By Vincent Astor
Pride was celebrated back as early as 1976 with a picnic in Overton Park that was covered by Gaiety newspaper. The first of several marches was organized beginning in 1980 by the Memphis Gay Coalition.
That same year the Gay Pride River Ride was first held; it continued for 20 years. Marchers first used the sidewalks along Cooper from Peabody Park to Overton Park where a rally was staged at the Overton Park Shell. The marches lost popularity and were discontinued but a picnic and the River Ride became annual events.
GayFest, a larger-scale festival, was begun in 1987 by the Coalition and was held in 1988, 1989 and 1990. The Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center began its Gay Expo in 1990 and has continued holding Pride events ever since.
The 1993 March on Washington became a catalyst for new activism. John Prowett returned to Memphis after the March, obtained a large number of flags from Washington and organized a Memphis march in June. A car full of pioneers who had seen many of the toughest years of gay liberation rode in the lead from Overton Park to Peabody Park. The rally was held in the pouring rain at the gazebo at the end. The time was ripe. In the autumn of that year, Memphis Pride, Inc., began organizing and spun off from its roots in MGLCC. The state charter was received in June of 1994.
The 1994 event is significant as it was the first event planned as a Parade. The rationale was that some people will come to a March but everybody loves a Parade. There were no formal officers elected until the charter was received in June, the committee chair was Vincent Astor, secretary John Prowett and treasurer Tommy Simmons. All three of these individuals would figure in other Pride celebrations. It was a long route, all the way from Madison and McNeil to Peabody and Cooper. The first theme, “Together With Pride” was printed on a souvenir bandana. Meristem and friends lead the Parade as the first honorary Grand Marshals. Since then, Grand Marshals have been selected for either personal community service or as a tribute. Live music was featured at the rally.
Another milestone came under joint chairs Astor and the late Dennis Kijowski in 1995. The “Party With a Purpose” started in Overton Park and ended with a newly expanded Pride Festival in the garage at Madison and Willett. Kijowski’s vision for Pride created the Festival which is still a fixture of Pride celebrations. Gay Veterans Jim Harrington and Kijowski lead the Parade as Grand Marshals and the 1995 bandana was seen everywhere.
Kijowski kept the chair along with Andy Cain for a “Bigger Party, More Purpose” event in 1996. The Parade was led by MAGY (Memphis Area Gay Youth) and attendance grew. State Senator Steve Cohen addressed the GLBT community at the Festival. Dennis Kijowski died due to AIDS-related complications in the fall and Carol Molder, then Treasurer, organized the election of new officers in early 1997.
New innovations for “Celebrating Generations of Pride” included the first appearance of the huge rainbow flag (still carried in the Parade). Tim Sampson was invited to be Grand Marshal and a variety of age groups rode on the lead float. The T-shirt from that year was one of the most popular in the history of Pride; chairs were Chet Overstreet and George Ettinger.
The route was reversed in 1998. “Unity in Community” stepped off from Madison and Willett and returned the Festival to the Overton Park Shell. The Picasso-esque logo is perhaps Memphis Pride’s most memorable logo; the Grand Marshals were Susan MacKenzie and Virginia Stallworth. This marked the first appearance of the Lavender Pages and the chair was George Ettinger.
In 1999, chairs Daniel Forrest and Carol Molder began the use of the bridge logo still used by Memphis Pride, Inc.; the theme was “Building Community One Step at the Time.” The route wound from Overton Park down McLean to Madison to the Festival behind the businesses at Madison and Cooper. Grand Marshals were LaPaula Turner and Jim Maynard.
In 2000, chairs Daniel Forrest and Katie Heistand planned an event themed “Color Me Human-Color Me Proud-Color Me Equal.” Scheduled in June to go from Madison and Cooper to Williamson Park, an emergency postponement changed both the Festival site and the route. July 15th, 2000, is remembered as the hottest day Pride was ever celebrated in Memphis winding down Poplar from Avalon to Cooper and back down Madison to Morrison and the Festival. Karen Borth and Arnold and Myrna Drake were selected as Grand Marshals.
In 2001, the Parade moved to Riverside Drive, was held on a Friday evening and ended with a rally sponsored by the Lesbian and Gay Coalition for Justice beside the river. The Festival moved to the next day (Saturday) and back indoors at the Mid-South Coliseum. The theme was “2001—Our Pride Odyssey,” Grand Marshals were Royce Wright, BJ Hefner and Jimmy Gray. Chairs were Katie Heistand and Kay Mills.
In 2002, Kay Mills and Katie Heistand again chaired “Step Up and Step Out” which was the shortest Parade in Pride history. The Festival returned to the Overton Park Shell and the Parade left the park, went one block down Poplar and came back in. A high-profile prizefight at the Pyramid and ensuing security issues were responsible for the abbreviated Parade. Grand Marshals were Vincent Astor and Ed Hammett.
Kay Mills and Patricia Pair have the helm for this 2003’s “A Decade of Pride.” Once again, the Festival will be at the Overton Park Shell. The Parade will begin at Madison and Cooper and turn down Tucker to end at the main entrance to Overton Park.
There were no individual Grand Marshals in 2003, but those who have served on Pride boards will have places on the lead float. This will include many individuals that have worked diligently, especially during the days right before the event, to bring the huge events that make up Pride to the community. There is really not enough space to list them all nor the many sponsors and supporters who have made it possible.
It isn’t money that makes a person help produce a Pride celebration. Pride has always been an all-volunteer organization. It’s hot, sweaty, intricate labor. It entails diplomacy which would qualify for the United Nations. It reaps a little praise and a lot of bitching.
What it takes is love of our hard-won freedoms, it takes commitment to the ideal which is GLBT Pride and it could take the faces of a thousand happy young people or the face of just one person who has finally been convinced that he or she is neither alone, nor perverted, nor damned.
So, let’s go have a Parade. And be gay.
Memphis Pride disbanded after the 2003 parade when Kay Mills retired and Patty Pair did nothing. Mid-South Pride was founded by Gary Wilkerson in 2004 and has staged Pride festivities ever since.