Celebrating its 19th year, the Savannah Pride Festival will once again take over downtown for three days of festivities centered around the LGBTQ community.
Normally held in June, Pride parades and festivals began in the 1960s as political demonstrations for equal rights and recognition of the gay community. In the southeast, however, June is hot, and so the annual celebration was moved to later in the year.
For Savannah Pride, it only made sense to marry Pride with Halloween.
“We’re not going to do what other cities do,” festival director Dustin Church said. “We’re going to focus this on being true to our community and true to our city. Savannah happens to be the most haunted city in America and Halloween is gay Christmas. It’s the gay high holy day. It’s the most important day on the gay calendar. So what more perfect day to celebrate Pride than to do it on the biggest day on the gay calendar in America’s most haunted city?”
Each year, the festival grows in both size and significance. As the fight for LGBTQ rights continues, the annual event is still offered up as not only a celebration, but also as an advocacy and awareness event for the cause. In addition, Pride has become about community education and engagement.
Savannah’s Pride is centered around a family-friendly free festival from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Oct. 27 in Ellis Square. A street fair with booths, educational workshops and presentations will celebrate the diversity of the Coastal Empire’s LGBTQ community.
Outside of that main event are a number of other official events as well. Included in this year’s activities are a Drag Trolley Tour, Mermaid Grotto photo booth, pub crawl, history exhibit, the official Pride After Party, Pride Pawrade and a prom for the youth. Decentralizing the entire festival allows for more community engagement, according to Church.
“It’s a form of activism for us; to encourage ostensibly straight businesses to embrace our community and celebrate Pride with us,” Church said. “It’s been wonderful to see the number of businesses say, we want a rainbow flag for Pride. We want to host an event for Pride.”
The festival’s central event each year is the Masqueerade Ball. This year, it will be held Oct. 25 at The Gingerbread House on Bull Street with a special guest appearance by Jason Rodriguez, star of the FX television show “Pose,” which is based on the underground ball culture world of 1980s New York City. The show’s first season was a hit and featured the largest cast of transgender actors for a television series.
“It’s the slow evolution toward what we want the Masqueerade to be long term,” Church said. “It feels like it’s arriving this year with Jason being here. That is a southern, masquerade ball that is uniquely queer. That identifies with the queer culture of drag balls and drag in general. Of offering people an opportunity to dress as they want, as eccentric and creative as they want and not be tied to the Victorian vision of a masquerade ball. This is a space that is a queer understanding of what a ball looks like with that southern twist to make sure that it connects to Savannah and this community.”
Also new for this year is the presentation of the Leonard Matlovich Savannah Pride Award, which will be presented to Manzana “Ms. Apple” Bryant, a co-founder of the Transgender Empowerment Education program. She also serves on the Chatham Health Department HIV/AIDS consortium, is the outreach coordinator for Georgia AIDS Coalition and outreach committee chair of the First City Network board of directors.
Matlovich was a Savannah native who garnered national headlines, including the cover of Time Magazine, in the 1970s as the first gay service man to purposely out himself to the military. A decorated Vietnam veteran, Matlovich’s fight to stay in the United States Air Force while being an out gay man set the stage for the fight for gay civil rights.
“There’s so much of Savannah’s history that is not told,” Bryant said. “He’s a big part of Savannah’s history. That’s a milestone. We’ve all these greats, but why haven’t we heard about him? It’s so amazing to receive this award. I am following in the footsteps of greatness.
"Before transgenderism and all this activism came out, come to find out, he was there all the time. You don’t know your history until you know your greatness. To be honored with this award is tremendous. To know that my community is recognizing me for this kind of work, and compare me to this dude is awesome.”
Matlovich’s tombstone reads, “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”