When Eastern Panhandle Pride began organizing Shepherdstown’s annual Pride celebration, founder Mark Harding had a few fresh ideas.
“We wanted to be sure that we’re showcasing our rural heritage,” Harding said—having grown up in a rural area that instilled in him an appreciation for Appalachian culture—and for the unique brand of pride shown by rural LGBTQ+ communities. “A lot of people’s impressions of gay culture come from broad, sweeping media statements and portrayals of what is seen, expressed, and enjoyed in metropolitan areas. Embracing that American rural heritage is important because it shows we are just as much a part of the LGBTQ+ community as those who live in the city.”
The celebration will be held throughout Shepherdstown the weekend of June 15–17. The main event on Saturday will feature DJs, musicians, and local artists and craftsmen selling their wares. Where one might expect a parade, a different type of celebratory event will take place—one that invites everyone to participate.
“River Riders will be driving their rainbow buses down German street and picking up all the participants who are interested on what we’re calling a ‘queer float’ down the Potomac,” Harding said. “A big part of what makes the Eastern Panhandle so unique is our sense of outdoor adventure, so we really wanted to showcase that.”
“We’re turning that whole place into a disco,” Harding said. “We have a DJ coming, we’re bringing in all kinds of crazy lighting—it’ll be that cliché queer club nostalgia.”
On Sunday, Town Run Community Pub and Tap House will host a brunch in which guests can view art exhibitions by young LGBTQ+ artists. The event, open to all ages, is a chance to celebrate local youth art.
“They’re pioneering forward and being vulnerable and expressing themselves even though they’re young, so we’re trying to help them celebrate a little more individually and see what they’re reflecting on in the community,” Harding noted.
Harding, who also co-owns Shepherdstown’s popular Flower Haus, is excited to have an event that is geared towards young people and families, pointing out that, “… there are now so many definitions of family, and a huge part of our culture is having the right to develop a family.”
For a brief moment in 2017, the former hosts of Pride, the Eastern Panhandle LGBTQ+ Alliance of WV, dissolved, and the fate of the festival was uncertain. But the active and committed LGBTQ+ community in Shepherdstown and its supporters refused to let the celebration fizzle out.
“There’s a huge call to action on many fronts,” Harding affirmed. “It felt necessary. If we were in this political climate and were to lose a rural pride festival, that would be devastating.”
So, the community took the initiative. “As the new year came around, everyone started coming together,” Harding said. “Even other pride affiliates and organizations in our surrounding area are helping us to navigate and understand how to do this successfully.”
Harding maintained that, without the support from other LGBTQ+ affiliate groups, town residents, and local businesses, the festival—and Eastern Panhandle Pride itself—wouldn’t exist.
“It’s been a big synergy that has led us to being able to take action,” he said. “Community is all we’ve got to lean on in times of need.”