Provo’s Freedom Festival reversed its decision to block LGBTQ groups from its yearly parade following a compromise struck between opposing sides on Thursday night.
Following a tense two-hour meeting, representatives with the Independence Day celebration elected to allow local queer and trans organizations to participate, with a few stipulations. Members of participating LGBTQ groups must wear carry American flags and dress in red, white, and blue.
“Nobody is allowed to have rainbow flags,” Jerilyn Pool, founder of the local nonprofit QueerMeals, told INTO. “We had to fight to use ‘LGBTQ’ on signage.”
Five LGBTQ organizations had previously been denied participation in the Freedom Festival, which is one of the largest July 4 gatherings in the nation. In addition to the Grand Parade, the month-long calendar of events includes a flag retirement ceremony, softball tournament, and a baby contest.
Meanwhile, the band OneRepublic will be playing the Stadium of Fire concert at Brigham Young University.
“The Fourth of July is a big deal here,” said Stephenie Larsen, founder of the Encircle LGBTQ youth drop-in center based in Provo. “The celebration is huge, and the parade is a focal point.”
The initial refusals were issued on Tuesday, just hours after Provo and the Freedom Festival adopted nondiscrimination policies claiming the event would not exclude people based on their religion, faith, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Notably, gender identity was not included in that list.
But in rejecting the applications of LGBTQ groups, officials claimed their proposals for participation weren’t “patriotic enough.”
LGBTQ advocates weren’t buying the excuse.
In an interview prior to Thursday’s compromise, Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams said it was “a random clause they’ve used to try and disguise their bigotry.”
“They are trying to hide their bigotry behind the American flag,” Williams told INTO in a phone conversation. “But there’s nothing that fuels the fires of patriotism more than people who fight for the rights and liberties that have been historically denied to them.”
Larsen, though, is sadly used to being shut out of the Freedom Festival. Almost the exact same thing happened to Encircle last year.
The evening before the LGBTQ youth center was set to march in the 2017 parade, Encircle’s members were scheduled to meet briefly to pick up T-shirts and learn a dance they had planned to do as they walked. But earlier in the day, organizers called and said Encircle’s inclusion was a “mistake.”
“I had to go and tell them we weren’t in the parade,” Larsen remembered. “As I was driving down, I thought, ‘I should just act like this is no big deal. If I’m sad about it, I’ll make them feel worse about it.’ But of course, I started bawling as soon as I started telling them. I felt like I was saying: ‘I’m sorry, once again you’re not good enough for your community.’”
Encircle held a pancake breakfast for its members the next day, but Larsen claimed the flip-flop was “tough” on LGBTQ youth who seek out the center for support and shelter. Many of these young people—who come from conservative, Mormon families—have few other places to go where they can be affirmed.
“They’re used to feeling judged by other people in the community,” Larsen said. “That rejection is something they live with.”
After the 2017 incident, Encircle met with the Freedom Festival organizers every two months to build bridges and have dialogues with local community members in Provo. In these regular meetings, Larsen informed them that the entire country would be watching Utah if LGBTQ groups were turned away yet again.
She was right. When news broke that LGBTQ groups had been refused for a second consecutive year, social media users tweeted at OneRepublic to pull out of Stadium of Fire—which would be a major blow to Provo’s economy.
Although the concert used to primarily host country artists like Toby Keith and Brad Paisley, it has increasingly courted Top 40 pop stars as it attempts to draw in a mainstream crowd. Five years ago, Carly Rae Jepsen and Kelly Clarkson toplined Stadium of Fire, which featured a performance from Cirque du Soleil. Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers have also appeared in recent years.
While advocates have hailed the Freedom Festival’s decision to reverse its earlier ban as “historic,” Larsen admitted she can’t help but have mixed emotions.
“I do think it is historic,” she said. “But I get upset and frustrated because I focus on the intent. They’re just letting us in because, what, is Toyota not going to sponsor us? Is the county commissioner going to take back his money?”
While groups like Encircle, Mormons Building Bridges, and Provo Pride will be participating in the Freedom Festival, some have chosen to sit out. Instead of taking part in the parade, QueerMeals will stand in solidarity with LGBTQ marchers by gathering at secure locations along the parade route.
Pool said she felt uncomfortable with restrictions placed on queer and trans marchers, who she said are being forced to “hide who they are.” Obscured by a sea of American flags, paradegoers might not know the groups are LGBTQ.
“To have to cloak themselves in patriotism in order to be acceptable is unfair,” claimed Pool, who identifies as a straight ally. “A lot of the queer community is about being visible and saying: ‘We’re in your community. This is who we are.’ Having a lot of those visible elements stripped away doesn’t feel good to a lot of people.”
But compromise or not, many in Utah’s LGBTQ community believe the controversy shows the state is headed in the right direction.
On Wednesday, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch made an impassioned plea for LGBTQ acceptance on the floor of the Senate. Addressing the 32 documented suicides of Mormon youth in the three months following the release a 2015 policy excommunicating the children of same-sex couples, Hatch said no person “should feel less because of their orientation.”
“They deserve our unwavering love and support,” Hatch claimed. “They deserve our validation and the assurance that not only is there a place for them in this society but that it is far better off because of them. These young people need us and we desperately need them.”
Williams said that seeing a “conservative bastion of Mormonism” follow Hatch’s lead has gotten the community “fired up.” Even as the local LGBTQ community continues to face obstacles to full inclusion, they will keep fighting.
“We’re going to be louder than we ever have been,” he said.