S.C. Pride ‘hotter than ever’ as cool weather, sunshine brings out revelers

 

People from all over South Carolina gathered in downtown Columbia to celebrate S.C. Pride. (Photo by Allen Wallace)

People from all over South Carolina gathered in downtown Columbia to celebrate S.C. Pride. (Photo by Allen Wallace)

Tens of thousands of people packed downtown Columbia on Saturday for the 27th annual South Carolina Pride Festival.

The festival set an attendance record with more than 35,000 in 2015. “Hotter than ever” was the 2016 theme, and while exact attendance figures were not immediately available, organizers said the sunshine and relatively cool weather helped boost the crowd and that they hoped to see that record fall.

Noticeable by their absence were the protesters who traditionally assemble at the north boundary of the State House grounds near Gervais Street. Malissa Burnette said she has attended Pride for 25 years and has never seen a festival without protesters.

A group of Pride supporters had gathered at the State House for a counter-protest, only to find they were not needed, as not a single person appeared to oppose the festival.

“We’re so thrilled at the turn of events this year,” said Jen Bailey Bergen, who attended the counter-protest.

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J Britt was in the parade, which kicked off the festival, and was surprised to not see protesters as the parade arrived at the State House.

“It was a beautiful moment that makes me proud to live in such a progressive city,” he said.

The parade included representatives from local churches, LGBT groups, businesses and agencies including the Columbia Police Department, Columbia Fire Department and Richland County Sheriff’s Department.

Sheriff Leon Lott attended the festival and said he wants the LGBT community to know they are welcome in Richland County.

“We want you to be part of what we do. We support you. We’re here for you,” he said. “We’ve got your back. Don’t worry about safety. We’ve got your back.”

Columbia City Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine represented the city, speaking to the crowd on behalf of the council and Mayor Steve Benjamin, who has attended past festivals but was out of town Saturday.

“I know there’s been a lot that’s happened this year,” Devine said. “After every storm there is a rainbow, and I will tell you that the rainbow is here today. We cannot let attacks like that steal our joy and steal our pride.”

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The parade was followed by festivities on Main Street, with speakers and performances from musicians including “American Idol” winner Jordin Sparks, Jessica Sutta (formerly of the Pussycat Dolls) and Erika Jayne of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”

“When our flames come together, we’re hotter than ever,” said Tony Snell, the festival’s master of ceremonies. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from. We come together as one.”

South Carolina Pride President Jeff March said the festival exists “to celebrate the lives of the LGBT community here in this state. We are gay. We are lesbian. We are bisexual. We are transgender. We are human.”

“We have come a long way, and yet this year has been filled with challenges and sadness. We have been forced to defend ourselves on where to use the bathroom. We are still fighting for the right to work as an LGBT citizen, and we were gunned down in the name of hate in Orlando on June 12,” March said. “We have come a long way since the Stonewall riots that birthed what we know call our pride movement. We can marry. We can have families. Do not ever give up on those dreams.”

Devine, like many of the day’s speakers, acknowledged that the fight for LGBT equality is not over, but said she is hopeful that it will be won.

“We know that if we stick together and love each other, love will always trump hate. We will refuse to let hate win here in the city of Columbia, here in the state of South Carolina and in this nation,” she said. “We want you to know that you are welcome here in Columbia with love.”

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