This weekend's Northwest Arkansas Pride festival, the biggest Pride Month event in the state thanks to its proximity to Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Springfield, Mo., and Little Rock, which has its Pride events in October, is a bonanza for the local gay bar, and the many other bars and restaurants bearing rainbow bunting in June.
The festival has become the busiest time for local hospitality and retail businesses, outside of Razorback football home game days.
Sarah E. King with Visit Fayetteville said hotel data from last year shows an uptick the week of Pride. Hotels were full on Pride weekend.
"That's something we're excited about," she said. "The town feels full. We see license plates from all over. Fayetteville is a cultural center for Northwest Arkansas in so many ways. And at this event, there are people of all ages, especially couples, who are able to come out and be themselves, just relax and be affirmed. It's just a wonderful warm feeling," she said. "There're a lot of churches that march in the parade, so there's a really wholesome feeling to it that perhaps has attracted more and more people as the years ago by."
Richard Gathright, a Fayetteville real estate agent, has directed NWA Pride for six years. Its attendance has shot up to 30,000 from 6,500 in 2016, and he ascribes the growth to the festival's relocation to Dixon Street. Most of the bars and restaurants along the corridor are open during Pride, and most will have record sales on Saturday, he said.
Corporate and philanthropic support has also substantially increased, said Gathright, from just a few to Walmart and the Tyson Family Foundation. That increase in sponsorships is happening as businesses such as Starbucks, Target and Anheuser-Busch are enduring pushback for expressed support of LGBTQ Pride and rights.
"This climate has just become so toxic with a lot of lies, basically," Gathright said.
There is an annual debate over the commercialization and corporate branding of Pride festivals, which commemorate the June 28, 1969, New York City Stonewall riots against police harassment that kickstarted the gay liberation movement. Gathright said he could not put NWA Pride on without sponsorship money. That support for the festival, he said, serves a purpose.
"We're helping our local economy. We're helping our youth," Gathright said. "We're helping older individuals who may not be out yet. I talked to a 60-year-old man not too long ago, and this is going to be his first Pride. He'd never felt comfortable coming out until a few years ago and has finally gotten enough courage to come to his first Pride."
Amanda Arafat and Grayce Holcomb, a baker and graphic designer, respectively, in Northwest Arkansas, started Fayetteville's annual Big Gay Market in 2021, held this year on the weekend before NWA Pride. (They have also held markets during the Christmas holiday shopping season and on Valentine's Day.) Arafat said it began as a reaction to legislation affecting transgender people.
"When you've got your back up against a wall, you grasp at what you have," she said. "And so feeling really isolated in Northwest Arkansas as a queer, and both of us being queer creatives, that was the reference point we had," she said. "It was just something that we felt could be the vehicle for that pride."
The Big Gay Market organizers are also vendors; Arafat said it's her best sales weekend of the year. A record number of trans and gender-nonconforming vendors applied for tables; 11 did so, and thanks to sponsorships, none had to pay fees to sell there. The 36 total vendors all came from Northwest and Central Arkansas.
Arafat said the sponsorship dollars substantially helped her and other market organizers put it on this year.
"Being able to create a space that is for us and designed to work for us and people like us -- we know that those are going to be our most successful markets, personally as vendors," she said. "We have that control, and where else is the landscape really laid out for queer people in Northwest Arkansas?"
While many college town businesses have a feast-and-famine cycle with the academic-yearly comings and goings of students and academic staff, Arafat said the Big Gay Market summertime scheduling doesn't limit sales. "It has definitely become something that locals plan to support and they expect to go to when it comes around," Arafat said. "I think it's something that we've planted deep within our queer and allied community here."
"The objective isn't really to make a lot of money during Pride," said Morgan Shortt of queer-owned Pink House Alchemy, which makes and sells syrups for coffee and cocktails, bitters and ancillary products.
As a business, Shortt said Pink House targets its corporate donations in June to maximize impact with likeminded entities and that it does most of its associated sales at pop-up bars or private events. It hosted the annual Big Gay Market last weekend on its parking lot, bringing a lot of foot traffic into the shop.
"Our sales just for our shop on that day were quadrupled," Shortt said. "That's obviously great for the business, but it's also super great for community. And those numbers tend to grow."
All the exposure leads to profit down the road. Beyond Northwest Arkansas, Pink House has wholesale customers in all 50 states and Europe. Shortt said growth has doubled every year, even during the covid-19 pandemic. Pink House relies on summertime and Christmas holiday season sales, even in an environment when a substantial percent of population is absent outside of the academic year, and Pride month substantially helps their bottom line.
Said Arafat, "We're seeing a lot less examples of 'we can be this; there is a possibility in the future I could be this.' We're really trying to model that you can be normal and have a normal life, whatever that means to you, and be a queer person. At this point, it really is trying to model the sort of Northwest Arkansas we'd really like there to be."