In many parts of Tennessee, finding an accepting, or even a tolerant, community is often impossible for anyone who happens to differ in any way from the norm. But Chattanooga is becoming an oasis of acceptance in a vast desert of rejection and disdain, especially for those who reject the hetero-normative life expected of Southern Americans in the Bible Belt. Here, Tennessee Valley Pride, Chattanooga’s LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) nonprofit association, boasts an impressive history of community involvement, with everything from bowling and softball teams to singing and roller rinks groups and social clubs.
In a “gay-friendly, accepting community” like Chattanooga, explains Chuck Hill, Tennessee Valley Pride president of the last five years, community programs, events, and involvement can actually live up to their primary goal: to be all-inclusive. Maybe that is why the Tennessee Valley Pride Festival, held during Chattanooga’s Pride Week, has traditionally been such a success—the festival is less about being proud of differences in sexual orientation and more about being part of a loving community, no matter what makes individuals different from one another. What is the basic function of Tennessee Valley Pride? To remind everyone that people deserve to be treated like people, including groups of people traditionally marginalized in American society.
This year, the Tennessee Valley Pride Festival promises to be better than ever, with several interfaith services during the week, a spaghetti dinner at the St. Elmo United Methodist Church on Thursday evening, a kickoff party at Images bar on Friday night, and great music, speakers, poets, and other entertainment, all culminating in a drag show on the weekend. Some of the musical guests will be The Creative Underground, Ryan Oyer, singer/songwriter Linda Brown, and a special performance by Strung Like a Horse.
Perhaps it’s right that we celebrate our pride with music, food, and fellowship. One could probably assume that most important communal gatherings around the world, from pre-recorded history until today, have centered on these activities. A choir of voices is to be a single unit made of many—to share a common experience. Whether people sing and play music together to mourn a loss, to celebrate a gain or success, or merely to experience being alive, music itself is a symbol of unity, many different types of instruments and voices working together to create something beautiful and exciting.
Music is also, traditionally, key to many religious and spiritual experiences, since it is essentially a physical and emotional manifestation of spirituality’s primary function: to remind us that we are not alone in the world and that we belong to a community that accepts us for what we are, whether that community is made of other people or the spirit or natural worlds. As in most other Southern towns, Christianity is Chattanooga’s organized religion of choice; however, LGBT-and-the-otherwise-oriented-or-marginalized find a different kind of reception in many churches here, especially in comparison to nearby cities like Memphis and Knoxville. Rather than shunning those who are different, many churches and congregations in Chattanooga welcome everyone equally, whether or not they are heterosexual.
Rather than Tennessee Valley Pride and the LGBT community existing in on a “separate but equal” plane of existence from the rest of Chattanooga’s residents, those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, etc., find a community here that is, of course, not perfect but generally values people for their differences and their similarities. Many non-hetero-normative individuals in the city probably notice that not only many of the worship areas but also businesses and restaurants also defy general Tennessee standards by being open and welcoming. Thus, instead of having separate places for the LGBT community to live, eat, work, and play, the general consensus in Chattanooga is a subconscious integration of different people into a single, cohesive unit.
How did Chattanooga turn out to be so much more, well, awesome than the rest of Tennessee? We allow ourselves the opportunity to actually get to know each other. In the words of Chuck Hill, “If you sit at my dinner table and let me feed you, it’s hard for you to hate me.”
Chattanooga Pride Festival, 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 6, Miller Plaza. For more information on Tennessee Valley Pride Week events, visit tennesseevalleypride.comhttp://tennesseevalleypride.com