Charlotte Black Pride co-founder Jermaine Nakia Lee remembers when he knew he was a part of something special.
It was during the inaugural Charlotte Black Pride Week in July 2005, at a spoken-word event featuring nationally renowned trio The Punani Poets held in the original Carolinas Acting Studio location in a large garage-like warehouse behind the now-shuttered Lesbian and Gay Community Center in Plaza Midwood.
Shortly into the program, on a sweltering afternoon, the air conditioning went out.
“We had a sold-out audience, the space held 350 folks, it’s the middle of July, the air conditioning goes out, and not one person asked for their money back, and not one person left the building,” Lee recalled. “It was a testament of just how important the moment was to the community, where people didn’t want to miss a moment.”
Despite that powerful moment, there was still plenty of pushback — sometimes from the communities closest to them. Like the time when a busload of congregants from a local Black church showed up outside the inaugural expo at the Afro-American Cultural Center (now the Gantt Center) with plans to come inside and pray over attendees.
“Normally, protesters like the ones who show up to Charlotte Pride, they don’t show up for our events because they would get their asses kicked,” says Jermaine Nakia Lee, who founded Charlotte Black Pride with colleagues Damon Blackman, Monica Simpson, and Korey Handy.
“But I had gotten wind from a gay congregant that they were planning to bring a busload of people to infiltrate our  expo. This is a private event. So the bus pulls up. I go outside and I identified the pastor and I looked him in the eye and said, ‘If you want to be a martyr that’s fine, but unless you want your congregation to see you arrested today, you need to leave. You can stay in the parking lot, but you all are not allowed to come into our space. This is a safe space and the people who are here are LGBTQ-affirming and if you’re not you need to stay in the parking lot.’”
The congregants from the bus remained in the parking lot throughout the expo, and Lee was disappointed that some of the younger attendees engaged with them and even joined them in prayer circles, but even that experience was nothing compared to the vitriol he and fellow organizers experienced from white members of the LGBTQ+ community.
To this day he keeps the emails he received from leaders in the local LGBTQ+ community, some of whom still have a heavy influence to this day, calling him and his co-founders racists.
In fact, Lee and his colleagues originally wanted only to “piggyback” on the work that Charlotte Pride, still a fledgling organization itself at the time, was doing. They had reached out to staff there to discuss hosting some Black-centered events, and while the initial feedback was positive, over two years they found themselves consistently ignored.
“We just got a clue that there clearly wasn’t really a sincere desire to diversify the programming,” Lee told Queen City Nerve.
So he and his co-founders, all of whom had amateur experience with event planning and promotion, took it upon themselves to launch Charlotte Black Pride, with some help from the national Center for Black Equity.
Fast forward to 2022, and Charlotte Black Pride is coming off its most successful Charlotte Black Pride Week to date, having raised nearly $100,000, more than triple the organization’s average annual budget.
And while Charlotte Black Pride’s relationship with Charlotte Pride is now healthy — the two are sister organizations and regularly partner on events, fundraising and sharing resources — Lee said he’s thankful that he and his partners went ignored in those early years.
“I think, like a lot of Black folk at the time, we thought we needed to be connected to a mainstream white-led-and-funded organization to be legitimate. I hate to admit it, but we thought that,” said Lee, who still serves as CBP’s development director. “But their ignoring of us led us to desperate measures and to think differently. Today, I wouldn’t even think to approach Charlotte Pride to piggyback on them. The way my mindset is now and how my values system is set, I know that particularly marginalized groups need their own institutions. So I’m kind of glad they ignored us because we wouldn’t have been able to create this Black LGBTQ institution, and it was necessary.”
A foundation in the arts
Now that Charlotte Black Pride Week 2022 has gone down as the most successful one ever held by the organization, Lee and his fellow board members will continue their efforts through Pride365, an initiative to emphasize that Charlotte Black Pride remains active year-round, not just during Pride Week.
On Aug. 14, the organization will partner with Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte for a discounted Charlotte Black Pride matinee showing of If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be A Muhfucka, a theatrical melding of West African folklore with contemporary American culture.
As a longtime theatre director himself and current education director with Brand New Sheriff Productions, Lee has long enjoyed having the chance to use arts to educate people about his community.
“I think that music and the performing arts is a universal language. One of the ways to kill stigma and misunderstanding is through art; it’s a language that everyone understands and people are interested in,” he said. “It has certainly been a part of our strategy in promoting our culture and killing stigma in our culture.”
The popularity of recent shows and films like Moonlight, Pose, and P-Valley have made some progress in humanizing Black LGBTQ+ culture for those who may not be familiar.
In fact, that’s what has occurred in his own family. When Lee came out to his mother, she told him she accepted him but made comments that he found ignorant, asking that he not come to her home wearing a dress and that he “be the man” in any relationship he entered into.
She has since gained a deeper understanding of Black LGBTQ issues, and Lee credits media such as HBO’s Legendary, one of her favorite shows.
“For her now to call me when a trans person is killed, to call me in tears and say, ‘How can they do this to her? Why are they attacking these people just trying to live their lives?’ She’s immersed in the community now and understands,” he said. “For her, as someone who generally isn’t around trans folks, that has come from images and stories that she’s seen of those individuals in media.”
Still, he’d like to see more change. It bothers Lee that most depictions of gay Black men like himself in media rely on an overly flamboyant stereotype. He doesn’t see himself or his circle of friends depicted onscreen often.
He pointed to Lil’ Murda’s storyline in P-Valley as an example of something more relatable that he hopes to see more of.
“Every gay man isn’t like over the top and effeminate, and every lesbian isn’t masculine,” he said. “There’s all of that, there’s all of those extremes and everything in the middle in our community and we don’t see enough of, like, the mainstream, because I don’t think that necessarily feeds the appetite of straight folk.
“That’s why you don’t see that, because what feeds their appetite is the over-the-top, loud, flamboyant gay man. People who identify that way and present that way are an important part of our community, but they’re not the sole part of our community.”
The next level
As for Charlotte Black Pride, Lee is excited for the future. Over the last year, the organization has brought on three new board members, with a focus on folks in the younger generations who can take the organization in new directions.
The efforts have already paid off, as Lee noticed during the 2022 Charlotte Black Pride Week Expo. One of the newer, younger board members, entertainment director Quan Rutledge, has connections in the local ballroom scene, a subculture based on music, pageantry and dance, as depicted in the show Pose.
Rutledge planned a mini-ball to take place during the final two hours of the expo, and it was a hit.
“Our expo always kind of draws a mixed bag of folk, but that last two hours, the room was just filled with teens, twenty-somethings, and thirty-somethings that I know otherwise would never have been there but came for the mini-ball,” Lee recalled.
He also credits board chair Shann Fulton with much the organization’s recent success. Fulton has battled cancer over the last two years and did much of the organizing for Charlotte Black Pride Week 2021 from their bedside.
During 2022 Pride Week, which took place in late July, the cancer returned, though less aggressive chemo treatments meant Fulton could attend a few events.
“For the last two years, we’ve been able to raise more money than we’ve ever had, we’ve been able to develop our board with talent that we’ve never had, and that’s all been done under the leadership of somebody who was battling life-threatening cancer and doing it from their bedside,” said Lee of Fulton’s harrowing leadership.
In the end, the goal is to simply spread love and awareness for the culture while keeping a mind to how Charlotte Black Pride can be as inclusive as possible. That could mean leaving the door open for more organizations like them.
If there’s one thing Lee understands, it’s that nobody deserves to go ignored the way he and his partners once did.
“What many of the mainstream leaders [in 2015] refused to recognize is that Black gay culture exists; it’s a thing,” he said. “I would be excited for when our city grows to the point when we have a Middle Eastern Pride or Asian Pride. Because I know that there’s a way that they do Pride that’s different than how white folk do Pride, or how Black folk do Pride, based on their culture. That is now a lot more appreciated.”
Lee and Charlotte Black Pride played a big role in creating and cultivating that appreciation.