Chip Jenkins, left, with fellow members of the 2019 Pride Committee on the porch of the Garvin-Garvey House before the inaugural parade and festival in Bluffton. SUBMITTED

Charles-Robert “Chip” Jenkins always felt he would return to Beaufort County.

A marketing and technical specialist at Shelter Cove Harbour, Jenkins is the chairperson of Lowcountry Pride, a local nonprofit that promotes equality and visibility of the LGBTQ+ community through education, heritage, advocacy and celebration.

He was born in Statesville, N.C., while his father, Charles Jenkins, who was in the U.S. Marine Corps, was stationed at Camp LeJeune. The family moved soon after his birth, when his father was transferred to Beaufort County. When he was 8, his father retired and the family moved to Williamstown, north of Syracuse, N.Y., but Jenkins looked forward to trips south.

“I lived in New York until I was 18, but every time we made a trip back, I knew what to look for,” he said. “I knew when I was coming into Beaufort when I could see the air station tower, and I’d know I was coming close to home.”

Jenkins wanted to go to the University of South Carolina and set his sights on living with his uncle so he could enroll at the Beaufort campus.

“My father taught me that a Marine is loyal, dedicated and tough, to say the least,” said Jenkins, now a resident of Bluffton. “My father did teach me to do to others as you wish done to you. He asked me to go to college, and to use my skills for good.”

While attending USCB from 2009 to 2013, Jenkins worked toward a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration with a concentration in management. At the same time, he was gaining experience in organizing community events as president of the Sand Sharks activities board.

“We hosted events all year long except for summer. I had my hands in that kind of event planning and getting things off the ground, having events that succeeded, and some that failed,” said Jenkins. 

He considered moving after college but found work in technology and started falling in love with the Lowcountry.

“I started getting active in the community. My partner and I were at a Latino festival, walking around, and I said to him why can’t we have this but for Pride? So I started working toward that, and I didn’t know what I got myself into,” said Jenkins.

He didn’t start the local Pride festival that was held in Bluffton in June 2019; for that, he gives credit to his friend Kathleen Hughes Mardell.

“I did not have the pleasure of starting that at the very beginning. It began at Kathy’s kitchen table. She was with some of her friends, and two of them were planning on getting married and looking at different Pride events coming up,” Jenkins recalled. “One of them said ‘Why can’t we have this here?’ Kathy went down, got the form, filled it out, and started having the first meetings in March for a June event.”

Mardell’s small group had 90 days to plan it, with zero funding.

“I probably came in on the second or third meeting after they had it conceptualized about what they wanted do,” Jenkins said. “I came in to see what they had and what they needed, but she had everything organized and she just needed volunteers.”

Jenkins said he took notes at the meetings and ended up managing the stage events so Mardell could deal with the whole day’s schedule.

The Pride Parade and Celebration took place June 22, 2019, at Oscar Frazier Park, and included musical performances, vendors, and various nonprofits. Speakers included Rabbi Tzipi Radonsky of Beaufort; Mitch Siegel of Bluffton, who spoke on activism and how to get involved in local issues; and artist Mac McCusker of North Carolina, a transgender man who spoke about transgender rights and activism.

Despite the morning rain and afternoon heat, Jenkins said the celebration was quite successful.

“It was planned to be big, and we didn’t know what the attendance was going to be, but we had 800 people there,” he said. “The parade was beautiful.”

Once the Pride Parade and Celebration happened, Jenkins and a few others involved members took on further planning and built an organization with bylaws. By Oct. 20, 2019, was a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

“All we knew at the time was we were going to hold an annual event and see what we could do to boost advocacy and unity and visibility,” said Jenkins.

But, alas, COVID-19 was on the way. Before they could get a good start with planning for 2020, everything shut down and social gatherings were stopped.

“We had to figure out how we could keep a connection. That’s when we decided we were going to do a virtual book club with virtual monthly meetings,” Jenkins said. “As soon as things got warmer so people could be outside, we started going out to the beaches when the state gave the beaches back.”

Lowcountry Pride also held a car parade in June last year with about 60 cars that looped around Bluffton from Eagles Field and back.

“It was just a really good time to give people a feeling that we were visible and let them know we were still here. Then we also had a photo contest and had people submit photos, and tag them with #lowcountrypride and #wearelowcountrypride,” said Jenkins.

He was also involved in the Black Lives Matter Bluffton car parade and marches last year, and in the peaceful protests on Hilton Head Island.

“There was a group standing at the front of Hilton Head Island holding signs. I stood there by Darien Allen, who’s also my first vice-chair in the (Pride) group,” said Jenkins. “He’s like my brother, and I’m not going to let him go do something dangerous without my being here. And if he’s out there, I’m going to be out there, too. We met a lot of people, a lot who felt the way we did, who felt things needed to be changed.” 

Jenkins believes that it doesn’t take a lot of time to do something good to build community.

“If you put out just a little bit of effort, if everybody gave an hour of community service in Beaufort County, imagine what could be done,” he said. “We have a lot we can do.”

Now that venues are open for parties, festivals and special functions, Lowcountry Pride has scheduled its 2021 festival from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Dec. 11-12 at Oyster Factory Park. The parade will be held at 10 a.m. Dec. 11, and the event will include vendors, nonprofits, a drag show, a family area, and free HIV testing.

“What our huge focus is that we want people to be more aware. We’ve moved to a lot of events. We’re meeting monthly, we’re revamping the books club. What I want the community to build is more visibility so people can see it, and I want people to feel seen and not be scared,” Jenkins said. “I’m so stoked about that because we’re doing it, and I’m looking forward to keep doing things each year and add more. For nearly a century, many in the LGBTQ+ community have fought for rights that all people should have. Many of these leaders and warriors have left this world and it is up to us to keep up their fights and protect our families and friends. Some in our community cannot speak up, but I do for them, as I have a strong and loud voice.”

As active as he is, life isn’t all about activism, networking or technology. Jenkins also enjoys free time as a PC gamer, playing a lot of Zelda and Mario Kart on Nintendo Switch.

But, “I don’t like to be on technology all the time. One of the other things I like to do is go camping with tents,” he said. “Go out in the woods, enjoying nature, walking, having a fire and enjoying each other’s company.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.