn’t ideal, Hill said doing so made connecting with fellow members of the queer community much more accessible.
“We would do our community a real service to take some of those lessons that we learned from COVID, having to be digital, as we move back to in-person events, to still take those lessons about accessibility and not leave out those folks who have just really been able to connect with the community since everything was virtual,” they said.