This weekend is Pridefest, a celebration of tolerance for lesbians, gays, and transsexuals, and others who have felt excluded from mainstream society over the years.  It includes a concert at the Bijou, parties, and a big parade around downtown, leading to an open festival at Mary Costa Plaza, named for the Knoxville-raised opera singer who voiced Sleeping Beauty in the 1959 Disney film, and later helped found Knoxville Opera. The spirit of the celebration may go back a bit farther than most people know. 

The first Pride parade and rally was held in an unrenovated downtown in 1991. It drew 350 participants—reportedly the biggest such rally in the state that year. At the helm was a visiting celebrity, Atlanta’s lesbian civil-rights activist Pat Hussain, as the grand marshal. It also drew some 20 protesters, some of whom had traveled from as far away as Chattanooga to demonstrate against the rally. 

That’s a pretty long time, making it older than several of Knoxville’s most popular festivals. However, Pridefest has deeper roots. 

The gay community lived under the radar in Knoxville for years. By the 1950s a few bars were quietly known as tolerant of gays. By the early 1970s, when gender issues were becoming more politically public, a few local organizations represented the gay community, like the Knoxville Lesbian Feminist Alliance, a university organization eventually known as the UT Gay and Lesbian Student Union, and an umbrella group called the Knoxville Gay Alliance. 

It may be surprising that the most consistently supportive group during that early period was a Christian organization known as the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), founded locally in the mid-1970s, originally at the Laurel Theater in Fort Sanders. The Metropolitan Community Church still thrives today. 

The earliest public celebration we’ve been able to find a description of was a Gay Pride Picnic held at Tyson Park on July 2, 1977. Mentioned in the newspaper beforehand, it apparently drew a crowd to hear a speech by F. Randall Hill, the first pastor of the MCC. A Pride Picnic, held earlier this month at Holston River Park, remains part of the celebration.