A newly formed online community called “Blount Pride” recently announced the county’s first LGBTQ event to be held Aug. 24. The news led many in the area to ask, “Why hold a Pride celebration here?”
Retired police officer Gibran Cuevas had an answer.
In an interview at The Bird and the Book, where the event is set to be hosted, Cuevas offered a small anecdotal story that could have happened in New York or Miami, where he worked before moving to Blount.
But his story happened here.
“I talked to two homeless girls — lesbians who had been kicked out of their home — and they told me that what they wanted more than anything was to be mentored,” he recalled.
Cuevas said the girls were young and never had an older LGBT figure in their lives.
“It’s one thing to have someone from DCS help them,” he continued, referring to the Department of Children’s Services. “But they (needed) to feel that community and get to see the lawyers and the doctors and the people that are LGBT out there living quiet lives.”
But that was something they didn’t have. It was a social gap the event is meant to fill.
Cuevas and other organizers for the Pride celebration emphasized that though their event is about acceptance, it’s also about getting the word out to people who feel alone, like the homeless girls.
“Maybe not more than teachers, but more than other people, I have a window into hearing other people’s stories,” reflected the Rev. Laura Bogle of Foothills Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. It was her leadership and direction that turned the event from vision to reality.
Bogle backs up Cuevas’s anecdote with a reminder that Blount Pride and whatever comes out of it is about local families and their stories, but it’s especially about young people.
“One thing we know is that when LGBT youth have a supportive adult in their life, the chance of self-harm and suicide goes down drastically. Even if there are supportive adults they may not be in a direct relationship with yet, if they know that, ‘Oh! There’s a whole community of people here gathering who are supporting one another who are living their lives,’ it can be huge.”
That, explained Bogle, Cuevas and fellow organizers Abigail Blankner and Michael Hatcher during a group interview, is why they are helping host a Pride event in Blount County.
A grassroots effort
Blount Pride is not an organization. It’s an event.
But it is meant to bring different local organizations together to support the LGBTQ community, organizations like Appalachian Community Fund and Maryville’s PFLAG chapter.
Bolge said she and others conceived of the event last spring as a significant historical mile marker approached.
“It’s the 50th anniversary since the Stonewall Riots. (We) were really feeling the weight of that history and we wanted to celebrate how far we’ve come and also think about what else we need to do, especially right here,” Bogle said.
She and others put out the word to the community at large and since then more than 40 different people have been in and out of the planning meetings.
An equivalent number plan to volunteer at the event itself, Cuevas said.
“The focus hasn’t been on trying to create an organization,” Bogle said. “But we hope this will be ongoing: a community of people who can periodically hold public, visible events.”
Said Hatcher: “In our initial meetings we talked a lot about ... all of these other communities that were having pride events. And what we said was ‘Well, why haven’t we?’”
Hatcher, Bogle and Blankner all grew up in the county and though they couldn’t speak for the wider LGBTQ community, Bogle said for them, fear was a factor.
“One thing I’m mindful of in our community and other smaller communities in the South is that visibility can be an important thing ... and it can also feel like a dangerous thing,” Bogle said.
She added that living in a time of increased hateful rhetoric towards marginalized groups is ample motivation for a visible, local event.
“I talk about Pride as a protest and a party,” Bogle said. “Some of this is about creating some space for us to feel safe and feel good with one another and also say ‘Hey, we're here. We’re part of this community. We’re not going away. We’re your neighbors, your teachers, your coworkers.”
“Stonewall,” Hatcher said in agreement with Bogle. “The first Pride event was really a riot. It leads back to that time of being able to stand up against the rhetoric.”
The Blount Pride event has been marketed as a family event. It will include games, drag story time and a performance from the Knoxville Gay Men’s Chorus among other activities.
Organizers also have gone out of their way to make sure the event is safe for attendees. Lisa Misosky — co-owner with Catherine Frye of The Bird and the Book — said she’s thankful to have the support of Maryville law enforcement, which will be present at the event.
“They’re a real benefit to this community and we’re thankful to have them there,” she said.
Cuevas, who served in law enforcement for almost four decades, is in charge of security and logistics for the event and confirmed there will be off-duty officers there as well.
Blankner said having the bar as a space to gather is more than just helpful for organizers.
“It’s a real gift,” she said. “It’s nice to have a place where you can feel like you can breathe the air and not breathe in something toxic.”
From local businesses to police involvement, Bogle said it was important for event-goers to understand that Blount Pride’s success reflects a wide range of support and work.
“We’ve got folks in their 60s involved in planning this, and we’ve got folks in their 20s planning this.”
That wide range may not only turn the event into an annual affair, but may lead to something bigger next year. Cuevas said the idea of a parade has been in many organizers’ minds for a while and it’s something they hope Blount Pride can pull off in the near future.
“We’re open,” Cuevas said. “We’re open to the community’s needs and wants.”
Bogle mentioned how other small rural communities in Kentucky and Arkansas are having their first Pride events or have been hosting them for decades. Between a shifting national attitude toward LGBTQ events and local enthusiasm, she said it’s more than a question of “Why in Blount?”
“It’s time for Blount County,” Bogle said. “It’s time.”