Out and Proud

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BLUFFTON TO HOST AREA’S FIRST PRIDE FESTIVAL

Ashley Mendez was 12 when she came out as gay to her closest friends and 16 when she broke the news to her family.

She figured being open about who she was would mean leaving her hometown of Bluffton as soon as possible, shoving off from conservative South Carolina in search of a more accepting community.

To Mendez’s surprise, she didn’t have to leave the Lowcountry to find acceptance and support, and she wants to make sure the next generation of LGBTQ+ teens know they have a home here, too.

That’s why Mendez is part of a group organizing the inaugural Lowcountry PRIDE Parade & Celebration. The event will feature a parade through Old Town Bluffton, including the Calhoun Street Promenade, followed by a family-friendly celebration at Oscar Frazier Park’s Field of Dreams.

“I’m not going to say that I didn't have any issues and that other people in the area don't have problems,” Mendez said. “There are people I know personally who struggle with their identity and with particular people in their life. I and every other queer person I know is still very careful about who they tell, but as a whole I'm seeing more and more that this area is evolving.”

Longtime Bluffton resident Kathleen Mardell has watched that evolution over the years, and while participating in the James E. Clyburn Political Fellowship — an educational fellowship program for community organizers and others — she felt compelled to put in motion plans for the area’s first PRIDE celebration.

Like Mendez, Mardell has been encouraged — if slightly surprised — by the community’s response.

“It’s really been an overwhelmingly positive response from everyone involved from the town of Bluffton down. It’s been so good,” Mardell said. “Nine out of 10 people say something along the lines of, ‘I can’t believe it hasn’t happened yet. It’s about time.’ ”

All it took to finally make it happen was a meeting around Mardell’s kitchen table — where co-founders Mardell, Mendez, Rahne Ery, and Nathalie Beard started hashing out a plan — and the months of hard work that ensued. From that initial meeting, things have taken shape thanks to an influx of sponsors and volunteers and the cooperation of local officials.

Organizers say the parade and celebration will be family-friendly, complete with face painting, an inflatable water slide, and other activities for kids. Local band Heavy Honey is already committed to play, and a DJ will be spinning tunes all day. The Holy City Twirlers from Charleston and the Savannah Derby Devils roller derby team will be among the visiting groups participating in the parade, which is open to anyone and everyone who wants to show their support.

The idea is to make the event a welcoming space for all.

“Pride to me is more than just spreading our voice and saying, ‘Yeah, we're here and we're queer,’ ” Ery said. “I think it's important to love and know yourself and accept yourself. … It’s not just loving someone of the same gender, but loving yourself and your neighbors, regardless of race, gender, religion. When it comes down to it all we have is each other, and I believe it’s important to embrace that.”

Ery hopes the event will shine a light on Bluffton as a welcoming community with plenty of love — and pride.

“Growing up, Bluffton has always been accepting and loving, and seeing how much this place has grown makes me excited that more and more people are coming to Bluffton,” Ery said. “I want them to know what this place is all about, not just the beautiful scenery but the beautiful people, too, that make our community great.”

IF YOU GO

What: Lowcountry PRIDE Parade & Celebration
When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. June 22
Where: Oscar Frazier Park Field of Dreams, Bluffton
Details: www.lowcountrypride.org