If you want to learn about the history of Pride in Nashville and in the South, Ron Sanford is someone you should talk to. The founder of the event planning company Ron Sanford Productions has been to every Nashville Pride since 1996 and has attended Pride in almost every other major city around.
He remembers details about Nashville’s Pride that would make any historian proud, spouting off dates and recalling people’s names with razor-sharp accuracy. Like the time in 2003 when Ron took poodles dyed every color of the rainbow to Pride. Or when, in 1998, Bianca Paige rode a pink elephant down Church Street. Then there was Pride in 1999 when the "Roaring into the Millennium" float went down Broadway. And he definitely can’t forget the year he fell through a barge on the river that was used as a stage and almost broke his leg. Ron Sanford is a true Pride aficionado.
Ron was born and raised in Nashville. His father worked in top level management for Ford Glass and was also First Sergeant of the National Guard, assisting the Governor. His mother was a homemaker.
In 1980, at the age of seventeen, Ron came out. Two years later, he moved to Atlanta where he would go on to win Mr. Gay World and also start two companies. Ron Sanford Productions was launched in 1986 and was known as Ron’s “gay company.” His other company, Flamboyant Design, was his "straight" decor business. Ron Sanford Productions was started as a pageant, pride, and party planning enterprise.
“Back then you couldn't be in both worlds— certain people would not come to you if you were a gay business. This was a way for me to stand in both worlds as a business owner,” Sanford explained. “They were sister companies.”
While his companies were launching in the eighties, the gay community was experiencing a devastation never before seen: the AIDS crisis.
You can’t talk about the history of Pride without recognizing the impact of the AIDS epidemic during the eighties. At that time, it was called the gay cancer, among other, even less kind, phrases. As one of Ron’s friend’s pointed out to him, “How does cancer know you are gay?”
It was a hard time for the gay community. “Not only did no one like us, but they didn’t even want to touch us,” stated Sanford.
Sanford, who was working as a gay entertainer in Atlanta in the early eighties, witnessed the devastation of the AIDS crisis firsthand. In 1982, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta asked Ron and other influential members of the LGBT community to help close down the local bathhouses.
“We lobbied the bathhouses and gay people with a coalition to convince people not to patronize them. That was in conjunction with the CDC, along with a condom campaign (an early AIDS awareness and education program). The CDC just knew that it was impacting gay men first and hardest,” he explained, “so it was like their Hail Mary play to stem spread of the disease while the CDC could work to figure out what it was.”
But even with the closing of bathhouses, AIDS was still spreading throughout the gay community like wildfire and leaving devastation in its wake. Sanford doesn’t know an exact number, but he estimates that 400 friends, acquaintances, and co workers died within the decade.
If losing your friends to AIDS wasn’t bad enough, not being able to give them a public memorial service added to the injury. “None of the funeral homes in Atlanta would let us use their place because they were scared of AIDS spreading,” Sanford explained. “One funeral home gave us their basement. A few of us got together and decorated that basement and it was the best looking site for a funeral in the whole south. Hundreds of people used that basement to say goodbye to their friends.”
That’s just one example of the gay community having to take care of themselves. Had they not taken care of themselves, thousands more would have died. It was the gay community that founded Nashville Cares, and organizations like it across the country, and that same community that has worked to keep these organizations open. Ron remembers drag queens being asked to give their proceeds to Nashville Cares, just so the organization’s electricity wouldn’t get turned off.
While AIDS did not go away overnight, Ron does remember when he began noticing a turnaround. In 1989, Barbara Bush, wife of the newly inaugurated George H.W. Bush,
broke the silence of the previous administration with a hug and her voice. Mrs. Bush cradled an infant and hugged an adult AIDS victim to demonstrate a message: “You can hug and pick up AIDS babies and people who have the HIV virus” without hurting yourself, she said. “There is a need for compassion.”
Other celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor, Elton John, and Princess Diana would soon follow suit, and the stigma of AIDS would ever so slowly begin to dissipate, but not without leaving a lasting impression on the gay community.
If the eighties was all about fighting for our lives, the nineties was about fighting for equality.
In 1995, Ron moved back to Nashville and attended his first Nashville Pride the following year in 1996. Linda Welch was the head of Pride that year. Pride co-chairs Linda Welch and Brad Beasley moved the event to Riverfront Park and, for the first time, were able to raise enough money to have a police officer on each street corner to block traffic, allowing for horses, motorcycles, and floats. It was also the first year there was a Pride parade. Prior to that, Pride in Nashville was just an impromptu march, then a gathering at Legislative Plaza.
The year 1996 was also memorable because of the rain. “We had all of these big plans, but it was supposed to rain. We didn’t know what to do. We were going to be celebrating after the parade at Riverfront Park, which was a really big deal. We ended up hosting Pride at The Connection, the southeast's largest gay bar,” Sanford said. “It was located on Cowan Street on the river and provided a great last minute location. Even though it rained, we still made it work.”
Three years later in 1999, Pride in Nashville moved somewhere else it had never been before and has never been since: Broadway. “I was co chairman that year. We had to beg for money. We were always in the hole at the end of the year— sometimes as much as $50,000 in the hole. But bringing Pride to Broadway was a huge deal.”
A Pride parade down Broadway proved to be a good idea. That same day there was also a Predators parade following the Pride parade. “We had a lot of people there that didn’t know what was going on, but that didn’t matter because everyone was there to celebrate.”
Following the parade down Broadway, Pride was moved first to Bicentennial Mall in 2000 and then to Centennial Park in 2001, where it would remain for the next several years.
In 2009 the festival was moved from its Centennial Park home to Riverfront Park in downtown Nashville, with Deborah Cox headlining that year. National attention was garnered by the festival in 2010 when the festival’s headlining entertainer, Vanessa Carlton, came out to a record number of attendees.
“I would say when we went back to Riverfront that’s when it became easy to celebrate. We had big sponsors like Hard Rock Cafe and Bridgestone. They made it into a celebration. They started getting big names. That’s when people became out and proud. If the straight people will sponsor us, we can come out.”
In 2014, organizers moved the event from Riverfront Park to its highly visible location in the heart of downtown Nashville at Public Square Park, where the event drew a record number of attendees and vendors. This was also the first year the festival added a Friday night concert prior to the Saturday Festival. The annual Equality Walk was also started in 2014, drawing an estimated 2,500 that first year.
“Between the location and the Equality Walk, it was like we were fighting on the steps instead of partying on the river,” Sanford said.
In 2015, in the ruling heard round the world, gay marriage became legally recognized by the federal government. That year, Pride began immediately following the announcement, and it was a bigger celebration than it had ever been before. The Equality Walk kicked off with the wedding of Al Gregory and Toby Sturgill.
This was also a particularly special year for Sanford. For the past few years, Sanford had closed up shop on his company, but with the new ruling, he felt it was time to bring Ron Sanford Productions back.
“That ruling was why I brought back my company,” Sanford explained. “I was able to put my name on my company and be proud. I could be upfront and out there, and I could do something every year for the community to show how much I love them, and to give back.”
The following year also saw a boost in attendance on the heels of the tragic mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub, though the tone of the Festival was less celebratory than in years past. This time, more than any other in the past 10 years, people were coming together to support each other and raise awareness for the ongoing need to advance LGBT rights and acceptance. More than 5,000 people participated in the annual Equality Walk, far exceeding the previous year’s numbers, in a show of solidarity and strength.
In 2017 the two-day festival smashed attendance records with more than 35,000 people congregating at Public Square park with an impressive lineup of corporate sponsors such as Bridgestone and supported by Nissan, Delta Air Lines, Genesco, Journeys, Miller Lite, Jack Daniels, Dollar General Tribe, Play Dance Bar, Curb Records and many more.
Also, in 2017, the Metro Historical Commission approved Nashville’s first marker recognizing an LGBT rights activist, Penny Campbell, who passed away in 2014. Campbell organized the city’s first pride parade in 1988, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. She also acted as the lead plaintiff in the court case that decriminalized homosexual acts in Tennessee.
As Pride in Nashville grows, Ron hopes that younger generations do not lose sight of the meaning behind the movement. Pride is meant to oppose the shame and social stigma that was the predominant outlook of the LGBT community for so many years and not just a party.
“I would say the younger generation—25 and below—may not understand Pride the way the older generation does, but I don’t get upset at them over that,” Sanford said. “I came out in high school. I knew what I was doing. I knew I was going to be thrown out of school and church. I look at it like thank God these kids don’t have to go through what we did. Thank God they don’t have to be called faggot or queer or accused of having aids. Do I think they need to learn their history? Of course. But I wouldn’t wish what i had to go through on anyone. I am proud to see how far we have come and what Pride is today.”
And Pride in Nashville today is truly something to proud of, according to Ron. “I have been to Prides all over— Atlanta, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Tampa— and I believe Nashville holds its own. We have 25,000+ people show up. I am extremely proud of Nashville’s Pride. Even through the discipline we had to go through, we prevailed. Through debt, through begging for sponsors, through bad weather, Pride in Nashville prevailed.”