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Mississippi Town May Reconsider Vetoed Pride Parade After Organizers File Lawsuit

To paraphrase the great Barbra Streisand: Don’t bring around a cloud to rain on Starkville’s parade.

The Starkville Board of Aldermen has agreed to meet this week to discuss a petition to allow the city’s first-ever Pride parade after the board’s initial denial led to a federal lawsuit. On Feb. 20, the council voted 4 to 3 against the request following a public hearing. The aldermen who rejected the proposed parade, who left through a back entrance following the controversial vote, declined to sound off on their opinions during deliberations.

But Alderman Sandra Sistrunk, one of the lawmakers who supported the proposal, says the executive board will debate on Tuesday whether to reexamine last month’s verdict in light of the “legal risk” and “financial exposure” a lawsuit would entail.

Sistrunk, however, told the Starkville Daily News that reconsideration remains a long-shot in a town that remains divided over the issue.

“Do I think it’s a strong possibility?” she told the local paper. “Not necessarily, but I think it’s our responsibility to at least make the effort. I hope that we get to another vote, and I hope that people will look at this in the context of their legislative responsibilities and their duties.”

Roberta A. Kaplan, the famed civil rights attorney who will be representing Starkville Pride in court, claims this is an opportunity for Starkville to get on the right side of history.

“While we are obviously disappointed that the Board of Aldermen did not grant our clients’ application the first time around, we are hopeful that the Board will use this opportunity to do the right thingand follow the Constitution,” she says in a statement.

Kaplan & Company, LLP filed a suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi on Feb. 26 claiming the aldermen violated Starkville Pride’s “rights to freedom of speech, assemble and petition guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

John Quinn, Senior Counsel at Kaplan & Company, believes the board acted unconstitutionally in blocking the parade.

“It’s not permissible for the government to suppress instances of speech based on the viewpoints the speaker would like to address to intends to communicate,” Quinn tells INTO over the phone. “All available evidence indicates that’s what the board of aldermen intended to do.”

“We think what they’re doing is brave and important,” he says of the local LGBTQ community. “These are incredible people we’re honored to work with.”

Starkville Pride organizer Bailey McDaniel argues the event was intended to be a day of “celebration and inclusiveness” for the town’s queer and trans population, many of whom have never been to a Pride event before.

“Without explanation or warning, a whole community of people has been denied their constitutional rights,” McDaniel says in a press release. “We would like to believe that this type of hateful, intolerant behavior does not represent the Starkville community, and we hope that the decision will be reversed.”

On Tuesday, the Pride organizers will have a major voice in their corner: Starkville’s mayor.

Mayor Lynn Spruill personally emailed each of the four aldermen who voted against the Pride paradeBen Carver of Ward 1, David Little of Ward 3, Roy A. Perkins of Ward 6, and Henry Vaughn of Ward 7and urged them to rethink their stances.

In an interview with INTO, Spruill describes the earlier ruling as “unfortunate.”

“Certainly the LGBTQ community thinks it’s important, and if they think it’s important, then I think it’s beneficial to the city,” the mayor claims in a phone conversation. “I also think that we are much more inclusive and receptive to people who are different and diverse than this vote would indicate.”

“That would’ve been my hope: to show that our community is very welcoming and appreciative of all of our residents and citizens,” she continues. “I would’ve been really glad to see that that was accepted and that they were embraced.”

Although Mississippi is widely known as a conservative stronghold, neighboring cities like Oxford and Jackson have held Pride parades for years. Oxford, home to the University of Mississippi, held its first-ever event for the LGBTQ community in May 2016, just months after the state legislature passed a bill permitting discrimination against queer and trans people in the name of faith. Jackson’s first Pride parade followed the month after.

That law, also known as House Bill 1523, allows landlords to deny housing to LGBTQ individuals, medical providers to deny them care, or employers to fire them without reprisal.

It would go into effect last year after the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals lifted a preliminary injunction blocking it from becoming law.

Spruill says bringing a Pride parade to Starkville is a chance to show a different side of the state and illustrate that embracing diversity only makes Mississippi stronger.

“Diversity gives you creativity,” she claims. “It gives you an opportunity to learn from others. If you only talk to the people who agree with you, you haven’t learned a thing. You just hear yourself echoing off someone else.”

The mayor believes a Pride parade is “something that will happen in the future.”

But if the Starkville Board of Aldermen rule against the parade on Tuesday, organizers have planned say the even will still go oneven without the march. The town will commence a two-day festival with a kickoff party held at a local bar on March 23.


Nico Lang

Nico Lang is a staff writer for INTO, covering news, politics, and global LGBTQ issues.