The streets were jam-packed by noon as a parade traveling down Commerce Street initiated the festival, while an unprecedented police presence surveilled the event, screening each attendee through metal detectors.
“I heard someone say this was one of the biggest parades in Johnson City history and that is fantastic. It almost moved me to tears because it was that big and we were a part of it,” said Niko Armstrong, a student at East Tennessee State University.
TriPride founder George Chamoun estimated between 5,000 and 7,000 people traveled to Johnson City to celebrate people of all sexual orientations.
“We had no idea (about the attendance). We were expecting anywhere between 1,000 and 5,000 people. This has exceeded our expectations,” Chamoun said.
“I would say that at least half the people here are not LGBTQ, and I’ll tell you why that is such a good thing. By coming here, they have shown the LGBTQ community that this is a safe place for them. The community has their back. This is their home, and there is no need for them to move away to another place.”
An estimated 100 vendors also had tables scattered around the festival grounds, while a drag show and musical performances occurred on a main stage in Founders’ great lawn area. A number of different organizations and businesses had a presence during the festival, including Eastman, Citi Bank and the Tennessee Department of Health.
“I think my favorite thing so far is the vendors. There have been some really great vendors, and I haven't even been able to see them all yet,” Armstrong said.
TriPride President Ken Lyons also said his expectations were far exceeded.
“I’m absolutely blown away by the support, the goodwill, the love energy, the inclusion and the celebration of diversity. Everything we intended, we met and exceeded,” Lyons said.
At least 130 volunteers, not to mention the 25 to 30 people on the festival committee, helped organize and conduct the event, Lyons estimated.
“It's really nice to just be around the people that are so accepting, to be around people that you can be yourself with and not have to hide who you are. It's great they can have this for everybody and it be so accepting,” festival goer Mattie Wooden said.
A Johnson City spokesperson confirmed 240 officers from 13 law enforcement agencies helped secure the event. Throughout most of the event, officers stood watch over the crowds from the top floor of the Wild Wing Cafe, while a Tennessee Highway Patrol helicopter flew overhead.
“Thankfully, the Johnson City Police Department stepped forward in a big, big way to keep the event safe. They have been out in full force as our friends, as our allies. I cannot begin to tell you how thankful ... We are so thankful for them, 100 percent,” Chamoun said.
While an entire parking lot was isolated for those expected to protest the event, fewer than a dozen actually showed up with signs. Just outside Founders Park, along Commerce Street, police stood between a few preachers, one with a loudspeaker, and festival attendees.
Craig Thompson said he’s lived in the Tri-Cities for much of his life, and compared to 10 years or so ago, he called it a night-and-day difference as the region now seems to be more accepting to the LGBTQ community.
"It's just simply amazing,” Thompson said. “Someone on the stage commented that they never thought they'd see a gathering this size.”
“What they have done here is so good for retaining LGBTQ people,” Chamoun said. “It’s helped make this a place that is welcoming and inclusive. It feels like the Tri-Cities has really turned a page. This is a new chapter.”
But there’s still progress to be made, and organizers hope to continue building support as the festival is expected to be held in Kingsport next year.
“It is places like the Tri-Cities that really need Pride festivals because this is where the social change needs to be, and that’s why I feel people came out. They know there’s value to this event. It’s not just a party,” the festival founder said.
“We want to put the Tri-Cities on the map as a place where LGBTQ people can build a life. Pride festivals are the most visible way that a city can say to its citizens, ‘This is your home.’ That is the symbolic significance of Pride events.”