In its six years of festivities highlighting the local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, the Charleston Pride Festival has never had so many reasons to celebrate.
For the first time, the festival will hold a same-sex wedding expo Saturday, thanks to the Supreme Court ruling in June that gave lesbian and gay couples the right to marry. And earlier in the day is the annual Pride parade and rally that will surely have an extra spring in its step considering all the recent strides toward acceptance, including the public transition of Olympian Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, into a woman.
The fight certainly isn’t over, but many agree: This is a watershed moment that could topple many other obstacles standing in the way of full equality for the LGBT community.
But as many take part in the celebrations this year, they’re also reflecting on what all these changes mean for queer culture in Charleston, particularly in the realm of nightlife and entertainment. Local gay bars and longtime members of the LGBT community are beginning to notice that they may have to adapt as queer culture ebbs closer to the mainstream.
Harlan Greene, an archivist at the College of Charleston and author of several books dealing with LGBT culture, remembers what it was like to be a gay man in Charleston in the 1970s, when social life for the LGBT community was based entirely on whispers.
“Years ago, long before the Internet, the Battery was ... where gay people could meet, and then as soon as you met one gay person, it was a word-of-mouth culture,” he said. “I think that’s how I first found my gay bar, it was just hearing about it from someone else.”
Often, gay men and women were directed to unmarked pubs on lower King Street. “And then it was mustering up the courage to open the door,” Greene said.
So, was it risky?
“Oh sure, there were always the hoodlums driving around, basically wanting to ... the phrase was ‘roll a queer,’” he said. “People would get beaten up, jumped, you know just by being at the Battery late at night. And sometimes, you would get the verbal assaults out of car windows and that kind of thing, either in front of the bars or basically at the Battery.”
From this perspective, you can see why the realm of nightlife and entertainment is bound to the LGBT community’s cultural identity. For so long, gay nightclubs were the only safe havens, not just in Charleston, but around the globe.
It’s where men could feel comfortable dressing or performing in drag, or speaking openly about the latest national movement pushing for equality.
A major turning point for Charleston’s queer culture, according to Greene, came in the late ’70s when the Garden and Gun Club opened on lower King Street. It was a large, upscale dance hall where the Belmond Charleston Place hotel is today.
Spoleto Festival USA had just launched in downtown Charleston, so the nightclub often hosted unofficial after-parties, and soon it became the headquarters of Charleston’s young, creative class.
“That was Charleston’s first really successful mixing bar, and that’s where people realized, ‘Oh, we’re just coming to have a good time, and it’s OK if you’re gay or straight,’” Greene said.
By the 1990s, the Garden and Gun Club had come and gone, and you still “had to know where you were going” to find most gay bars, according to Toby Holiday, a bartender at Dudley’s on Ann Street, but it wasn’t as risky as it was a decade or two earlier.
“There wasn’t a lot of ruckus,” he said. “There were areas of town where you didn’t go, like you didn’t go to Market (Street) because that’s where the rednecks hung out.”
But a visible queer culture had begun to emerge on King Street south of Calhoun, where most gay and gay-friendly bars were concentrated.
“There was an area on King Street where you had ... drag queens on the street, you had college kids, hippies and punks. And everybody was kind of in the same genre and it was kind of a safe place,” he said.
The Arcade on Liberty Street became another popular mixing bar that had assumed the role that the Garden and Gun Club played in 1970s.
“It was a beautiful dance club where everybody was accepted,” Holiday said.
Today, most of those bars on lower King Street have been replaced by retailers or other businesses. The city’s nightlife has migrated to upper King Street, a stretch of upscale restaurants and bars where many in the LGBT community said they feel accepted, generally speaking.
But many also said since they’re more accepted in Charleston’s nightlife scene, they don’t feel as connected on a social level within their community.
“Everybody can go everywhere now ... which I think is wonderful. But at the same time, with acceptance, you lose a sense of identity,” Holiday said. “It used to be that if you were gay, you could really only go to the gay bars ... and if there were only a few places you could go, the party was a lot bigger.”
Still, the need for gay bars isn’t going away. Many are just finding ways to adapt with the times.
Dudley’s, for instance, has been a gay bar in Charleston for more than 30 years, but only recently has it become a popular nightlife destination for LGBT and straight people alike.
That’s partly because of Daniel Brinker, who bought the bar in 2012 and quickly came up with ways to breathe new life into the small pub on Ann Street.
First, he took down the dark, tinted windows and replaced them with large, clear ones at the front of the room. Then he changed the slogan to “Charleston’s everybody bar.”
Neither change was embraced by the older, longtime patrons of the club.
“To even have windows at all, even if they were tinted, was still a big deal five or six years ago,” Brinker said.
Older patrons also said the new slogan contradicted the bar’s purpose: to be a hub for the LGBT community.
“Which it obviously is. It’s just not really advertised like that, I guess,” Brinker said. “I was just trying to open it up. If we’re going to try to be equal to everybody, then we shouldn’t have a bar just for gay people.”
Another thing Brinker brought in was a drag show every Thursday night, which packs the house almost every week, he said.
It’s hosted by Patti O’Furniture, a comedic drag queen played by Pat Patterson, a theater professor at Midlands Tech in Columbia.
Patterson said he thinks straight people comprise about a quarter of his audience each week, which he said is much different than it was a decade or so ago at most drag shows. Still, it illustrates that drag queens and gay bars are still relevant in society.
“I think there will always be a place in the community for drag queens as long as there’s a need for people to be entertained,” he said. “I do think that the drag queens’ styles will probably evolve.”
While his shows are mostly stand-up routines, he often draws the audience’s attention to certain causes, encouraging them to make donations to organizations doing work for the LGBT community.
In that sense, he’s not only entertaining, but educating people who aren’t necessarily connected to the LGBT culture or its issues. For that, and the thousands of dollars he’s helped raise for all sorts of organizations over the years, he’ll take home the Communty Pride Award during the Charleston Pride Festival this year.
Chase Glenn, chief operating officer of Charleston Pride, said he thinks all the recent momentum and social acceptance of the LGBT community will boost attendance at the festival this year because so many people have so much to celebrate.
But once he takes the reins of the organization after Chief Executive Officer Tony Williams steps down next week, Glenn has to start thinking about its future.
“In the coming year going forward, we’re going to really have to work on our messaging because we’re going to have to prove that there’s still a point and reason for Pride, and that’s what we’re thinking about as an organization,” he said.
The festival began with a parade in 2010, a way for the local LGBT community to establish that they were a large part of the overall Charleston community.
“We knew we existed, but I don’t think even we knew the full extent of how many LGBTQ folks were actually in Charleston because there wasn’t a gathering for everyone,” Glenn said.
Many in the community said since many political goals for the LGBT community have been met, they think Charleston Pride will evolve into a heritage festival, much like the Greek Festival or other cultural celebrations.
“It’s no longer ‘We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.’ Now it’s, ‘We’re proud of who we are and we want to celebrate the role we play in the community,’” Patterson said.
Glenn said he hopes to take it a step further, to incorporate more education and advocacy events into the festival’s programs.
“There are other issues beyond marriage equality. Employment discrimination is huge. You can still get fired in South Carolina for being LGBT, so you can go out and get married to your same sex partner, and the next day having outed yourself, you can get fired from your job,” he said. “There’s still opportunity for discrimination, so that’s probably one of the biggest things on our radar right now. You know, educating not only the ally community but also people within our community that there are other issues that we have to work on.”
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.