Mid-South Pride

Our History

44 Years of Pride in Memphis

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

— Margaret Mead

Gay Day
1976
Gay Day in the Park
For many of us, "coming out of the closet" was anything but a picnic, but in the 1970's thats exactly how the Memphis LGBTQ+ community chose to come out.

Pride was celebrated back as early as 1976 with "Gay Day", a picnic in Audubon Park that was covered by a local publication at the time, Gaiety Newspaper.
1976
1980
The First Gay River Cruise
This photo by Hunter Johnston (far Left) wearing the "GAzE" t-shirt" was taken at the the 1980 Pride Week "Picnic", which was organized by the Memphis Gay Coalition and held in the U of M area at the home of Jim Ramsey (center-front holding the dog)

The picnic was followed by the first of many gay river cruises held on the Memphis Queen II Riverboat.

The June 1980 cruise was promoted as "Party on the River, a Gay Cruise on "The Queen II"" There was another cruise in the autumn billed as " Moon Light Madness". Guests were encouraged to wear costumes. The autumn cruises only lasted 2 years because it was too cold in October. A "National Coming Out Day" Cruise was held in 1990 and was never done again for the same reason.
1980
Gay Memphis Believe It History
1981
The First March
The first of several marches was organized in Peabody Park beginning in 1981 by the Memphis Gay Coalition. That same year the Gay Pride River Ride was first held; it continued for 20 years.
1981
1982
The Original Route
Marchers first used the sidewalks along Cooper from Peabody Park to Overton Park where a rally was staged at the Overton Park Shell.
1982
The History of LGBTQ+ Pride Celebrations in Memphis
1983-1984
The Movement Evolves
The Marches continued for 2 more years, but eventually lost popularity and were discontinued, but a picnic and the River Ride became annual events.
1983-1984
1987
Gay Fest
GayFest, a larger-scale festival, premiered in 1987. Hosted by the Coalition, it was held again in 1988, 1989 and 1990. The Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center (Now Out Memphis) began its "Gay Expo" in 1990 and held a variety of Pride themed events for several years after.
1987
1991
The Black Pride Movement
In 1991, a group of Black gay men and women in Washington, DC decided to take advantage of an annual Memorial Day weekend gathering called the “Children’s Hour”. Most of the Children’s Hour festivities were held in a Black gay frequented bar called the Club House that was very popular from the 70’s to its closing in the early 90’s. The Club House closed its doors in 1991 in part due to the heavy toll that HIV/AIDS was having on the staff.

Welmore Cook, Theodore Kirkland and Ernest Hopkins, founders of DC Black and Lesbian Gay Pride Day as it was called in 1991, wanted to continue what had become a tradition in the Black LGBT community buy adding an important consideration – they were going to raise funds for organizations who provided services to Blacks/African Americans affected by and infected with HIV/AIDS, and disseminate important HIV/AIDS prevention information to attendees of the “Black Pride” event. Just over 800 people attended the first event to call themselves a “Black Pride”. Learn More

"Memphis Black Pride" was founded by Terrell Buckner who produced first Memphis Black Pride celebration somewhere in the mid-to-late 1990s. In 2018, Memphis Black Pride was passed down to Dr. Davin Clemons and rebranded as "Tri-State Pride". As more details become available, we will add them to the timeline.
1991
1993
Memphis Pride, Inc.
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.
1993
Memphis Pride Parade Winner 1994
1994
The First Parade
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 with 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.

First Place winning float in first Memphis Pride Parade (photo above by Hunter Johnston) was presented by Tsaurus.

"It was a lot of work but we got it together by the time we started out we had a bunch of different professionals ..even a grandmother with her grandchildren such a fun day...much thanks to Matthew Presley...lol..I was dressed as a cop...the motor cycle cops kept coming up to see who I was too much fun" - Robert Hamby (aka "Skeeter")
1994
1995
Party With a Purpose
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.
1995
1996
A Congressional Visit
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 LGBTQ+ community at the Festival. Dennis Kijowski passed away due to AIDS-related complications in the fall and Carol Molder, then Treasurer, organized the election of new officers in early 1997.
1996
1997
The First Pride Flag
The first flag, inspired by the mile-long Stonewall 25 flag, was constructed by volunteers in time for the 1997 parade, which was themed "Celebrating Generations of Pride". Six sponsors and volunteers from the former Memphis Pride, Inc., constructed it at Holy Trinity UCC at its earlier location on Madison (Now Minglewood Hall).

Bill Hanley, Chet Overstreet and Tommy Ross were the core committee behind its design and construction. It was simply but solidly constructed but after the first year it proved to be difficult to carry. By the 1998 parade it had grommets and rope handles but the sheer weight of the fabric put a lot of strain on the edges. This caused the flag to need constant repair.

Tim Sampson was invited to be Grand Marshal in the '97 parade, 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.
1997
1998
A New Route to an Old Destination
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.
1998
Pride 1999
1999
Pride in Overton Square
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.
1999
2000
Color Me Proud
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.
2000
2001
Pride on the River
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.
2001
2002
Step Up & Step Out
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.
2002
2003
Memphis Pride Inc. - The Final Bow
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 LGBTQ+ 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 decided not to produce the event that year.
2003
2004
Mid-South Pride - A New Era
At the end of 2003 Mid-South Pride was founded to resume the work of Memphis Pride. The organization became active in 2004. The founding president, Gary Wilkerson (1962-2007), was one of the Regional Directors for InterPride's Southern United States Region. After his passing, his life partner, Kent Hamson and Sean Alexander continued Gary’s work as co-chairs.

The first Mid-South Pride celebration was held on June 26th, 2004. The theme was "Show Us Your Pride".
2004
Memphis Sea to Sea Flag
2005
The Sea-to-Sea Flag Debuts
In 2003, Gilbert Baker, creator of the original Rainbow flag, designed an anniversary edition of the flag for Key West Pride that measured 1.25 miles long and was dubbed the Sea-to-Sea Rainbow Flag since it stretched the entire length of Duval street from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

In 2004, Baker had the flag divided up and given to Pride organizations across the country. A 100' section was given to Mid-South Pride, which made its debut in the Memphis Pride Parade in 2005. The Sea to Sea flag has been featured in almost every Memphis Pride parade ever since.

The Sea-to-Sea flag is easy to distinguish from the Memphis Pride flag because it has 8 stripes (including Pink and Indigo), whereas the Memphis Flag has the standard 6 stripe design. (Full Story)
2005
Memphis Founder's Flag 2010
2008
The Founder's Flag Debuts
In 2007 the decision was made to replace the 1997 flag, while carefully preserving sections of it. A small banner made with fabric from the flag was presented to the archives of MGLCC (Out Memphis). Another memento banner travels with QBliss to Pride celebrations in numerous locations.

Later that year, the new flag was hand-built by Mike Morgan (who just happened to own an industrial sewing machine) and dedicated to the memory of founder, Gary Wilkerson who died unexpectedly that same year.

The new 100' / 6 stripe cotton flag debuted in the June 2008 parade and is now affectionately referred to as "The Founder's Flag". It is the official Memphis Pride flag and has been featured in every Memphis Pride parade since.
2008
2008
Grand Marshall, Peterson Toscano
In June 2008 Mid-South Pride brought Peterson Toscano, a former client of the Memphis-based ex-gay program Love in Action and an outspoken ex-ex-gay, back to Memphis to serve as a grand marshal of the pride parade and to perform.

Sean Alexander & Kent Hamson were still co-chairs at this time.
2008
2009
A Change of Season
In 2009, after another excessively hot and humid summer, and years of complaints, the decision was made to follow the lead of other major cities in the south including Atlanta, and move Memphis' Pride celebrations to the fall.

Leadership also changed as Mike Morgan and Amanda Bolton became co-chairs. Jason Houston and Katie (Kody) Martin were members at large.
2009
2010
Farewell to Midtown
2010 was to be the last Mid-South Pride celebration to be held in Mid-Town. At the end of 2010, the board voted to move the festival and parade from the Cooper Young District to Downtown after the city reclassified Peabody Park.

Also in 2010 the group got new blood with Vanessa Rodley, Patrick Pearson, and Jennifer Murry as volunteers. Tommy Simmons also returned that year to serve as Parade Director.

After the 2010 event, Mike Morgan took some time off and began passing leadership on to his then co-chair, Amanda Bolton.
2010
2011
The Homecoming
In 2011, Pride itself "came out" and onto the main stage as Mid-South Pride and the Memphis LGBTQ+ community received a very warm, enthusiastic welcome to Downtown Memphis.

The Festival was held in Robert Church Park, and for the first time in history, the Pride Parade was enjoyed by thousands of every-day Mid-Southerners as it made its way through the Historic Beale Street Entertainment District. The theme was "Pride by the Riverside" in reference to Pride's return to Downtown Memphis.

In this new, high-profile location, the festival grew from about 4,000 attendees to nearly 8,000. They also had the largest budget in their history. This was also the first year that pride closed out the season with a profit.
2011
2012
Changing of the Guards
In 2012 the organizing committee began operating as a board of directors, a necessary transition as plans to file for official 501(c)(3) status were in the works.

Amanda Bolton became board President with Vanessa Rodley as Vice President, Jennifer Murry as Secretary, and Patrick Pearson as an at-large member. Making it a board of 6 which was the largest they had since they started.
2012
2014
Community Outreach
In 2014 Mid-South Pride expanded their focus and began hosting family events at parks, redbirds games, and the zoo in addition to an annual formal ball called the GAYla, and many other themed events.
2014
2017
Memphis Pride Fest
Because of the tremendous growth the pride celebrations and the Memphis LGBTQ+ community itself, the board decided in 2017 to make a change and rename the annual festival to "Memphis Pride Fest".

President Vanessa Rodley when asked why explained. "Mid-South Pride is more than the festival and parade. We organize and host many events in our community. Also, other cities and communities in Arkansas and Mississippi have started to host their own pride festivals. They are self-sufficient now, but of course we support them and we’re still here if they need us.

With that being said we feel that it is time to change the name to recognize the community that we live in and to communicate the fact that Pride is now a 3 day event with a pre-party “The Big Gay Dance Party”, and concert the night before, and the Sunday Brunch Crawl the day after."

Tracy Love was brought in as parade director and asked to form a parade crew that operated in collaboration with, but somewhat independently from the board. This would allow the board to focus more on the expansion of the festival and to plan and coordinate related events. Branden Gozell and Sandy Kozik became key members of the parade crew.
2017
2018
Return to the Riverside
For the first time in nearly 30 years, Pride returned to the banks of the Mississippi river. The 2018 festival was held for the first time in Tom Lee Park, which is also the home of Memphis in May. Attendance also grew to over 23,000.

The Parade route nearly doubled from previous years spanning from 4th Street to Riverside Drive. The team had to bring in golf carts and shuttles transport equipment, team members, parade judges and guests from Tom Lee Park to the middle of the Beale Street Entertainment district where most of the excitement takes place.

Due to a planned expansion and re-development of the Memphis Riverfront, Memphis Pride Fest would have to move back to Robert Church Park in 2019 & 2020. However, plans are to make Tom Lee Park the permanent home of Memphis Pride Fest once the renovations are complete.
2018
Memphis Pride Fest Weekend Tribe by the City of Memphis
2018
The Mighty Lights
In 2018 and 2019, after the unveiling of a new LED light display on both the Harahan and the Hernando-Desoto bridges, the City of Memphis paid tribute to Memphis Pride Fest Weekend and the Memphis LGBTQ+ Community with a Pride themed light display.
2018
Pride Parade Sea to Sea Flag Memphis
2019
The Parade of Allies
Once again, the crowds became exponentially larger and more diverse in 2019 with Mid-Southerners from all ages and all walks of life taking part.

Local officials estimated overall attendance to be in the neighborhood of 35,000 with crowds stretching from Robert Church Park through the entire Beale Street Entertainment District.

The 2019 Pride parade, which for the first time included the City Mayor (Jim Strickland), also broke records with over 2,200 participants and 103 units including church groups, high school & college groups, senior groups, performing arts groups, city employees, local non-profits, businesses and national brands. This was the first year that the parade director had to stop taking entries more than a week before the event.
2019
2020
History in the Making
Memphis Pride Fest 2020 is scheduled take place on September 26, 2020. With a pivotal election cycle, civil rights protests, and a global pandemic in the air, this next chapter is still unfolding in unpredictable ways, but if history is any indication, it will be quite a story to tell.

Stay Proud, Stay United and Stay Tuned! 🏳️‍🌈🖤❤️
2020

Credits

This timeline was compiled with the help of historian Vincent Astor, current and former members of Mid-South Pride, Inc., Rhodes College Digital Archives and the Memphis Public Library. Photos were provided by John Parrot, Hunter Johnston, Kevin Reed, Beckii Richardson, Mighty Lights, and others. (If you have contributed the content in this timeline and were not mentioned, please let us know so we can acknowledge your contribution.)

How to Contribute

This story belongs to all of us, and we want to make sure it is as complete and accurate as possible. If you would like to contribute to this timeline, please send facts, photos, and supporting information to us for consideration.