After the Starkville Board of Aldermen meeting Tuesday night, Bailey McDaniel cried, heartbroken.
The aldermen voted 4-3 to deny a special event request to allow the city to host an LGBTQ Pride Parade on March 24 as part of Starkville’s first Pride celebration, which McDaniel, director of grassroots community organization Starkville Pride, has been planning for a year. McDaniel, along with her partner, Emily Turner, was hopeful when she put forth the application.
“We found out over the weekend that the application might be taken off consent,” McDaniel said.
The item was initially on the consent agenda, where most items are typically approved, but was pulled off by Vice Mayor and Ward 6 Alderman Roy Perkins at the beginning of the meeting.
Perkins made a motion to deny the request. The motion was approved with a 4-3 vote. Perkins, Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver, Ward 3 Alderman David Little and Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn voted in favor of denying the request. Little was the deciding vote.
Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk moved to go into executive session to discuss prospective litigation involving the Pride Parade, but no action was taken in executive session.
“It felt like I was gutted. I was so hurt that all of my planning and all our work for the parade came to a simple ‘no,’” McDaniel said. “I felt like my life didn’t matter, that the community that I was a part of and had fought for, that I didn’t matter to them.”
Since Tuesday’s vote, Starkville Pride has decided to take legal action in defending their right to parade. Attorney Roberta Kaplan will represent McDaniel and the rest of the Pride Parade supporters.
Oxford organizations, leaders react
The board’s decision has received national attention and prompted a statewide response, including a strong one here in Oxford.
A meeting was held Wednesday night in Starkville to affirm that plans for Pride were still continuing, and Regan Willis, president of the UM Pride Network, was in attendance to stand in solidarity with Starkville’s queer community.
“I am overwhelmed by the fact that Regan was able to come down,” McDaniel said. “It seems like a united front from Ole Miss, the Isom program and all of these organizations. It felt so great to know that we were coming together for something that means more than what people usually see between our two schools. It was amazing – I was so touched.”
Thursday afternoon, executive members from LGBTQ organizations in Oxford, including the UM Pride Network, Queer People of Color, OutLaw and OUTGrads, met to discuss their approach to the Pride Parade issue and plan to a release a statement sometime today.
An early excerpt from the statement reads, “In light of recent events in Starkville, we, the UM Pride Collective, have been in contact with the LGBTQ+ community of Starkville and want to make clear that Starkville Pride’s weekend long celebration will persist. The members of the Starkville Board of Aldermen who voted to deny the parade permit may have thought that they would dampen the spirits of Starkville Pride; however, this has served to strengthen the resolve of LGBTQ+ Mississippians, mobilizing and uniting us.”
Outside of Ole Miss’ campus, the rest of Oxford has had a reaction to the news. Although Mayor Robyn Tannehill declined to comment on the situation, OutOxford co-founders Blake Summers and Jonathan Adams voiced their dissent about the board’s vote. Summers said it serves as a reminder to Oxford to continue being a model for inclusivity.
“It might be positive for us to understand that Mississippi is still in this kind of negative rut,” he said. “We’re just going to keep having Oxford be a good, inclusive environment for our community and hopefully other cities will follow, too.”
Summers questioned what excuses the aldermen would make to deny the Pride Parade request.
“I want to know the reason why. Was it a resource issue? Paying a police force?” Summers asked. “If that’s true, they need to say that. It’s a shame that they’re not more brave and positive about their community.”
Adams said the most frustrating part to him was that the aldermen who voted to deny the request would not explain why, and he hopes allies all over the state will voice their support of Starkville’s LGBTQ community.
“The parade we’ve helped organize the past two years in Oxford is a joyful day. Yes, there are maybe a few protesters standing on the route, but they are drowned out by all the allies and supporters,” he said. “I hope that all of the allies around the state will outweigh the four people in Starkville who are on the wrong side of history.”
LGBTQ organizations at Ole Miss unify in support
When the UM Pride Network’s GroupMe chat started “blowing up” about the aldermen’s decision, as president, Willis said he knew he had to do something. He decided to attend the meeting in Starkville on Wednesday night.
“It was disheartening and really hit us hard. It was a call to action for me, as the president of the organization,” he said. “We felt the need to show our support and have a presence there.”
Jaime Cantrell, faculty affiliate at the Sarah Isom Center for Women’s and Gender Studies and faculty adviser for two undergraduate LGBTQ student organizations, UM Pride Network and Queer People of Color, advised Willis on what steps to take to show support for the queer community in Starkville.
“I’m especially troubled by the Starkville Board of Aldermen’s decision to press for a separate vote on the proposed Pride Parade, which, as I understand it, from in-state and nationally circulated news reports, had originally been listed on the consent agenda. What changed?” Cantrell said. “This decision seemingly suggests that the Board of Aldermen view Starkville’s LGBTQ+ community as second-class citizens and not as taxpayers, students, doctors, mothers, city workers, artists and religious leaders who have an economic impact and vested interest in creating welcoming spaces for fostering diversity and inclusion, which could only benefit the town.”
Malik Pridgeon, executive director of Queer People of Color, shared Cantrell’s sentiments, agreeing that Starkville’s Board of Aldermen is sending a negative message to the queer community.
“In all honesty, the decision by the Starkville aldermen is an overt declaration of intolerance and ignorance,” he said. “This decision shows that not only are they living in the past, but they are woefully ignorant to the needs of visibility and inclusion of their residents.”
He emphasized the need for Pride parades, especially in today’s political climate “when just about everything is being done to silence dissent,” and urged Oxford to show its support for its neighbors down Highway 6.
Pridgeon said Oxford can shows its support by doing things like releasing statements of affirmation or sending letters of disapproval to the city council of Starkville.
“Pride parades are a celebration of diversity and community,” he said. “They are symbols to the community that we are accepting, loving and welcoming to queer people. As a queer person of color, I am reminded that people still think that they have a right to police other people’s sexuality. It makes me grateful for the Oxford community and their openness to inclusion and diversity.”
Willis recognized the impact that a decision like this could have not only on Starkville’s community but also on LOU’s, and potentially the rest of the state.
“When it comes to stuff like this, it’s not just Starkville anymore,” he said. “It’s much larger. I definitely felt the need to be there. Our organization needed to come together. It’s our state as a whole – it impacts all of us.”
The UM Pride Network is planning to attend Starkville’s Pride event in March to show its support.
“One thing that’s been really important to me is getting the ball moving on this,” Willis said. “This sparks so much momentum, and it’s bigger than just Starkville now. There’s so much power in that momentum. If we can keep it going, we have some great opportunities for the collective.”
Long way to go in Starkville
When Patrick Miller decided to run for alderman of Ward 5, he wanted to see what Starkville is and what it could be. Very quickly, however, over the course of the past few days, he’s seen the narrative become about what Starkville is not.
“The narrative is that Starkville is not progressive and close-minded, and that’s the part that’s unfortunate about it,” he said. “Personally, I thought (the decision) was heartbreaking and unfortunate and disappointing.”
He said he doesn’t see why the parade isn’t being allowed, considering that McDaniel and her partner followed all of the necessary steps required for a special event.
“I don’t think it’s about why we should have one. The question is, ‘Why wouldn’t we?’” he said. “I would love to see it get to the point that we can rescind the vote and reconsider our stance on the parade – one, because of human decency, and two, because it’ll save us, prevent us from going through a long, drawn-out litigation out of a few hours of letting a harmless group in our community have a parade.”
Miller voted to allow the Pride Parade along with Alderman Sandra Sistrunk of Ward 2. Sistrunk also expressed her disappointment in the vote and said that because there was no explanation, only so many conclusions could be drawn about why Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver, Ward 3 Alderman David Little, Ward 6 Alderman Roy Perkins and Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn voted to deny the request.
“It bridges divides when we can get together in a fun setting. It makes a better, stronger community,” she said. “I hope that the board finds a way to reconsider their vote. I expect that if they do not find a way to, this will be taken out of the hands of the Board of Aldermen and go through the court process. At the end of the process, I think the courts will rule in favor of (Starkville Pride) and we will have a Pride Parade.”
She also expressed her disappointment in the way Starkville has been painted because of one deciding vote.
“I am very sorry that we’ve gotten to this point. I think Starkville has been painted in a light that is not representative of the community,” she said. “I think that we are a much more welcoming and diverse and inclusive community than we are painted in the many media stories that are out there right now.”
Vaughn declined to comment, and Ward 4 Alderman Jason Walker, Carver, Little and Perkins could not be reached at the time of publication. Mississippi State University has not taken a position on the vote.
Fighting for equality
Bailey McDaniel hasn’t been off the phone in the last 48 hours.
She’s received an outpouring of support from the community and said she is grateful for all of the messages she’s received.
“When I started planning Pride, it was meant to make a difference. I wish it would be easy – get approved, start a parade. This has become something so much bigger and so much more than we had planned, but this might be better for the state and the city and country and the people,” McDaniel said. “I’m just excited for the opportunity to move forward and make sure that we are given our rights and we are allowed to have a parade. I am hopeful that this will impact some kind of change bigger than we’ve originally planned.”
The ACLU responded to the board’s decision Wednesday, warning the board that its actions potentially violate the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and urging it to reconsider. The statement, which can be attributed to the ACLU of Mississippi Executive Director Jennifer Riley-Collins, said, “The government cannot prevent a parade or event simply because it promotes LGBTQ pride or because its organizers and marchers are LGBTQ. In addition, the government cannot treat people unequally because they are LGBTQ. This is exactly what the Board of Alderman did, and that is discrimination, plain and simple. It also violates the Constitution.
“It is disappointing and disturbing that the Starkville Board of Alderman would decide to treat LGBTQ people differently from everyone else. The ACLU of Mississippi, therefore, urges the Starkville Board of Alderman to reconsider their decision and approve the request.”
Attorney Roberta Kaplan of Kaplan & Company, LLP who will be taking on the case to represent Starkville Pride director Bailey McDaniel and the rest of the group. Kaplan has tried cases involving LGBTQ rights and marriage equality in Mississippi and has represented the Campaign for Southern Equality in a constitutional challenge to Mississippi’s HB 1523, which many consider to be an anti-LGBTQ “religious freedom law.”
In the meantime, McDaniel will keep fighting for what she believes in.
“I hope that in the city of Starkville and every city in Mississippi, you don’t get to tell someone you don’t have right because you don’t agree with them,” she said. “I hope we can move forward and have a kick-ass Pride.”