Q & A with Vanessa Rodley

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by Sarah Rushakoff

With a dogged determination to keep the beloved festival alive amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Rodley led a team of volunteers at Mid-South Pride to produce a novel Pride Week 2020 — the Virtual Edition.

Have you had to get creative with your career during the pandemic?
Oh, absolutely. I was working 80+ hours a week last year, so my wife and I decided I was going to take the first few months of 2020 off, focus on my health, and then jump back out there. Well, then COVID happened. So we had to reevaluate the pros and cons of me going back to work. People weren’t really hiring, so I only worked for Pride this year. I don’t get paid to do this, but I knew I needed to really step up and lead us in the right direction. I have a great board but they aren’t used to planning a virtual event like this. I’d say I did about 80 percent of the work for virtual pride. I do have to say, I couldn’t do this without my wife. She is my second brain.

Was it a hard decision to go virtual?
Pride is a feeling. You cannot cancel a feeling. We had to find a way to make that happen at home for people.

We tried to get in front of it as early as we could, especially since we knew some of the smaller prides in the area would look to us and follow our lead. I watched all the virtual events I could and took notes, so we could create an event people would want to participate in from home. We used Global Pride as our template for how we wanted to do things and engage people.

Instead of doing a live caravan that would encourage people to gather in large groups, we pre-recorded the entire thing so it was easy to watch it from home. That ended up being amazing. Overall, we streamed about 20 hours of festival content between Thursday and Sunday. We had 24,000 people watch.

Rodley at the 2017 Pride Fest in Memphis.

What aspects of a physical festival were the most difficult to recreate virtually?
A big part of the feedback we get every year is that someone found a church that accepts them. It’s life- changing for a lot of people, especially here in the south. So we planned a multi-faith virtual service with 32 participating congregations, way more than in past years. I’d talked to Reverend Sam [Teitel] over at Church of the River, and he did an amazing job getting a lot of congregations involved.

Our nonprofits that do HIV testing, or PrEP, and things like that, rely on the day of pride to get the most tests administered as possible. We dedicated Thursday to make sure our community is aware of these places. We invited nonprofits to share a video about who they are, what they
do, and why they need our support. I personally learned so much about our nonprofits than I ever knew before.

What other events do y’all have besides the annual festival and parade?
For years, I’d been trying to bring our community a 5k, the first LGBTQ 5k in our region. We went virtual and hit our target goal for our first year, which was great. We’re bringing it back for 2021. Also, we did the Drag N Drive this year, it sold out almost ten days before the event. We had people begging for tickets and we couldn’t give any more, because the health department was strict about the number of cars. For next year, we’ll just do two screens, or even more. We tried to run a poker tournament, but the legalities were too hard to deal with. We hope to do it in the future.

What is Mid-South Pride doing as an organization to serve the Black and POC LGBTQ community in Memphis?
A lot of people don’t realize we have Tri-State Black Pride. They have more of an education base, so their platform is more hosting things for people to learn. We’ve teamed up with Headliners Memphis, they did a virtual pull-up event for pride about sexual health. We shared My Sistah’s House on both Thursday and Saturday to help share their message and help with their funding. The PAIGE [The Project of Advancement in Gays’ Efforts] is amazing, and we shared their video on Thursday as well. We hope to start teaming up with more organizations in the future and sharing what they do.

I was raised in Los Angeles, so I have a more forward- thinking upbringing than most people here in the south. Not saying that my thinking was better, but I was raised differently. When I got here, I saw the division. We went out of our way this year to make sure we had equal parts Black to white, try to bring brown and Asian into this as well, so we can show diversity across the board. I joined the board eight years ago and there have been an average of two Black or POC board members ever since then. We are all in.

Do you plan to keep having a virtual component for the future? How will pride look in 2021?
Even if we do have in-person events in the next few years, there will be people who can’t be there because of health issues, but they still want to celebrate. Now that we’ve learned how to do it virtually, we’ll use aspects of that every year. For 2021, we’re moving Mid-South Pride to the first weekend in June. We’re calling it “Going Home to June.” Hopefully it can be physical, if not, it’ll be virtual.