CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — A week before the start of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, the city on Saturday hosted thousands of people for the opening of a gay pride festival.
Organizers of the Pride Charlotte Festival say they expect big crowds this weekend for activities that include a concert, a poker tournament and a basketball competition.
Thousands annually attend the festival, which also draws dozens of protesters. But this year's two-day festival comes after voters in May decided to add a prohibition against gay marriage to the state constitution, effectively slamming the door shut on same-sex marriages.
Many of the people attending the first day of the festival said they were there to have fun and greet friends. But some said they showed up to show solidarity.
"I think it's taken on a new meaning this year," said Jane Weathers, 34, a teacher. "A lot of people were upset by the vote. "Turning out to events like this shows we're proud and we're not going to let this get us down. We'll keep fighting for our rights."
Dave Webb, one of the pride festival's organizers, says the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is united and will push for change.
He said the festival had continued to grow over the years. What used to be a relatively small gathering has grown so big, they moved it downtown and spread it out over two days.
"More than anything, it's an opportunity for the community in the Carolinas to come together for a large event and a public event," he said. "It allows the community to be very visible and very open. And by having different speakers on the stage, it gives them a platform to talk about social and political issues."
The Democratic convention is being held from Sept. 4-6. For the first two days, the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte's downtown will be the main venue.
On the last day, President Barack Obama will make his acceptance speech at the 74,000-seat outdoor Bank of America Stadium where the city's NFL team plays.
North Carolina's largest city is expecting 35,000 people — including delegates and journalists — to attend the convention. The city also expects thousands of protesters. Two days before the convention, a coalition of 70 groups under the name Wall Street South plans to hold peaceful protests on economic inequality and other issues. The national Occupy movement also has issued a call for protesters, as have anarchist groups. Some will be protesting for marriage equality.
While those issues were on the minds of many who attended, some say they came to the festival just to enjoy the day. About six blocks in the city's downtown were closed to traffic and lined with concession stands selling food and trinkets. There were information booths for issues in the gay community, and stages for live entertainment.
"With everything going on, let's focus on having fun," said Billy Rogers, 25, of Charlotte. "We know we have a lot of work to do to fight laws that need to be overturned. But this is just a good way to get together and relax and have fun."