By 9:30 a.m. Knoxville promised a clear sky as people began lining up and down Gay St. We all knew the sunshine wasn’t going to stay, the clouds began rolling in by morning and the previous night had seen a nasty thunderstorm. Despite this the crowd remained ecstatic. Everyone was dressed in their brightest clothes and strutted around like glitter-soaked peacocks for the event.
The parade started around 10:30 a.m. and was led by some mayoral candidate (I didn’t bother noting which one) and was followed by a convoy of activist organizations, churches, companies and array of different floats of all flavors. No single parade float out-shined the others but instead seemed to keep crowd enthused the entire time, being just long enough not to drag on.
There were some of us there more focused on the people in the crowd than on the parade itself, however. It was well known that there was going to be a white supremacist presence at the Knoxville Pride event, and the longer they lay hid in the crowd the more daunting the idea of their presence was. Instead of Nazis the only visible bigots were the few bible thumpers reading verses through megaphones. I began to suspect the call to action from the white supremacists was a bluff. It was estimated at least twenty people from the Shield Wall Network were going to attend, but I heard from a reliable source that there were only a small handful of them that actually made it to the event.
Knowing about the low Nazi turnout was like slipping cinderblocks off my feet. That had been one of my main reasons for attending and suddenly I could enjoy the festivities for what they were. I was still annoyed by the heavy police presence (the contradiction of having police at Pride has been well documented) but what interested me more was the corporate display in the parade. It occurred to me when a float passed by that had a banner with a bank’s logo over a rainbow flag that the corporate exposure is a dual edge sword. While it can be good for an individual to know that employers in their community are accepting of them, LGBT pride being co-opted by corporate powers is a method to market towards a younger audience. I have no doubt that a sane company would not participate in Pride if it did not translate into profits for them.
The exploitation of the LGBT culture by corporate powers has been a long time coming. Corporations are realizing it’s now acceptable to co-opt the movement with backlash only coming from fringe groups, and therefore their support for gay culture translates into looking fashionable to young liberals that need to know the corporations that exploit their labor support their sexual preferences.
The appropriate thing for the LGBT movement is to reject any corporate posturing and instead remember the long history of antagonism that the corporate world has held towards LGBT people. This idea aligns with the radical origins of Pride as well.
The radical roots of Pride was not lost on the crowd, either. After the parade ended we all made our way down Gay St. and towards the Civic Coliseum for the festival, and I noticed a good amount of people with shirts and signs referencing the Stonewall riot as well as some anti-police slogans. Knoxville, for all purposes, is a fairly conservative city surrounded by a reactionary countryside, but the festival was a way of reminding ourselves that allies can be found anywhere. Whether in the liberated atmosphere or the strength in numbers over the white supremacists, there was a sense of community that should be held onto by all marginalized groups.
By 12:40 the rain had started and by 1 o’clock they had called a temporary evacuation of the coliseum plaza and we were made to shuffle into the nearby parking garages for shelter. The grounds were soaked but our spirits wouldn’t dampen, and as soon as the rain let up we were back on the grounds for the festival. It seemed like everyone was complimenting strangers and wearing “free hugs” t-shirts (a promise which was universally kept) left and right; it was the most comfortable I’d felt in public in a long time.
One has to wonder what kind of push it would take for Eastern Tennessee to move left of center. There are the inklings of popular progressive movements, but nothing unifying. I doubt that Pride will be the movement to make the push, but it serves as a reminder for the comradery we can show each other in the bleak South. We don’t have to resign into acceptance of discrimination and poverty, instead we choose solidarity. It is events like Pride that bring out that attitude in the community and we should cultivate our sense of shared struggle if we are to make any radical changes. This is something the left should not forget, and for that reason Pride is valuable to all well-meaning communities.