Members of a South Carolina gay rights organization said Tuesday they hope a recent controversy about ads proclaiming the state "so gay" will stir up interest in this year's gay pride celebration.
"We truly believe that this week, South Carolina is 'so gay,'" said Ryan Wilson, president of SC Pride.
The annual South Carolina Pride Festival and Celebration is being held in Columbia this week. Events include a film festival, parade and appearance by entertainer and female impersonator RuPaul. Wilson said he expects about 7,000 to attend.
The theme: "South Carolina will be so gay," a reference to an ad campaign that roiled the state this summer. The South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism originally joined the campaign, which was to include posters overseas saying "South Carolina is so gay" and encouraging gay travelers to visit the state's historic sites and beaches. But the state agency dropped out in July, saying the project hadn't been properly reviewed, and a tourism department employee involved in the promotion resigned.
Now, Wilson says his group has raised more than $1,000 toward paying the state's $5,000 bill for the ads, receiving donations from across the country.
"We had one letter from a gay couple. They were getting married in California and they said their gift to each other was donating to gay organizations around the country, and $50 of that was for our organization," Wilson said. "Getting letters like that really show that an international movement is happening."
An intermediary agency hired by the state tourism department to market South Carolina abroad has not been paid back the $5,000 it laid out to pay for the ads, but Parks Department spokesman Marion Edmonds says the London advertising contractor has agreed to eat the loss.
"The contracted representatives have declined to accept payment in acknowledgment that it (the ad campaign) was not part of our marketing plan," Edmonds said. "So the money that's being raised by SC Pride, I guess they'll decide what to do with that."
At $16 billion a year, tourism is South Carolina's largest industry.
Wilson also said he would present certificates to two politicians critical of the ad campaign. Gov. Mark Sanford said in July that taxpayer funds shouldn't be used for ads that promote any group with a particular social or political agenda, and David Thomas, a Republican state senator from Greenville, called for an audit of the state tourism agency after learning of the ad campaign.
"We feel that the governor and Sen. Thomas have proven that their homophobia is 'so gay,'" said Wilson, adding that he welcomed a dialogue on the issue with both men. "The best thing we could see would be the state actually paying their bill and the money that we've raised going to charity.
Thomas did not return a messages seeking comment left at his Greenville law office. He told Time magazine for an article in July that he thought the ad might mislead gay travelers about what is in South Carolina for them. "They'll get off the plane and say, 'Where are the gay beaches?' and no one will know what they are talking about."
A spokesman for Sanford reiterated the governor's comments about targeted advertising.