HENDERSONVILLE, N.C. (Teo Armus//The Charlotte Observer) - Ashleigh Jackson was scared to come out.
At her high school here, she said, her friends had been bullied, spat at, had food thrown at them for kissing a same-sex partner in the hallway or experimenting with their clothes. One friend, who was bisexual, killed herself.
But on Saturday, Jackson, 22 and now openly a lesbian, sat in a crowd of rainbow flags and painted the faces of little kids. Around her, thirty-something drag queens danced with sixty-something pastors to Madonna and Lady Gaga.
“It’s just been life-changing,” she said. “Hendersonville was very hush-hush and traditional in terms of how you could express yourself... but now there are people here who are speaking up and fighting for equal rights.”
The story of how Pride came here — a retirement community of 13,000 in the heart of apple-picking country, in a county where Republicans outnumber Democrats 2 to 1 — is, by most measures, a sign of the dramatic shift in public opinion on LGBTQ rights that has taken place largely in Jackson’s lifetime.
About two decades ago, a support group for parents of gays and lesbians here met secretly in a church basement accessible only through a back door, out of fear for their safety.
In 2012, a majority of Henderson County voted, like the rest of the state, to ban same-sex marriage in the state constitution. And just three years ago, North Carolina legislators barred cities from passing ordinances to protect gay and trans people — with the support of many in town.
But LGBTQ Pride events have spread from just one statewide parade to 20 counties across North Carolina, from metropolitan Mecklenburg to places like Salisbury and Burke County.
Hendersonville’s first Pride was unique in that it came from a proclamation by the mayor — a response that has yielded just as much backlash from the city as it has support.
Two days before the rainbow-clad drag queens and pastors danced at the picnic, hundreds descended on the same park to pray for their salvation. That backlash, from religious and political leaders alike, underscores the resistance that remains — especially in more rural pockets of the South like this one.
A LONG TIME COMING
Many residents think of Hendersonville, in the mountains of Western North Carolina, as everything their hippie neighbor up the road is not: rural, old, conservative.
“We have some people who pride themselves in that we’re not Asheville,” Mayor Barbara Volk said.
But — as with any town in the 1990s — some residents had begun to come out of the closet.
In 1994, some parents formed a local chapter of what was then called Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, putting out no more than a phone number to the public. For years, barely half a dozen people showed up every month.
“We were in the closet, as far as the church was concerned,“ said Jerry Miller, whose son Keith came out as gay while in college. “But we were determined to keep it going, and we did.”
This weekend, Miller, one of PFLAG’s first members, wore a T-shirt with a rainbow-striped apple—a symbol for Hendersonville — that said: “We’re all the same on the inside.”
Slowly, though, Miller remembers the founding of one gay-straight alliance in the high schools, and then three, and then a coalition of gay-friendly churches. The local Democratic Party birthed the LGBTQ Democrats, and that evolved into a group of organizers who decided that they needed more.
It was the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City, the birth of the modern gay rights movement, they said, and they should have a Pride too.
“We knew it would not go over so well with this community,” said Laura Bannister, president of the LGBTQ Democrats of Henderson County, “but we thought we would try.”
Over lunch earlier this year, Bannister pitched the idea of a proclamation to Volk, also a Democrat. She didn’t hesitate.
“We have LGBT people who are our coworkers, who are our neighbors, who are our family,” Volk said, “and I don’t think they should feel that they are second-class, or that they are threatened.”
Hendersonville police told organizers the Ku Klux Klan would likely show up if they organized a parade, so they planned a movie night on Friday and a picnic in the park on Friday instead. They shelled out nearly $500 for off-duty police escorts.
Some of the more welcoming churches in town preached it from the pulpit. Bannister went door to door on Hendersonville’s Main Street, the site of an annual apple festival, asking businesses to put up posters advertising the picnic. Most of them agreed.
And on June 6, hundreds of people descended on a monthly city hall meeting to cheer — or protest — as the mayor declared Hendersonville’s first Pride Day, 50 years after Stonewall.
OPPOSITION, BOTH POLITICAL AND RELIGIOUS
Travis Parker, the pastor at Zirconia Missionary Baptist Church, said he went to rally outside the meeting because he was offended that the proclamation had effectively put the entire city’s support behind homosexuality — a sin according to the Bible, he said.
“Nobody said they couldn’t have a picnic,” Parker said, but “for the mayor to speak on behalf of all of Hendersonville was offensive to many people.”
The council itself was no less divided. The pride proclamation, said Mayor Pro Tem Ron Stephens, has stirred up more uproar than any other issue in the 12 years he’s been in office.
Like Stephens, the rest of city council — including three Republicans and one unaffiliated member — said they felt Volk had gone over their heads to support an issue they did not feel should get an official backing from local government.
“I don’t know that it’s the government’s job to endorse certain lifestyles and ideologies,” Stephens said. “When you know it’s a hot button issue, common sense says you just generally stay away from it.”
All four of them expressed their opposition to Volk on the proclamation, which only requires the backing of the mayor. And now, they say, they’re working to amend city law so future proclamations must be voted on by the whole council.
“It just doesn’t need to be publicized and supported by the city,” Stephens said. “What people do in private needs to stay in private.”
Parker said he led a prayer meeting of several hundred people at the site of the picnic on Thursday evening. They asked that picnic attendees would “see the goodness of God” and that local government would revert from what they saw as a sign of the end of times.
“It’s a great demonstration of love,” Parker said. “Hate would not be doing or saying anything.”
One speaker at that meeting, according to video posted on social media, called for death to any religious leaders who support gays.
CHANGING PUBLIC OPINION
That didn’t stop the weekend’s Pride celebrations.
On Friday, a crowd watched “Stonewall Uprising” inside the Center for Art and Inspiration, with pride flags and police posted outside. A much bigger group was line-dancing at Hendersonville’s monthly classic car show a block away.
Jason Husser, a political science professor at Elon University, said that North Carolina has consistently trailed the U.S. by about 5 or 10 percentage points on public support for same-sex marriage. But as the country has shifted to grow more accepting, the state has too.
In 2001, about 35% of North Carolinians said they thought it should be legal for someone to marry someone of the same gender. In 2009, that figure had barely jumped to 37%.
But between 2012 and 2017 — just as North Carolina voted in a ban on the issue, and the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land — that support nearly doubled, to 62%.
“A lot of this has to do with LGBT activists being willing to organize, and local authorities increasingly being fearful and hesitant of violating those folks’ ability to organize,” Husser said.
Husser said the shift in public opinion has three principal causes: Individuals have changed their personal attitudes, often after a friend or family member comes out. Younger people, who skew progressive, have grown up and started voting. And particularly in North Carolina, people from elsewhere have moved in.
Bannister spent much of her life in Washington, D.C., where she enjoyed a long career as a landscaper working for the likes of Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Bill and Hillary Clinton. She moved to be closer to her partner’s family lives in nearby Macon County.
“I never dreamed in a thousand years that I would end up being the face of gay pride in Hendersonville,” she said, “but here I am.”
MORE WORK LEFT TO BE DONE
While social scientists have often used same-sex marriage as a proxy for support of the LGBTQ community, other questions — such as gay adoption rights — have drawn less support, according to studies from both Elon and left-leaning Public Policy Polling in Raleigh.
At the state level, meanwhile, advocacy organizations like Equality NC point out that North Carolina lacks protections on gender identity and sexual orientation in housing and employment.
LGBTQ people, they say, are also subject to greater risk of suicide and violence: This month, a black trans woman, Chanel Scurlock, was murdered in Lumberton — one of several high-profile killings like it across the country.
Matt Comer, the communications director of Charlotte Pride, said that smaller towns like Hendersonville may lack the kinds of resources afforded to larger cities like Charlotte: gay-friendly businesses, social spaces, and neighborhoods, medical support, or nonprofit groups to assist with needs like housing for youth.
“There are loving, affirming, welcoming people in all areas across the state, but there are also real discrepancies,” he said. “That’s going to create ripples and waves of change that no one is even aware of yet.”
Contrary to Hendersonville’s city council, Comer said that additional progress can and must come from government itself.
“Nothing is going to change until the state legislature decides that it’s time to change,” he said.
For her part, Bannister simply hopes that next year won’t be as painful to organize a picnic without so much opposition.
And she hopes that picnic can provide some sign to kids in Henderson County — that they can discuss their sexual orientation or gender identity with their parents. Over the mic, she thanked her “500 new friends” and her partner.