Hoping to join forces with the local chapters of PFLAG and the Tennessee Equality Project, the newly launched Northeast Tennessee Pride is ramping up its activities and profile in the Tri-Cities area.

“I was involved with TEP and PFLAG for a couple of years, and kept hearing over and over that our region supposedly has this large GLBTQ population, but it seemed to be mostly invisible,” said Ray White, the new group’s board chair. “There’s a lot of fear, it seems, but how could a place as large as Johnson City not have a Pride organization?”

Longtime community residents can answer that one by merely bringing up the incident from a couple of years ago where local police set up a dragnet and arrested more than 40 people for participating in an alleged “gay sex ring,” or the likely retaliation from hostile segments of the population to any large-scale, public GLBT event. White, however, disputes the notion that the community can’t elevate its visibility safely.

“There is a concern that our community might not have the full support of law enforcement, but we do have a growing presence with TEP, with PFLAG, and we need to become more vocal, to present a united front,” he said. “If people move here now, how will they find the GLBT community? How will they know where to find a club, a church, a social group or whatever? Several of us just thought it was time to get out and present an organized front.”

That said, White is quick to point out there are no plans for major public activities at this point, but rather a concerted effort to continue the community-building efforts already well under way.

“A few of us met with the board of directors in Boone, learned about their Pride, and talked to them about how they got going,” he said. “They are also a small, rural area, and were very encouraging and hopeful. They didn’t make their first activity a parade, but worked on awareness and went from there.”

With the launch of its website, northeasttennesseepride.com, the group has made itself public, and now is working on filing paperwork to officially exist as a nonprofit under state law. Once that’s done, further outreach to and through existing community organizations will begin with an eye toward establishing a set of goals. Everything from participating in or organizing an AIDS walk to working with local healthcare providers to help provide testing and outreach through local nightclubs is being considered.

“We also want to look at grants and other possible funding sources that are GLBT friendly, maybe even get a couple of billboards up in the area,” White said. “Again, we want to be less invisible, and more vocal, about our presence here. We want to take on small challenges that we can succeed in, and also do things that will plant a seed to allow us to do more in the future. Communication and awareness are our goals at this point.”

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