By Outer Banks Voice on September 10, 2021
Twelve years ago, in the summer of 2009, David Miller and a friend had an idea — to create the first ever Pride event in Northeastern North Carolina. They had many reasons for wanting to do this, but primarily, they wanted to make the Outer Banks a place for the gay community to feel comfortable vacationing, a place where they would feel welcome.
“We knew there were already thousands of gay tourists vacationing on the Outer Banks each summer and shoulder seasons. But there was no source of information, no way for these folks to find each other, to make plans to enjoy the Outer Banks as a group,” said Miller.
Miller, now 58, and originally from West Point, VA, had been coming to the Outer Banks to work at the Lost Colony since his college summers, and he made the move here official in 2001. Before that, he had been living in places such as Richmond and the Florida Keys, both known for having a vibrant gay community. He wanted to bring that same welcomeness to the Outer Banks.
He and a group of friends started by creating a website, thegayobx.com, which launched in the summer of 2009, catering to the needs of the LGBTQ+ community. According to Miller, they started with business owners and real estate companies, teaming up to create events and recreational activities specifically for the gay community.
They also formed their own production company and hired out-of-town entertainers, such as Key West/Provincetown singer Randy Roberts, New York comedian Hedda Lettuce and Oklahoma singer/songwriter Eric Himan to come and entertain at Kelly’s Tavern every third Sunday of the month.
All that led into Miller and a group of seven friends spending more than a year to secure 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and launch the first official Outer Banks Pridefest in June of 2011. It was the first such festival in Northeastern North Carolina and it included a weekend jammed with national acts. About 1,500 people showed up to that first festival, a number that has remained quite steady ever since.
A number of people in the gay community, including Melanie Space who moved here from New York in 2007, say that first event was the first time that they felt a part of something here.
“It gave people…a sense of community, like when it started, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I never even thought that would be possible on the Outer Banks,” says Space. “It’s an incredible thing for them to have that little brainchild and then really start something. It’s nice to feel included on this beach as a lesbian.”
Space wasn’t an organizer of the event, but everyone knew her because she took it upon herself to go around and make sure everyone was having a good time. So when Miller got burnt out in 2016 from all of the years of being chairman, Space was the natural choice to take over the reins.
There have been a few changes to the festival over the years. The main location has moved from the First Colony Inn in Nags Head to the Manteo Waterfront. The timing was shifted from June to September to help people more easily find places to stay at a time of year that is less crowded on the Outer Banks. They’ve also cut down on the number of events because organizers realized that people also like to have time to go do their own thing and relax on the beach.
This year, Pridefest will feature the Sunset Cruise, which is already sold out, The Pride and Joy Drag Show at 10:00 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 11 at the Outer Banks Brewing Station, the tenth annual Pridefest on Saturday on the Manteo Waterfront starting at 1:30 p.m., and a Drag Brunch at the Avenue Waterfront Grille In Manteo on Sunday at 11:00 a.m.
Despite changes over the years, there are a few constants. Miller is especially proud of the fact that they have given back to the community, donating the majority of the proceeds from their festivals to local Outer Banks charities including Brandon’s Beacon of Hope HIV Foundation, OBX Relief Foundation, and Dare2CareOBX, an organization that facilitates music programs for special needs community members and veterans and formed the OBX Shredders, Dare County’s first Intellectual and developmental disabilities-inclusive band.
Lisa Brickhouse Davis, a local radio personality who founded Dare2CareOBX and volunteers as the Public Relations liaison for OBX Pride, loves seeing these two communities come together.
“They have really embraced me and my special needs kids, and have wrapped their arms around them one hundred percent,” says Davis.
OBX Pride has given Dare2CareOBX a $1,500 check which allowed them to expand their music program. In exchange, the special needs community volunteers at the festival, handing out stickers and volunteering in the Children’s Corner
According to Miller, the main goal of the annual festival is to create a welcoming and secure community.
“The political part wasn’t as important as getting people together to have a good time on the beach and just having a space where gay people, trans people, anyone from the community can come out and be themselves, where they can do what they want, relax, and don’t have to worry about holding hands and being stared at,” says Miller.
For Stacy and Raj Marshall, a trans-married couple, that welcoming atmosphere was a big change from their previous experience in Pennsylvania.
“We moved to the Outer Banks [about seven years ago] and were welcomed into the LGBT community almost immediately. Dave, Mel and others from the community welcomed us. Our first event was Drag Bingo at Wave Riders with Jennifer Warner and it was amazing,” says Marshall. “It was nice to be welcomed into the fold so quickly that before we knew what was happening, we were involved in planning the next Pride event.”
It was also important to Miller to create a place where gay youth in the community can grow up being themselves.
“Growing up in West Point, I didn’t know of any other gay people growing up going to school. Thinking back now to who was there, I can see who might have been gay. But growing up thinking I was the only one was kind of tough,” he says.
“OBX Pride started when I was in high school and it played a major role in me realizing that our community is an accepting place and I didn’t have to choose between being myself publicly and living in the community I am from and have always loved,” says Evan Tillett, 26, of Nags Head. “Having strong gay men like David that I can look up to has helped me grow into the person I am today, and I hope I can continue that example for future generations on the Outer Banks.”
Davis adds that Miller is not the type to boast about the work he has done, but he deserves to be heralded and celebrated for his dedication to Pridefest and this community.
This year’s event will be Space’s last year running the show, as she’s moving back New York — and Miller was thinking he might have to make this his last year too. Fortunately, after he made that announcement, 10 different people volunteered to help going forward. So, OBX Pridefest will live on – surely with Miller guiding the way.