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A Proud Tradition
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This weekend, as for the past six years in a row, the Coastal Empire will roll out the rainbow colored carpet, and welcome thousands of locals and tourists alike to our very own annual Pride Festival.

It’s a time for celebration, for support, for flamboyance and for revelry. But most of all, it’s a time for recognition. A chance to not only salute the accomplishments of our local gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered citizens, but those worldwide.

It’s also a rare public opportunity to gather together and acknowledge the overwhelming multitude of similarities which unite us as human beings, rather than the relative few differences which conspire to divide us (and are often exploited by those seeking to destroy peace and tranquility).

Originally organized by the local, private, non-profit gay and lesbian community service organization First City Network, Inc.,  Savannah Pride was eventually spun off from that group, and now functions as a separate entity. The event has grown from a small affair to a high-profile celebration that is now considered to be the second largest Pride Festival in Georgia (after the massive Atlanta Pride) and one of the fastest growing Pride Festivals in the entire southeast.

Organizers say this rapid growth and forward momentum is due in large part to their stated goal and message of inclusion, in which everyone is encouraged to attend, and all are welcome — regardless of age, sexual orientation, race, religion or physical impairment. As if to hammer that point home, the theme of this year’s celebration is “A Family of Pride.”

Making sure the community at large knows they are invited to join in the fun played a big role in determining the location of this year’s Pride Fest, says Festival Director Patrick Mobley.

“For many years, Pride Fest was held at the Historic Roundhouse,” he explains. “And that was a great spot for a long time.”

“But, when you’re over at the Roundhouse, you kind of feel like you’re behind a wall — like you’re covered up. That’s why we decided to move everything to River Street last year. We liked the fact that as the festival grew, we were becoming much more open about what it was all about, and making it more and more accessible to the public. There was talk of holding it on River Street again this year, but the truth is that the owner of Starland offered to let us use his property at no charge, and you can’t beat that.”

The area he’s referring to is the Starland Design District, an area of ongoing renovation and restoration centered around an old, landmark dairy building at the corner of Bull and 40th Streets. While the actual “district” takes up several city blocks, there is a large, open lot which is privately owned by the district’s initial developers, and that is where the main stage of this year’s Pride Fest will be located (featuring live entertainment, DJs and guest speakers relevant to the GLBT community).

A long stretch of Bull Street will also be blocked off to create a traffic-free festival area. Within that area will be a designated “Pride Market,” where more than 135 local restaurants, merchants, artisans, businesses and community service and outreach organizations will set up booths to sell their wares and inform the public of their work.

Mobley is convinced this mid-town location will serve the festival well.

“We’re still very much out in the open,” he offers.

He also feels that this time out, patrons will actually be able to concentrate more on the Pride Fest experience than may have been the case in 2005.

“We won’t have to contend with the noise and competition from other bars and restaurants down on River Street,” he concedes, adding, “It just made sense to put it there for a number of reasons.”

One such reason —which may strike some as odd— is Mobley’s stated goal of scaling back this year’s celebration.

In recent years, Savannah Pride’s Main Stage had begun to attract some very big entertainers in the gay counterculture — some of which had achieved a certain level of mainstream success and/or acceptance, such as actress, singer and talk show host RuPaul and dance music diva Taylor Dayne. Comparatively, this year’s headliner may strike some as underwhelming, if not downright old hat: famed chanteuse The Lady Chablis.

The former Savannahian, who burst onto the national scene after being featured  prominently in John Berendt’s international best-seller Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil, has since gone on to pen her own memoirs (1996’s Hiding My Candy), and take her sassy, cabaret-style drag show on the road. Though she has long since moved away from Savannah, she performs here several times each year.

As a result, her role as the closing act of a full day’s worth of entertainment seems a bit lackluster. Mobley, however, sees closing the show with “White Wine,” as many in Savannah’s GLBT refer to her, as killing two birds with one stone: It reinforces the theme of this year’s festival, and helps the director to “scale back.”

“We decided to get back to our roots, so we could reorganize a bit,” he explains. “I don’t think we were off track on what we were trying to do, but we wanted to get on a fresh track for next year. In order to do that, we had to pull back a bit so we can shoot for the stars.”

This year’s Director of Sponsorships, Stephen Lariscy, says that local interest in this annual event continues to grow, and that with each passing year, it is easier to attract vendors and corporate backers.

“There are always walls of some sort that must be scaled when it comes to GLBT events,” he admits. “It’s not really an easier sell, however, compared to just a few years ago, businesses and corporations understand the influence and buying power of the GLBT community much more. It’s an upscale demographic in household income, job titles, disposable income, etc... So it just makes sense to reach out.”

Lariscy also believes that our town is uniquely positioned to become a larger GLBT-related destination (both in terms of tourism and relocation) than it already is.

“I think Savannah just lends itself to the GLBT community. We have wonderful attributes that stereotypically are attractive to that demographic: gardens; beaches; architecture; fine dining. I think it fosters an environment to make a festival like this successful. Just like the Irish population in and around Savannah makes the St. Patrick’s Day Festival a success.”

Lariscy says that ultimately, many in the organization would like to see Forsyth Park become the permanent home for Savannah Pride, and that may start as soon as 2007.

As for now, Mobley is expecting as many as 12,000 people to attend this year’s event, and he has this to say to those locals who might feel “uncomfortable” attending Savannah Pride:

“I’d tell them to be open minded and give it a chance. You don’t know what you’re missing till you show up. Everyone puts aside all their differences, and it’s like one big happy family.” ƒç


The 2006 Savannah Pride Festival takes place Saturday from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. at the corner of Bull and 40th Streets. Admission is free to all ages - and is handicap accessible. Hearing impaired interpreters will be on stage for the entire event.