Amid the upheavals, wars & rumors of war of the first weekend in October, 2023, there was a burst of light and fun and even joy, in one seemingly unlikely place — Alamance County, North Carolina. Let’s go visit it:
The occasion was as unlikely as the locale, by the historic railroad station in the city of Burlington, which was the scene of the ninth annual Alamance Pride Festival. It had the whole nine yards: tons of rainbow flags, stunning drag queens, and —yes, they went there— Drag Queen Story Hour— in fact more than one. (But, in truth, they didn’t really last an hour; too many other things to do — “Psst, hey: the Quakers have candy!”)
Alamance County is an unusual site for such a colorfully controversial confab, because it’s steeped in the stale aftermath of The Lost Cause. Its county seat features a tall, defiant Confederate memorial, a long history of KKK terrorism (including two unsolved lynchings), and a throwback county sheriff who doesn’t like voting rights protests, immigrants, or Democrats.
But in 2023 that’s not all there is to Alamance.
And among the hopeful signs is the fact that a growing number of LGBTQ residents there have kept the accents and barbecue, but left their closets behind, or they support those who have, and don’t care who knows it.
And on Saturday October 7, they and hundreds of friends, kids and allies were letting all of Alamance see that they also know how to party. Attenders were urged to ignore any haters, or smother them with effusions of pride and family.
Your humble blogger came in about then, and soon he, with the Fair Wendy and several friends, though not themselves champion partiers, were in the thick of it.
Their Friends were the more important ones, because they were all in Burlington on behalf on Spring Friends Meeting, a Quaker congregation that’s observing its 250th year in Alamance, its second decade of being a welcoming body, and first time at Pride. The emergence of this recent witness evoked some controversy (which we won’t go into now but which is described in detail here.)
One of the kickoff incidents, though, was mentioned in a handout on the Spring booth’s table, of which many copies were distributed.
Beside it were two other significant but little-known others, about a notable Gay Black Quaker:
Bayard Rustin, who was a close collaborator with Dr. Martin Luther King, and who was the organizational genius behind the great March On Washington for jobs and racial justice in August 1963, among other achievements.
Rustin was also arrested in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1947 for a peaceful civil rights protest (riding on an integrated bus south to a segregated public bus station).
Sentenced to thirty days on a Carolina chain gang, he served his term in 1949, and soon published a vivid account of this brutal slavery-like practice, which had been going on since not long after the end of Reconstruction.
Rustin’s report was published in two northern newsapers, and drew wide but too-brief attention. Spring Meeting’s handouts included reprints of this piece of Carolina’s neglected history of racial oppression. (Chain gang prison labor in the state continued into the 1970s.)
Spring Friends kept busy with handouts and conversations. (Some were taken aback that almost no one they spoke to had heard of either Quakers or Bayard Rustin; but the up side was that it showed their work was really needed; Friends were learning that outreach has been a neglected aspect of their witness.)
On the stage, fantastically-costumed entertainers sang, danced, rapped, lip-synched, joked and sat down for Drag Queen Story Hour with large youthful audiences crowded around. Kids.
[Hey, wait — KIDS?
Yeah, scads: babies in strollers, pre-Ks scampering; elementary, hoppin’ and boppin’; tweens, teens, probably college students. Lots of colors too.
But, but, almost all of my church buddies are starving for kids. They’d kill for them. (Well, metaphorically.) What’s the secret sauce at Pride?
I dunno. Let’s see: LGBTQIA+. Maybe it’s something in the Plus. I just know what I saw and heard. Something to be learned there, for sure.]
Not far away, however, much attention was soon being diverted to the nearby fence marking the festival’s boundary.
On the public sidewalk outside it, a small troupe of homophobic Evangelical preachers had appeared, with a bullhorn, placards, and polemics about LGBT equaling a ticket to Hades on the Handbasket Express.
Soon the Pride “counteroffensive” was underway, spearheaded by an impromptu chorus. Below Quaker cowboy Dan Ayers adds his voice and guitar to pump up the volume of “This Land Is Your Land.”
Their lusty singing drowned out several stanzas of the Hell-centered homilies and harangues. On the Pride side, spirits stayed high, and around the stage, dozens of kids sang and danced with the gaudily costumed divas. One Quaker watching them commented, “Nobody’s ‘grooming’ those kids — more like they’re grooming many of us uptight adults in affirming & expressing our real selves.”
The sidewalk preachers finally moved on. But there was still plenty of religion at Pride, on the inside. Besides Spring Friends, there were booths occupied by Unitarians, affirming Methodists, and a United Church of Christ, which had a stunning rainbow banner. One preacher on the inside shook his head at the placards: “I could preach on almost any one of their Bible verses, and make it into an affirming sermon. Jesus and the Bible are way better than that.”
By late afternoon, the family part of Pride wound down. That night, there was an adults-only show scheduled for a nearby tavern. The Spring Meeting Friends, exhilarated but worn out, packed up their booth and went home, ready for a long night’s rest, and then the obligatory (for Quakers) committee reports, including suggestions for their next outreach foray.