COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – The Upper Cumberland area hosted its first gay pride event on Saturday, May 5, at Cookeville’s Dogwood Park. Sponsored by the Tennessee Equality Project Foundation, the inaugural event, held from 4 to 7 p.m., attracted well over the expected 300 attendees, along a wide variety of booths from area merchants, nonprofits and educational organizations.

An event just over a year in the making, Upper Cumberland Pride was the brainchild of Crossville resident R.G. Cravens, who said the event stemmed from the 2011 legislative session.

“I got really frustrated with the legislature,” Cravens said. “I’d worked with TEP for a long time, making my phone calls [to my legislator] when TEP would call. I was doing the advocacy thing, when, all of a sudden, it didn’t work.”

Cravens explained that, even after receiving numerous phone calls from him and other GLBT supporters, his state senator, Charlotte Burks, still voted in favor of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

“R.G. got mad,” said Upper Cumberland Pride co-coordinator Beth Thompson with a serious edge to her laugh.

“Yeah, I got real mad,” Cravens said. “We started working with TEP, and this [Upper Cumberland] committee came together.” The goal of the committee was to make an established GLBT community in Cookeville and the Upper Cumberland area.

“We’ve got a great group, a great community, a great gay community,” Cravens continued. “We’ve also got a lot of straight allies, and I wanted them to get together and start to do things and show people and educate people. I said there was nothing preventing us from having a Pride here. That’s when Beth Thompson stepped up and said, ‘Okay, I’ll organize one!’”

“R.G. made me do it!” Beth said, laughing when asked what inspired her to organize the event. “You know those bursts of enthusiasm that you sometimes have? I was having one of those, and I’m so glad I did, because [this is] amazing!”

Cravens and Thompson encountered some slight threats of protests from conservative religious groups regarding Upper Cumberland Pride; however, none of them came to fruition because of an unexpected ally.

“One local church slash rescue mission put something up that parents should learn the truth about Upper Cumberland Pride,” Thompson said.

“But there is something great about that situation,” Cravens added.

The father of one of the event’s attendees was a pastor within that organization, Cravens explained. When the topic of Pride came up during one of the group’s regular meetings and met some very negative opposition from one member, the pastor stood up and defended Upper Cumberland Pride.

“Within that organization, a very conservative, religious organization, we had an ally,” Cravens said, “who stood up and said, ‘If you want to know about Pride, ask me because that’s my family.’”

Thompson took a moment and looked out over the packed amphitheater before she broke the contented silence.

“I just can’t believe it!” she exclaimed. “I’m so excited!” The duo’s excitement was contagious as the park was filled with the sounds of happiness and laughter the entire afternoon, much of it coming from children.

“There are so many kids here!” Thompson said.

“Yeah, it’s great!” Cravens agreed. “You can hear them in the background down there.”

“And my son is back there working backstage,” Thompson said. “He’s twelve years old, and look at what he’s seeing. He’s seeing diversity and inclusion, and he’s loving it. That’s what I want our town to represent. I don’t want our town to represent backward thinking and hatred. I want to start a new trend around here and just let people see that [the gay community is] not a bunch of crazies, [they are] a bunch of wonderful, amazing, nice normal people, with families and friends and relationships. Whoa! Right here in our town. Everybody. They’re here.”

Even with performances by area drag artists Katie Love, Mallory McQueen, Ashley West, and more, Upper Cumberland Pride still became a very family-friendly event.

“I think that when people think that gay and children don’t go together, they’re deluded,” Thompson said. “Some of the people who didn’t agree with our festival said, ‘At Dogwood Park? There’s going to be children’s activities? What?’ And I thought, well, half of these people are bringing their kids with them!”

“You can see any number of couples here that have got two moms on one arm and two kids on the other. It’s great!” Cravens said. “And that’s the truth of the Upper Cumberland. We’re here, we all have families, and that’s what we want to show people.” 

This article has been republished from Out & About Nashville, and was part of a series of first-person pieces written by the late Bobbi Williams.

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