Every fall since 1986, Durham has hosted NC Pride—last year, rebranded Pride: Durham, NC—a huge event that drew thousands of people from all over the state to a daylong march and celebration that defied that social conservatism of a state whose best-known politician called gays and lesbians “disgusting people” who were “marching in our streets demanding all sorts of things, including the right to marry each other.”
But even a decade ago, after Jesse Helms was dead and marriage equality seemed like a real possibility, the state’s capital had nothing like that. A handful of local advocates—attorney Daire Roebuck, IT manager Mitch Null, and bar owner Rusty Sutton—along with Raleigh’s LGBT Center, set out to make one happen.
“We wanted a festival that would celebrate the LGBTQ community, and where it would also welcome the ally community,” says Sutton, who owns The Green Monkey on Hillsborough Street.
But most event planners thought they couldn’t pull it off. Some even laughed at them.
“We were told it couldn’t be done,” Sutton says. “It wouldn’t be done. We wouldn’t have the support.”
Eventually, Deep South Entertainment signed on, and in 2011, Out! Raleigh launched. Thousands of people showed up that first year.
For Sutton, who grew up in Wilson, seeing that crowd that first year stuck with him.
“To know that we can come out in public, in a festival, on the main street of Raleigh, and say, ‘We’re gay, we’re here.’ It was awesome,” he says.
The ensuing decade has been eventful for the LGBTQ movement in North Carolina: In 2012, voters passed Amendment 1, which enshrined anti-gay discrimination into the state constitution. In 2014, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck that amendment down. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal nationwide. In 2016, the General Assembly passed HB 2, which not only targeted the state’s transgender community but also forbid local governments from passing antidiscrimination ordinances. The next year, with Governor Cooper in office, HB 2 was repealed, although the prohibition on local antidiscrimination ordinances remains until 2020.
All the while, Out! Raleigh grew. May 4 will mark the event’s ninth iteration, with the festival stretching the length of Fayetteville Street. Last year, sixty-two thousand people showed up, both gay and straight. Sutton stepped away as an organizer in 2013, though The Green Monkey still participates as a vendor.
“I’m so proud of [Out!],” he says. “I’m proud how they have taken it and ran with it. The energy is always very positive. Even during these iffy times between HB 2 and Amendment 1, the energy was still positive.”
Out! strives for inclusivity. It’s “a big festival for everyone, and people can come out that aren’t necessarily out in their personal lives that can experience the crowd and get love where they want love,” says LGBT Center office manager Kori Hennessey.
More than half of its vendors come from religious groups and other nonprofits, Oliver says. LGBT-affirming religious leaders from several faiths will also be present to give an opening invocation. The event is also family-friendly—in fact, it was the first gay-pride festival with a kids section.
“We wanted to the show the world that gay people have families,” Sutton says. “We’re just like your neighbors.”