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‘This just means so much.’ Hundreds attend 1st LGBTQ Pride in Haywood County

Haywood County's first LGBTQ Pride parade was held on June 29.
Lilly Knoepp
Haywood County's first LGBTQ Pride parade was held on June 29.

Hundreds of people turned out from across the region to celebrate Haywood County’s first Pride Parade in Waynesville.

Town Council member Anthony Sutton wore a rainbow suit as the grand marshal of the parade.

"When I was growing up and I would walk down Main Street, I thought that I was all alone in the world and it's amazing to see that we have such a vibrant community that is very supportive of everyone - regardless of who they love," Sutton said. The town council approved the parade permit in May and the Saturday event was one of several scheduled throughout the weekend.

Sutton says he is the first openly LGBTQ+ elected official west of Asheville in Western North Carolina. He was first elected in 2019 and is currently serving in his second term.

"The meaning of Pride is that we have to continually fight for our rights to even exist, love or marry the person that we are in love with," Sutton said.

Tera McIntosh is the founder of IDEA Haywood, the “engine behind” Pride, organizers said. McIntosh addressed the crowd to talk about the journey to the parade.

“About one year ago, I stood at Town Hall and spoke in front of a lot of people and I said, ‘I'm tired of going to Asheville to find community. I'm tired of going to Asheville to find safety, to find my people.’ And I said, ‘I'm staying right here in Haywood County and I am building it,’” McIntosh said. “Today you are all building it with us so thank you.”

Waynesville Town Council Member Jon Feichter and Mayor Pro Tem Chuck Dixon also spoke and welcomed the crowd.

Dixon focused on the current political landscape and reminded attendees to vote in November’s general election.

“There are stark choices this fall. We have state, local and national elections that affect all of us in many, many personal ways. And this fall: freedom is on the ballot,” Dixon said.

Dixon referenced abortion access, Social Security, gun policy reforms, and more.

“The freedom to read a book without it being banned. The freedom to live in a world that won't burn up or drown because of the climate crisis.… The freedom to live in a country where no one is above the law. The freedom to go to the drag show of your choice. The freedom to live in a democracy without authoritarianism, racism or a violent insurrection. Freedom is on the ballot. And finally, so important to today, the freedom to live without discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Freedom is on the ball,” Dickson said.

He also announced that the local Tourism and Development Authority launched its first diversity and inclusion program that will highlight businesses in the area. Misfit Mountain has been funded $10,000 to spearhead the program.

As the parade kicked off, Sutton climbed into a white Jeep with his husband holding a bunch of shiny rainbow balloons out of the sunroof. The “Brass Their Hearts Band” played as local businesses, nonprofit organizations and community members walked in the parade passing out candy, Pride trinkets and other branded merch.

Hundreds of people marched down the street while well-wishers cheered, waving rainbow flags from the sidewalk. There were also plenty of dogs – some wearing rainbow wings – in the parade and watching the festival.

There were about five people wearing signs calling for the parade goers to repent. Wesley Stevens from Sylva carried a sign that said, “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. John 14:6 Barberville Baptist Church.”

Police escorted the parade and did not stop Stevens from walking at the end, following the procession. Stevens said he doesn’t consider what his group did to be protesting but, he added, “Jesus doesn’t accept any sin.”

By contrast, several local churches marched in the Pride parade including one person who held a sign with two rainbow crosses that said, “Love does not shame.”

Tony Bayles drove from Asheville to support Haywood Pride.
Lilly Knoepp
Tony Bayles drove from Asheville to support Haywood Pride.

Carrying a rainbow umbrella, Tony Bayles marched just in front of Stevens. He drove from Asheville to support the event donning colorful clothing and vibrant makeup.

“So many people have paved the way so that I can be a gay man and live in any place in the world and be okay. And I can even have a partner, same-sex, and we can love each other and not be chemically castrated or abused or put in prison,” Bayles said. He explained that he was inspired by the young LGBTQ people at the parade.

At the beginning of the Frog Level district, some of the parade marchers held a rainbow banner overhead for everyone to walk under.

Carolyn Burch, Maple Mackey and Phoenix Reyes breezed under the archway at the bottom of the hill. The group of 19-year-olds drove over an hour to the parade, from Hayesville.

“I am so shocked, because even in Hayesville something like this would have never happened. I am just so excited that there is so much love and support in a place like this,” Burch said.

“It's definitely different because where we live it's like there's 300 people …and everybody does not like differences and so being able to come where everybody's different is just - it's so nice,” Mackey said.

The group was decked out in brightly colored outfits including a pink cowboy hat with rainbow beads on Mackey’s head.

“I feel great. There's so many cool people and I love the different styles and everybody seems to come from a different place and it's good to see some diversity,” Reyes said.

They launghed as the band continued to play and bubbles blew through the air.

“I've never been happier to be in a place like this because even in my own family acceptance isn't a really big thing. So, I'm glad to finally see that you can choose your own family, that this is my family,” Burch said.

Nearby a tent labeled “Free Mom Hugs” offered free lemonade and cookies, along with hugs.

Sarah Perkins lives in Waynesville and said the idea was organized by a group of mom friends.

Laney Wilson and her mom Dorthey Wilson posed in front of their "Free Mom Hugs" group tent.
Lilly Knoepp
Laney Wilson and her mom Dorthey Wilson posed in front of their "Free Mom Hugs" group tent.

“My heart is just so full to be open arms to people who may have not received that when they came out. It is very moving and has brought tears to my eyes several times during this parade. So it's incredibly heartwarming and I just feel so alive inside,” Perkins said.

Perkins was joined by proud mom Dorothy Wilson.

“I just wish more parents would open their hearts to children that struggle. When I learned that so many people deal with depression and suicide just because they're queer… Shame on those parents because they should have Open Hearts to their own children,” Wilson said.

Wilson’s daughter was there to help out, too. Landry Wilson says that her mom always accepted her.

“She never questioned who I love, she just held my hand and stood by it and just seeing her do that for other people. It makes me so happy and our house has always just been a safe place for people,” Wilson said.

She says she was the first openly queer homecoming queen of Waynesville’s Tuscola High School.

“This just means so much because as a queer kid growing up in Waynesville, there was never really any representation. There was never any safe space. It's like a few teachers here and there, a few parents and so just seeing how proud people are and just seeing the love that this community has for each other,” Landry said. “It has just brought me to tears and just warmed my heart so much today.”

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.