A History of Columbia Pride

USC celebrates 2023 pride in remembrance of Stonewall riots and hopes for a more LGBTQ+ friendly future

by Chloe Ehlers / Garnet & Black

It was the Queer event of the year; music pulsed through speakers, thrumming in sync with strobes that lit up Main Street. Atop a line of glamorous floats, performers waved to the crowds lining the street. Shouts and cheers rang out as Columbia celebrated the 34th annual Pride Parade, the largest LGBTQ+ event in the state, on October 20.

oSTEM, IRIS, and the LGBTQ+ Faculty and Staff Caucus represented the University at the Friday parade. Cocky led USC students and staff, waving a large rainbow pride flag, as the USC organizations marched alongside larger Columbia groups such as Riverbanks Zoo, Colonial Life, the Columbia Museum of Art and more.

The celebration continued throughout the weekend. Saturday yielded a festival full of street vendors and organizations advocating for LGBTQ+ rights and the weekend celebration wrapped up on Sunday with a worship service and drag brunch hosted by the Reformation Lutheran Church.

The Honors College collaborated with other groups on campus to represent USC in the Friday parade. The final product was a result of communication and support, said Honors College Director of Communications Ryan Dawkins.

"It was really exciting to see all those students there,” Dawkins said. “Both students who are part of the community and students who are allies come out and have a good time.”

Even before Pride celebrations hit the streets of Columbia, LGBTQ+ activists began trying to organize at USC by creating the USC Gay Liberation Front in 1972. That same year, the Gamecock, a USC student newspaper, ran an article summarizing the attempt, claiming paranoia stopped administration from signing off on the initiative. 

In the 1980s several other organizations blossomed around campus such as the Columbia Gay Coalition and Gays, Lesbians, and Friends. With no support from the University, these initiatives assembled at the Grass Roots Organizing Workshop cafe on Bluff Road. The cafe has been central in organizing minority groups to create a space for cultural revolution since its inception in the 1960s.

In 1983, the Gay Student Association hosted the first Gay Pride Week. The group diversified going into the 1990s, rebranding to the Bisexual, Gay, and Lesbian Association.

The first Pride parade on Main Street took place in 1990 led by Harriet Hancock, who founded the first southern chapter of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays in the 1980s. Hancock left her legacy through the Harriet Hancock Center Foundation created to support the LGBTQ+ community. The foundation’s initiatives include crisis assistance, medical and counseling services, and more

The 2023 parade marched across the same street as Hancock did over thirty years ago, but the movement has grown massively since then, said Mel Moore. Moore is a South Carolina resident and member of South Carolina United for Justice and Equality, a coalition advocating for policies that support the LGBTQ+ community in South Carolina.

“When I was first involved in Pride, it was more like gay or lesbian pride and wasn't very inclusive,” Moore said. “And I still think we have a long way to go to support people who are multiply marginalized in our communities. But I'm glad to see that now there's more representation.”

At the Saturday festival, Moore stood alongside their co-chair, offering interested passersby opportunities to get involved in the community and fight for LGBTQ+ policies locally and nationally.

Currently, South Carolina United for Justice and Equity is working to battle legislation that oppresses the LGBTQ+ community, including book bans, classroom censorship, gender-affirming care bans, abortion bans and more. Moore recognizes the importance of representing LGBTQ+ pride and continuing to fight for support of LGBTQ+ rights during the pride festival.

“Our existence is our active resistance,” Moore said. “So just being out in the streets and being proud, showing myself and being out of the closet feels really empowering to me.”

LGBTQ+ resistance can be traced back to the 1969 Stonewall riots. The riots occurred as a series of marches that resulted from violent police raids at Stonewall Inn, an establishment that hosted a gay bar. The riots lasted for six days and sparked the gay rights movement. The first pride flag was fashioned by artist Gilbert Baker in 1978 as a rallying sign for the LGBTQ+ community. The wide assortment of colors in the rainbow represents the wide spectrum of human sexuality and gender. 

LGBTQ+ liberation isn’t just a legal battle. Queer youth also must find acceptance from their immediate family. According to the 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ+ Mental Health, fewer than 1 in 3 transgender youth found their home to be gender-affirming, and 45 percent of LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered attempting suicide sometime in their lives.

In response to this mental health crisis, Wendy Vaughn — the planned giving coordinator of the nonprofit, YEW Belong — believes it is vital to represent the organization at the festival in order to give support to the LGBTQ+ youth.

“Support groups are so important just to have someone else in your age range who you can talk to and feel comfortable with,” Vaughn said.

Other organizations such as Free Mom Hugs offer support to LGBTQ+ youth who don’t find acceptance in their own homes. Sara Cunningham founded Free Mom Hugs following a struggle to accept her son’s sexuality. In 2015, she crafted a homemade button reading “free mom hugs” to the Oklahoma City Pride Festival, offering an embrace to anyone who approached her.

Now, the organization spans across all 50 states with over 1,400 volunteers. Julie Turner leads the Free Mom Hugs chapter in South Carolina with a goal to celebrate, empower and educate people about the LGBTQ+ community.

“It is absolutely essential for us to be here during Pride because so many kids get shut out by their families,” Turner said. “They are completely disowned when they come out. Their parents struggle with it; they don't know what to do with it. A lot of these people like Sara have been taught that it's wrong.”

Celebrating pride is central not only to celebrating the LGBTQ+ community but also to informing allies of the importance of respecting all identities. However, the parade isn’t only a celebratory event, it’s a rally cry for continued growth in LGBTQ+ support and the recognition of its history. Similar expressions of LGBTQ+ history can be found in Thomas Cooper Library’s fall 2023 LGBTQ+ exhibit “‘To tell the secret of my nights and days’: LGBTQ+ History in South Carolina and Beyond.”

Columbia is a city rich in culture and art, a major part of which is its LGBTQ+ community. LGBTQ+ history is human history, and the most important part of showcasing that history and pride is to show love to Queer youth who yearn for acceptance.

"When the University and the Honors College show their support for those students, it makes them feel like they're a greater part of the community,” Dawkins said.