The joint efforts of University of Mississippi LGBTQ advocates and sponsors culminated in Oxford’s first Gayla, an award ceremony celebrating members and allies of the LGBTQ community, held this Saturday.
The event was hosted at the Powerhouse and coordinated by UM Pride Network President Regan Willis.
The first hour opened with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, while the hosts split time between making final preparations and meeting the guests.
Malik Pridgeon, the grand marshal of the upcoming UM Pride Parade, gave a speech to introduce the main speaker, touching on the importance of solidarity within the LGBTQ community.
“We wanted to show that, while we might have different focuses, that we still have a common identity, that we’re all shouldered with oppression, and we should celebrate the things we’ve done to reverse that oppression,” Pridgeon said.
Pridgeon and Willis took to the podium to introduce the four recipients of three LGBTQ awards.
The award for inclusion went to Jessica Wilkerson, an assistant professor of history and Southern studies who has taught classes on LGBTQ histories in Mississippi and preserving the life stories of members of that community.
Two Mississippi State University students, Bailey McDaniel and Emily Turner, together received the award for advocacy for their fight to hold a pride parade in Starkville. When city aldermen denied their request for a permit, news spread through LGBTQ communities across the nation, and UM pride groups reached out for support. Eventually, the city relented, and thousands marched at the March 24 event.
“Starkville needs an event for the gay people in the community to come together and celebrate, but we’re really honored, and really excited to come to Oxford, and meet all the people involved in pride,” Turner said.
Author and educator Julian Randall took home the arts award for poetry centered around race, masculinity and social justice in the modern world, which he compiled into a book called “Refuse” set to come out later this year.
The Chicago native said he sees the event as a way to strengthen bonds among the community by providing them with a place they can be safe and be themselves.
“It was wonderful to have an opportunity to do that,” Randall said. “It’s wonderful to be able to come out and see everybody looking the way they wanted themselves to look.“
The event’s main speaker was Brian Whisenant, head LGBTQ programmer for the Oxford Film Festival. Whisenant is a movie critic and advocate for LGBTQ films who said he came to Mississippi to encourage pride among the communities here.
“We need to be there for each other; we need to support each other,” Whisenant said. “I want to help young people like myself to know that there is another way. There’s another way, and it’s okay.”
Whisenant ended his speech by congratulating individuals about the progress made by the community in the years that he has been a part of it, acknowledging that, in 2001, he never imagined marriage equality becoming reality.
“The fight is not over. We can absolutely drink and have a good time, but there is work to be done, particularly in this state, and I take pride in advocacy,” Whisenant said.
The ceremony ended with a blast from a confetti cannon and the lumbering chatter of subwoofers as the dance portion of the evening commenced. Outside, people gathered to discuss the future of the Gayla, which Wilkerson believes will encourage a healthier environment for the LGBTQ community.
“I think it’s really important that we have community support for LGBTQ people, and uplift their activism from what they’re doing on campus and around town to make LGBTQ people more visible,“ Wilkerson said.
After the event, McDaniel and Turner returned to Starkville, where they plan to continue their work on building up the LGBTQ community.
“It makes me really hopeful, and it makes me really proud to be a part of this place.. and I’m excited for what’s to come,” McDaniel said.