Under blue skies Sunday, a cheering crowd waving rainbow flags lined Tryon Street to revel in the first gay pride parade in Charlotte in 19 years.
Mayor Patsy Kinsey, as well as two openly gay City Council members, rode in the parade, joined by a marching band, floats, motorcyclists and a show of corporate support that ranged from a double-decker Bank of America bus to the Wells Fargo stagecoach.
Organizers of the Bank of America Charlotte Pride Parade didn’t have a crowd estimate but said the throng exceeded expectations.
Attendance for the weekend of festivities was 70,000-75,000, including 20,000 for the parade, said media chairman Matt Comer. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police don’t typically release crowd sizes for public events. The parade was revived this year after lacking the organization and community support it needed in previous years, he said.
Marcher Ken Wittenaur, 58, a Charlotte attorney, said the crowd was energizing.
“It was amazing to see so many people out here,” he said. “It was a real scene of inclusiveness. It was really touching.”
Wittenaur, married to fellow marcher Russell Leciejewski, said the equality movement is particularly important to the married gay couple. Over time, he said he hopes the parade continues to grow and attract more attendees.
The procession drew a diverse crowd of men, women, children and dogs wearing rainbow collars. It was also a magnet for corporate sponsors, including Bank of America, Time Warner Cable and Food Lion. The backing contrasts with the struggles of the Carolinas’ Carrousel Parade, which organizers have canceled for this Thanksgiving because of a lack of corporate support.
Comer, the media chairman, said the weekend-long festival had about 50 corporate sponsors, about half of which were first-time backers.
Bank of America was the title sponsor for the parade, and a bus packed with dancing employees was one of the favorites along the route.
“We believe that encouraging a diverse and inclusive workplace gives us the business advantage of understanding and meeting the needs of our diverse customers and clients around the world,” bank spokeswoman Nicole Nastacie said.
Kevin Toomb, a UNC Charlotte management and marketing professor, said supporting the pride festival is an opportunity for companies to showcase their diversity and their support for a specific demographic.
“They’re hoping to build share of heart,” Toomb said. “If you can have share of mind and heart, you can get share of wallet.”
At a ceremony after the parade, Kinsey said she was “absolutely blown away” by the Charlotte business community’s support for the event.
“I think it’s great for Charlotte,” Kinsey said of the parade in an interview. “I’m happy to be asked to do it. I would have been here anyway.”
Push for equality
Protesters were not a big presence along the parade route, but a few did make their opinions known.
Richard Pope, 62, waved a King James Version Bible at the marchers as they went down Tryon Street.
“I’m out here preaching the Gospel,” Pope said. “It’s a shame the city allows something like this to go on.”
Many of the attendees welcomed the inclusive atmosphere of the parade but said more work needed to be done to protect the rights of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender population in North Carolina.
Celena Black, 21, of Charlotte wore a sandwich board at the parade to promote Equality North Carolina, a group that advocates for equal rights for members of the LGBT community. In particular, she was gathering signatures to help end workplace discrimination.
“It’s past time for people to be treated fairly,” she said.
Denver residents Jeff Martin, 50, and Dean Green, 49, got married in Maryland on July 27, Martin’s birthday. They arrived more than two hours before the parade to reserve curbside seats.
Martin said the parade was great but added: “I wish the state was more friendly to us.”
In 2012, N.C. voters approved Amendment One, which bans gay marriage in the state.
“We may have to move if the climate doesn’t drastically change,” Green added.