Kyler Hall’s first pride festival was as a University of South Carolina freshman, recently “out” as a gay man.
Hall’s family was initially unsupportive when he came out at the end of high school, he said, so he arrived in Columbia unsure of himself.
“I was new to myself, new to Columbia, and it was awesome to be able to find a place where I felt I had a family,” he said.
This year, Hall will dress in drag and walk in the parade at the 26th South Carolina Pride Festival, which organizers expect to be the largest yet.
The festival attendance has increased every year, according to S.C. Pride president Jeff March. He said he expects to surpass last year’s 32,000 attendance.
The parade, a marquee event of the multiday festival, moved from Finlay Park to Main Street four years ago to accommodate the growth.
This year’s festival – against a backdrop of events this year in South Carolina and nationwide supporting gay rights – includes a 5K run and 1-mile walk, kids activities and performances by ’80s girl group Exposé, rapper Trina and four former contestants from the drag competition show “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
“It’s a celebration,” Columbia’s resident drag queen Patti O’Furniture said of the event. O’Furniture has attended the festival for the past 13 years.
“For me, it’s one time of the year that really makes me realize that ‘gay’ means happy. We’re together, we’re happy, we’re honoring the community that we’re all a part of,” she said. “I’m thrilled to be one little thread in that rainbow fabric.”
The mission of S.C. Pride is to support the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community of South Carolina and to educate people on LGBT issues. The group also advocates for equality and inclusion for all.
March said these days, the festival attracts the straight community as much as the LGBT community. “It’s a day for everyone,” he said.
Some people even stumble on the festival by accident and end up having a ton of fun, Hall said.
It used to be that the gay pride festival catered almost exclusively to a gay crowd. Not so anymore.
“You’ll see families who may not have a single LGBT member, but they come because maybe they know a neighbor or a relative who is gay,” O’Furniture said. “It’s a community festival, and we recognize that our (straight) allies are a big part of that.”
At the first pride march in 1989, about 2,000 people marched to the State House without floats or much fanfare. Many of them wore disguises to avoid recognition.
But the courage of those first marchers started a conversation, according to Harriet Hancock, one of the organizers of the first march.
“Sleepy little old Columbia didn’t think it had any gay people till it saw them in the streets,” she said.
O’Furniture said that those marchers were the ones who paved the way.
For me, it’s one time of the year that really makes me realize that ‘gay’ means happy. We’re together, we’re happy, we’re honoring the community that we’re all a part of.
“All of the great progress in our community right now we have as a result of people that have come before us,” she said.
Even with marriage equality being the lay of the land now, there are still issues to address, March said.
“It’s very nice that South Carolina came around and passed marriage equality before our country did. We weren’t last,” he said. “But bullying is still a big issue, and you can still be fired (from your job) for being gay.”
Having a fun, family-friendly and visible pride event helps, he said.
For Hall, progress can be measured by the number of anti-gay protesters that gather at the State House near the parade’s end. He said he sees fewer and fewer each year.
“It’s amazing seeing that as our numbers growing, theirs are shrinking.”
S.C. Pride Festival
Friday, Oct. 23
Official Pre-Party, 6–11 p.m., with DJ Trevor doing the spinning; Marriott downtown patio, 1200 Hampton St.
Official After Party, 11 p.m. until, with a performance from a “RuPaul’s Drag Race” star; Capital Club, 1002 Gervais St.
Saturday, Oct. 24
A Run For Everyone 5K begins at 9 a.m. at First Citizens Park, Main and Lady streets. $35 in advance, $40 on race day
Annual Pride Parade begins at noon. Parade participants will assemble at 11 a.m. at Main and Laurel streets. Parade ends at Main and Gervais streets in front of the State House. Floats must fill out an application.
Annual S.C. Pride Festival is 1-7 p.m. on Main Street, between Hampton and Lady streets. There will be more than 100 vendors, along with performances by music group Expose, hip-hop singer Trina and RuPaul’s Drag Race Hour hosted by Phoenix.
Aftermath after party featuring Phoenix, Roxxy, Jujubee, Phi Phi and Trinity from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” with guest DJ Bill Berdeaux. 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. at Music Farm Columbia, 1022 Senate St., $10
Find out more
Details on other events, including Sunday’s picnic, and highlights: www.scpride.org