Mississippi Pride Draws Biggest Crowd in Town History Following National Controversy

· Updated on May 28, 2018

Starkville’s first Pride event surpassed even the most optimistic expectations.

An estimated 4,000 people descended on the small Mississippi town for the three-day festival, which included a reception, an art market, and a Saturday march from Fire Station Park. The paradewhich drew 3,000 people alonewas of any kind in Starkville’s history, according to organizer Bailey McDaniel.

McDaniel, a representative of Starkville Pride, tells INTO that she had never been to a Pride event before.

“I’m from Mississippi,” says the 22-year-old student in a phone conversation. “I was born and raised here. I’ve never seen anything that affirming and welcoming to any communitylet alone the LGBTQ community. So I just overwhelmed how well it and went and how much love there was throughout the entire weekend.”

Although LGBTQ organizers made history this weekend, the event almost didn’t get to take place at all.

The city’s Board of Aldermen voted in February to reject a request from Starkville Pride to hold the festival on March 24 in a controversial 4-3 decision. The four politicians who voted against the proposalBen Carver, David Little, Roy A. Perkins, and Henry Vaughndid not publicly disclose their reasons for doing so.

McDaniel says she was taken aback by the verdict. Of the 80 parade requests submitted to the board over the past decade, she claims “none of them had been denied.”

“I wasn’t expecting to be denied,” says McDaniel, who is a Senior at Mississippi State University in Starkville. “Nobody is expecting to have their rights taken away, but I legitimately wasn’t expecting it. I realized how deep bigotry can go in city politics and how much people don’t understand about the community.”

That decision would later be reversed following national backlash, as well as the threat of a lawsuit.

McDaniel, who contacted famed civil rights attorney Roberta Kaplan to challenge the ban, knew how important it was for the town’s LGBTQ community to continue fighting for its rights.

Growing up in neighboring Corinth, McDaniel hid her queer identity in fear of being singled out in her small, conservative communitywhere she graduated in a class of 86. Although she was raised by progressive grandparents, Corinth was the kind of place where “a lot of hate and a lot of ideology” was forced on its residents.

McDaniel says she “internalized” the parts of herself which conflicted with the orthodoxy she was prescribed.

“If you didn’t fit into these boxes, then you didn’t belong,” she remembers. “I didn’t want to be in church and think, ‘Is god going to smack me down? Am I going to hell when I die?’”

The forces of bigotry, too, were present at this weekend’s festivities. Around 10 to 15 members of the Consuming Fire Fellowshipa religious group known to protest LGBTQ eventsfollowed parade marchers on Saturday wielding signs calling homosexuality an “abomination.”

“We’re standing against this,” Pastor Britt Williams told Mississippi State’s student newspaper. “We’re here to preach the gospel and call these men and women to repentance. We’re also here to rebuke publicly sin that God hates.”

But these voices appear to have been in the minority.

Local businesses, student groups, and government officialsincluding Alderman Sandra Sistrunk, who voted in favor of the Paradewalked alongside the LGBTQ community. A family came all the way from Puerto Rico to participate in the event.

Mayor Lynn Spruill, who cast the tie-breaking vote on March 6 allowing the Parade to move forward, believes the hate only intensified support for the LGBTQ community.

“I never expected to have this many people,” Spruill said. “This would never have happened if we didn’t have the controversy, so I’m almost grateful for the controversy in the sense it became something more than it ever would have been and it became something we can be very proud of, with no issues associated with it.”

McDaniel agrees.

“Do I wish [the Board of Aldermen] wouldn’t have made an unconstitutional decision and do I wish they would have handled this situation better?” she claims. “Absolutely. But I also think this forced a lot of people to be more open and more accepting.”

McDaniel, who served as the grand marshal of the parade, says her favorite moment of Saturday’s procession was when she spotted one of her professors from Mississippi State standing along the parade route. As the marchers turned a corner, she saw him jumping up and down as he waved a rainbow Pride flag.

“That really touched me,” she says. “They were not only supporting us, but they were also supporting the movement. They were supporting history.”

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