A Place for Pride

John Camp and Keri King of Knox Pride

A Place for Pride

Knox Pride’s new walk-in center in South Knoxville provides a welcoming space for the LGBTQ community.

by jesse fox mayshark • October 29, 2021

John Camp and Keri King of Knox Pride

John camp and Keri King of Knox Pride at the organization's new community center on chapman highway.

John Camp didn’t have to wait long earlier this month to know that opening the Knox Pride Community Outreach Center was a good idea. 

From a once-a-year festival to a year-round hub of support and activities.

On the first day that it opened its doors, in a converted hair salon and storefront church space in South Knoxville, many local LGBTQ residents dropped by just to check it out. A group of older men ended up plopping down on chairs and couches just to catch up with each other.

Reflecting on the space’s most recent use, Camp — Knox Pride’s board president — said, “This is what barbershops are for communities, at the heart of community. And old men stop and hang out at barbershops. And it was like, we’re open for three hours and we’ve already got our old men hanging out, which was really cool.”

The center at 4028 Chapman Highway is the first physical location for Knox Pride since it was founded in 2006. The nonprofit group, which is run by an all-volunteer board, was formed to run the annual Knox Pride Festival, which has grown into one of the largest free LGBTQ celebrations in the Southeast.

But with the festival canceled the past two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, board members found themselves thinking about how else they can serve a community that still faces marginalization and discrimination even six years after the landmark Supreme Court ruling that established a right to same-sex marriage.

“Originally, it was just a (conversation about), “How can we refocus our resources towards more community engagement?’” said Keri King, Knox Pride’s entertainment coordinator. “And I think we just had kind of a kismet series of events that led us to where we are.”

More Than a Festival

Where they are, physically, is on the ground floor of a commercial building next to Sam Duff Memorial Park. (The best way to find the entrance, which is around the side of the building, is to turn at the sign to the park’s parking lot.)

At first they found the open salon space, and when a small church moved out of the storefront two doors down, they snatched up that as well. They hope to eventually expand to basement space that could serve as an event venue for weddings and other celebrations.

While the festival will remain a major focus for the organization, King said the community center is a year-round place that will provide the same sense of connection and support — and also draw in people the festival misses.

“The festival is very much a place to celebrate,” King said. “And we've gotten a lot of feedback too that people that are sober haven't necessarily felt as comfortable in the festival space.”

It may be easy to think that in an era of marriage equality when many major employers have internal diversity and LGBTQ task forces, the need for a community space may have diminished. But Camp said that is far from true, especially in East Tennessee. The University of Tennessee has a Pride Center — which students and alumni had to fight for — but there hasn’t been anything like it in the broader community.

“I think we’re filling a gap that was really wide,” Camp said. “I think there are a lot of people who of course do feel comfortable at work or in their home life. But there are a lot of people out there that don't, especially younger folks, or they're still new to being who they truly are and maybe don’t feel comfortable doing that in a public space, but may feel comfortable doing it in a safe space like this.”

That is the specific focus of one of the first series of events Knox Pride has programmed for the center — Affirmation Days, which are starting Nov. 14 and are planned to take place every two weeks. The events will be open by registration only, and they will invite people to explore and assert their identities, with assistance.

King said, “We'll have a series of volunteers coming in to either help with haircuts, teach someone how to apply makeup that hasn't done that before, offer access to a clothing closet where people can find clothing that they may not be comfortable seeking out in a public shop, access to people who can help them make alterations to that to make sure it fits their body appropriately.”

If Knox Pride can find the right volunteers, those services could also include, for example, voice coaching for people who are on hormone therapy and experiencing vocal changes.

“Just trying to give people a space to learn some things that might be new to them as they are connecting with their more authentic selves,” King said. (You can find more information on the Knox Pride website.)

Making Connections

The center is still a relatively spartan operation, largely run by Camp, King, and Camp’s husband, Dustin. The three — who also produce events together — had quarantined as a group during the pandemic and used the time to plan the space and get it cleaned up.

“We have some before pictures … “ King said, gesturing at the bright, painted walls hung with artwork.

“We did a lot of work,” Camp said with a laugh.

Besides programming generated by Knox Pride, the group is inviting other community organizations to use its space. Positively Living and the Choice Health Network announced this week that they will offer free HIV and Hepatitis C testing at the center on the first and third Wednesday of each month, from 5 to 7 p.m.

Other groups have already started to use the center. A transgender youth group recently spent a few hours there doing a fashion photoshoot.

“I feel like we met that need for them, because they had a private space to do that where they knew that the people running it were from the same community,” Camp said.

There is also a monthly children’s event, Gigi’s Storytime. The next one is this Saturday, Oct. 30, from 10-11:30 a.m. with a Halloween theme and costumes encouraged. 

King said working more closely with other groups, and having a space to offer them, was valuable for everyone.

“I think it's really strengthened our community’s web of interconnectivity,” she said. “So now when someone calls us and says, ‘Hey, I have this need,’ maybe it's not something we support, but we know exactly who can help them.”

Camp said some of the most affecting reactions he’s heard to the center are from older visitors. “I think the biggest thing I've heard, more than once, is, ‘I never thought we'd see something like this in Knoxville in my lifetime,’” he said.

For Knox Pride, that is part of the point of having a physical location. The group has an address, it’s a visible part of the community, not just once a year.

“To me, it feels more validating,” Camp said. “The work that we put into this feels more enriched, where I feel like we're actually making a difference. Having a festival is great, because there are people that have that one day a year where they don't feel like outsiders, or they feel like they're surrounded by people they care about. This is just an extension of that — to offer that all the time.”