Local gays and lesbians are organizing a new pride festival, expecting hundreds of supporters will join them to celebrate the growing community.

A parade is planned for May 15 in North Charleston with the festival to follow at Riverfront Park and parties held throughout the weekend.

“The point is to be visible,” says organizer Lynn Dugan. “To say, ‘We’re here.’ ”

Various events have been held in the Charleston region over the years, but an annual pride rally has been a low priority, with local gays and lesbians deferring to the South Carolina Gay and Lesbian Pride Movement’s annual event, held in Columbia every September. As lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities in other parts of the state become more visible, smaller events have begun cropping up elsewhere, including Greenville and Myrtle Beach.

“It’s a natural outgrowth,” says Warren Redman-Gress, executive director of the Alliance for Full Acceptance (AFFA), a gay advocacy group that focuses on educating the Charleston community on LGBT issues.

In some ways, it’s surprising that a progressive city like Charleston hasn’t had a pride festival until now. AFFA and other organizations have been working in Charleston for years. In 2006, the downtown peninsula voted against a statewide constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

The lack of a pride festival can largely be attributed to local gays and lesbians not having the resources to focus on the time-consuming project, which includes finding locations, permits, entertainment, sponsors, and vendors.

“Pride celebrations are an incredible amount of work,” Redman-Gress says.

What Charleston Pride needs right now is volunteers to offer their time and supporters to offer their money, Dugan says. An oyster roast fundraiser was held last weekend and several other events are planned, including a gay prom next month at Pantheon downtown. Donations are also being accepted at charlestongaypride.com.

“We’re starting from scratch,” Dugan says, though noting that she’s got a strong team of core organizers already on board and working daily to prepare for the event.

Another reason for the lack of a Lowcountry gay pride event has been the expectation that many in the local gay community might be wary of stepping out to an event that calls attention to their sexuality. That’s starting to change.

“There’s a growing openness about who we are as an LGBT community,” Redman-Gress says.

The strongest indication of that openness was a rally in November 2008, one of hundreds held across the country opposing a gay marriage ban in California. The Charleston march and rally at City Hall included hundreds of participants.

“When I saw that, I said, ‘I think it’s time,'” Dugan says.

Charleston Pride will benefit from having a local gay and lesbian community already organized, through AFFA and other local groups.

“There are a lot of networks in place to support the event,” Redman-Gress says.

Dugan is no stranger to that network, as the organizer of the Charleston Social Club, which hosts meet-up events for local lesbians.

But the Charleston gay community likely won’t be standing alone in May, says Dugan.

“We’re a destination city,” she says, noting that gays from neighboring states or colder climates may take the opportunity for a Lowcountry vacation. “People want to come here, so why not take advantage of that?”

Dugan hopes to expand the pride effort beyond the festival to long-term projects like a gay and lesbian community center and a LGBT seniors program.

It’s too early to weigh attendance, but Dugan is hoping for several hundred festivalgoers.

“If it’s small this year, that’s fine,” she says. “Let’s get it started. It’s time to bridge the gap.”

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