A Mississippi town has rejected a petition from local LGBTQ organizers to hold the city’s first Pride parade.
The board of aldermen in Starkville, Miss. voted 4 to 3 against issuing a permit to Starkville Pride following a public hearing on Tuesday. The townsfolk who showed up to the meeting spoke overwhelmingly in favor of a Pride event. Sixteen people, many of whom were organizers with the LGBTQ group, voiced their support. Just two decried the proposal.
Supporters claimed the event was intended to unite the tiny town of 25,000 people, many of whom are students at Mississippi State University.
“This isn’t a march,” claimed Starkville Pride organizer Alexandra Hendon during a packed, emotional assembly attended by dozens of town residents. “This isn’t a protest. This is something that will bind this community together.”
Fellow resident Kevin Williams claimed the debate recalled the experiences of black Mississippians in the days of Jim Crowwho would have likewise been forbidden to organize in the town center. He urged the seven-member board to vote in favor of progress and avoid retreating into the darkness of the recent past.
“Now’s the time to lead,” Williams claimed. “Now ask yourself this question: What are you afraid of?”
But the small smattering of critics in the crowd won out.
Longtime resident Dorothy Isaac warned that allowing LGBTQ people to march down main street would “turn [the] city into a sin city.”
“If anything should be held up and down our streets, it should not be this,” she added. “God made Adam and Eve. I’m not saying what you want to beeverybody can be what they want to be. I said he made Adam and Eve.”
Josey Creek Missionary Baptist Church Pastor Thomas Rogers claimed the Pride parade would amount to “special privilege” for the city’s LGBTQ community.
“I think this is a very inclusive, a very friendly place, a very friendly city, a very friendly county,” Rogers said. “We’ve done a lot of things for the university and to attract businesses and influential people.
“But every city has to have limits,” he continued. “Cities without walls are easily taken.”
The four aldermen who voted against the Pride permitBen Carver, David Little, Roy A. Perkins, and Henry Vaughndid not state their reasons for denying the request. They also did not voice opinions during the comment period. After rejecting the proposed event, the Associated Press reported that three of the men “left through a back entrance.”
As the story garnered national attention, those in favor of the parade worried the vote would cast the town in a bad light.
“It felt like they weren’t really listening,” organizer Sam Calvert, who is also a student at MSU, tells INTO. “They didn’t want to hear what we had to say. They were determined to vote against it no matter what we did.”
The tension between the town’s young, progressive population and more conservative elements has long been apparent. Although Starkville became the first city in Mississippi to pass an LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance in 2014, the board of aldermen voted to rescind the policy just a year lateroverriding a veto from former Mayor Parker Wiseman.
Starkville’s current mayor, Lynn Spruill, tells the AP it was disheartening to see the town to live down to Mississippi’s anti-LGBTQ reputation. The state passed a law in 2016 allowing people of faith to discriminate against queer and trans people, which went into effect last year.
“I think it sends a message that we are not the inclusive community that I believe us to be,” Spruill says.
Calvert knows that Starkville can be better. The student, who grew up in a small-town and faced family rejection after coming out, claims she “found a family [she] never had” since moving to the city for college.
She believes that support is reflected in the town’s reaction to the decision blocking the Pride parade.
“Everyone I’ve talked to after this has said they were shocked and disappointed,” Calvert claims. “Starkville is a very welcoming place for many individuals. I would still want to live here if I had the opportunity to move away. I love Starkville. It tends to be a very welcoming city, and the board of aldermen is a very poor representation of the city as a whole.”
“A few people have been happy about the decision,” she continues. “I won’t say they don’t exist. But overall, there has been a move to support useveryone wants to know how they can help.”
Starkville Pride met on Wednesday evening to discuss next steps, which are likely to include legal action. Prominent civil rights attorney Roberta Kaplanis slated to represent local LGBTQ organizers in court if the board of aldermen does not overturn the decision. She previously challenged Mississippi’s “religious freedom” law in a lawsuit filed last year.
Kaplan claims the incident is a clear case of unlawful discrimination.
“It’s pretty clear to us that what the town did here was a blatant and overt violation of the First Amendment,” she tells Starkville Daily News. “You can’t deny people the right to speak publicly based on the contents of their speech.”
In the meantime, LGBTQ groups will hold a Pride event next monthjust not the one they initially planned. Starkville Pride will commence a two-day festival with a kickoff party held at a local bar on March 23. There will be a drag show held at a separate venue the day after, but many of the details are still being solidified following the last-minute setback.
Calvert believes after a year of preparation, the show must go on.
“It shows we are here,” she says. “I want [the Pride festival] to feel welcoming where someone can come and feel like they belong. Many of the people who live here have never lived in a welcoming environment. They don’t know what a Pride is like. We want this to be a good experience for everyone.”