Standing outside of Southland Books on Saturday, at the top of the drive leading down to The Bird and the Book and the assembled throngs of attendees of the inaugural Blount Pride event, I was witness to my favorite part of the day.

Across the street, lining the sidewalk of East Broadway on the north side of the roundabout, gathered a pitiful contingent of white supremacists who heckled and hollered and did their best to disrupt the day’s activities. They failed, of course; they always fail, because while they may feel like “Make America Great Again” will return us to a time when blacks were segregated, women were silent and the LGBTQ community was in the closet, their numbers are small. They are loud but powerless, and even the handful of Christian protesters who came out with signs to picket the event stood a good distance away, lest their particular condemnation be confused with that of their black-clad counterparts.

I expected them to show, and I’ll give credit where credit is due: At least their actions backed up their words, as opposed to so many spurious comments online from individuals who share their fear and loathing but didn’t have the courage or the willingness to stand on the street in the hot August sun and proclaim it openly.

But I digress. They were there, but they weren’t my favorite part of the day. Granted, I could only attend for an hour or so; my youngest spiked a fever on Saturday afternoon, and my 5-year-old was tuckered out from playing baseball, so my wife stayed home while I went down to show support as an ally and a friend. I saw old friends and individuals I know only through social media, and the atmosphere was jubilant and festive. There was a palpable feeling of unity and victory in the face of adversity that permeated the goings-on, but that wasn’t my favorite part.

There were a lot of young people in attendance, teens and 20-somethings who took pictures of the protesters and wandered in and out of the venue and posed for pictures and looked for all the world like they were overwhelmed by the fact that right here in Maryville, they had a place where they didn’t need to be afraid.

My children aren’t old enough to give their sexual and gender preferences much thought, but if and when they ever come out as gay, bi or trans, it will be an honor to introduce them to a community here in their hometown that will welcome them and lift them up. But that wasn’t my favorite part, either.

I saw families with little ones and regretted my own couldn’t be there; I saw couples; I saw allies young and old beaming with grins because they finally had a place to put their advocacy and desire for support to good use. The drag queens were flamboyant and fabulous, and despite public misperception that “gay” is a physical brand that’s easily identifiable, I couldn’t tell, for the most part, who was gay, who was straight, who was trans or who was bi — mostly because I didn’t care, but also because Pride isn’t the outrageous display of skimpy costumes and monstrous sex toys that so many people believe it to be. It was just a gathering of beautiful people who shared kindness and empathy and joy ... but that still wasn’t my favorite part of the day.

It wasn’t the food, because I didn’t have any. It wasn’t the children’s games, because I didn’t play any. It wasn’t the music or the performers, because it was so crowded and loud and hot that I didn’t catch much of them. No, my favorite part of the entire day was delivered by folks who weren’t even there.

You see, across East Broadway, a dedicated group of counter-protesters made up of Pride attendees stood vigil, holding up their own signs and singing songs and raising their voices to drown out the black-clad trolls directly opposite them. One sign was directed at traffic coming and going along that main thoroughfare, and it said simply, “Honk for Pride!”

Every 10 seconds, it seemed, a car would cruise by and lay on the horn. Drivers and passengers would wave and smile. Going toward Maryville or Knoxville, they honked, so much that it reminded me of an afternoon in Lower Manhattan.

Every blast, no doubt, was another cut across the black hearts of those who came to peddle hate. Every honk caused their signs to droop a little lower and made the Pride-goers cheer a little louder. It was, I thought, a marvelous display of support and love.

Yes, those who don’t understand Pride, who assign it some nefarious intent, who use books of religion to cast scorn and excoriation ... they’re vociferous in their condemnation. But their voices, Saturday’s events showed me, are growing less and less relevant. Blount Pride, it would appear, is here to stay, and I speak for a large contingent of Blount County residents, I’m sure, when I say I’m grateful, and that I’m already looking forward to next year.

Steve Wildsmith was an editor and writer for The Daily Times for nearly 17 years; a recovering addict, he now works in media and marketing for Cornerstone of Recovery, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Blount County. Contact him at wildsmithsteve@gmail.com.

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