Gay pride festival held in Bluffton

Beaufort County LGBT advocates work to form support network

tbarton@islandpacket.comOctober 29, 2013 

Detail from the Lowcountry Pride website homepage

LOWCOUNTRYPRIDE.ORG

Conservative though it is, state and local advocates say acceptance is building across the Lowcountry for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities after landmark court rulings legalizing same-sex marriages.

About 50 people gathered Saturday at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Lowcountry in Bluffton for what organizers touted as the first gay pride festival held in Beaufort County. Though no one could verify that assertion, the gathering is rare for the area, according to local advocates.

The event was organized by Michael Raye Lutz of Hilton Head Island, who created Lowcountry Pride in July 2012 as a nonprofit support group for gay people in Beaufort County.

"The South is not the easiest place to come out as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender," Lutz said. "It's the Southern, conservative mentality where you don't talk about the things people don't accept. But times are changing and more people are coming around to understand the LGBT community."

Gay-pride festivals and gay-rights groups had popped up in Savannah, Charleston and Columbia, but Lutz noted their absence in Beaufort County. So he decided to start his own.

"Fortunately, I've had nothing but support," he said. "I haven't had any negative feedback. People have said that it's going to be difficult to run an organization like this in a county that in many ways is still small-town. But I say, where there's a will, there's a way."

Lutz, who was born a woman but identifies as a man, also leads a separate support group for LGBT youth, and is working to create a Lowcountry chapter of PFLAG: Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. The national nonprofit aims to promote the health and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, their families and friends.

Natalee Reese, faculty advisor for the Gay-Straight Alliance at the University of South Carolina Beaufort's Hilton Head Gateway campus, says she has seen more local support for dialogue about issues that face the gay community, both in school and out.

"The environment for LGBT on this campus and in this area is quite positive," Reese said. "Obviously, you're going to have an easier time organizing a (gay) pride organization in Savannah, Charleston and Columbia, because they're larger, urban, more progressive communities with a larger LGBT population.

"But if a pride organization were to form elsewhere in the area, I would see this as a prime location."

The alliance partnered with Lutz to put on the festival, donating about $500 from it's annual Halloween drag show to help pay the cost for providing live music, food and children's activities.

Some LGBT advocates say public opinion is shifting and that this presents an opportunity to reach out to conservative groups.

National polls, including a July Gallup poll, show a slight majority of Americans support marriage equality. A 100-page, post-election "autopsy" report by the Republican National Committee of what went wrong for the GOP in 2012 recommends the party become more tolerant and inclusive, with more sensitivity to young voters' increasing acceptance of gay rights.

"Already, there is a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and the rights of gays -- and for many younger voters, this issue is a gateway into whether the party is a place they want to be," according to the RNC's Growth and Opportunity Project.

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.

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