March 7, 2018 10:57:11 AM
Alex Holloway - [email protected]
The second time was the charm for Starkville Pride's request to hold a Pride parade later this month.
Mayor Lynn Spruill broke a 3-3 tie, after Ward 3 Alderman David Little abstained, to rescind a Feb. 20 vote that denied the grassroots lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) support group's parade request.
Starkville Pride had properly applied for the parade permit, city officials have acknowledged, and the board had not denied previous parade requests where there was no issue with the application process.
Save for Little's abstention, the vote fell along the same lines as before, with Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk, Ward 4 Alderman Jason Walker and Ward 5 Alderman Patrick Miller voting to rescind the Feb. 20 decision. Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver, Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins and Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn voted against the measure.
The vote passed in front of a packed city hall courtroom which had raced past its 179-person capacity, causing people to spill out into the main lobby. For much of the meeting, the crowd of about 200 remained respectful, though Spruill occasionally had to remind them not to applaud during citizen comments.
Little, speaking for the first time publicly about the issue since the board voted on Feb. 20, said he felt Spruill and city staff attempted to have the Pride parade, which was initially on the consent agenda for the Feb. 20 meeting, "slipped past" aldermen. He said he was "disappointed and frustrated" by that.
However, Little said he believed the city's best interests would be served by moving on from the parade.
"While I maintain my principled position, I plan to abstain from this vote," Little said.
After the vote to allow the parade -- as the board went into closed session to decide there was no need for a planned executive session about litigation -- cheers erupted from the lobby as Starkville Pride organizers emerged victorious from the courtroom. Outside, supporters raised high signs that read "I stand with Starkville Pride" as they celebrated the board's reversal on the parade.
Bailey McDaniel, an organizer for Starkville Pride, said she was "shocked" by Little's decision to abstain and excited that Starkville Pride will be able to move forward with its parade.
The decision will also likely ease the legal threat brought against the city in a federal lawsuit. Roberta Kaplan, with the New York law firm Kaplan and Company, is representing Starkville Pride in the lawsuit the group filed after the board denied the initial request. The suit seeks, in part, an injunction against the board's previous decision in order to allow the parade to go forward as planned on March 24.
That injunction is now a moot point.
Before Tuesday's meeting, Kaplan told The Dispatch a vote to allow the parade would likely nullify the need for a hearing for the suit that was scheduled for Monday.
"If they change their mind and approve the permit, I expect we'd be able to pretty easily resolve the remaining issues with the city," Kaplan said.
A learning process
McDaniel said she believes the two-week span from the board's initial denial to Tuesday's reversal has been a learning process, both for the city and for Starkville Pride.
"I think this shows that everyone is still learning," she said. "I learned what this meant, for one, being an activist at the age of 22 -- it doesn't work the way I thought it was going to work.
"For them, I hope it made them realize that the LGBT community is here," she continued. "We're not going anywhere. We really just want you to understand that we want your service and we want the same rights as everyone else. It's not special treatment -- nothing extra."
Spruill, speaking with The Dispatch after the meeting, said she was pleased with the board's decision.
"It is, I think, the message we wanted to send, which is our entire community deserves the respect and consideration of inclusion and having the opportunity to have a parade," Spruill said. "I think it is a very simple request, and I think honoring it is the right thing to do."
Sistrunk, who put the parade on the agenda for Tuesday's meeting and made the motion to rescind the original vote, said she felt the two weeks that have passed since the first vote allowed the board to take a more measured approach.
"I do think we made a good decision tonight," she said. "I think it was a vote that reflects what we should have done as a board."
Bigger than expected
The parade's denial, ironically, almost certainly ensured the event will be larger than organizers first anticipated after widespread news coverage thrust the matter into the national spotlight.
"This has boosted interest, and it's also showing that this community needs help in Starkville," McDaniel said. "Starkville needs help. Mississippi needs help. This parade, I think, is going to be a big change agent."
The denial also boosted a gofundme that Starkville Pride has running for its general operations and events. The gofundme has been active for five months, and donations accelerated significantly after the Feb. 20 denial. As of Wednesday morning, the fund had raised $13,295.
Spruill said the city's aware the event will likely be larger than the 200 participants and 200 spectators organizers estimated in their application for the event. But she noted no amendments will be necessary with the application.
"We're on notice that it's going to be bigger," she said. "But those numbers were always just estimates, because we've never had one of these before."
Sistrunk's motion included $3,200 in in-kind services, which includes things such as police presence, street closures and other services for the parade.
"The city does these things often, from a small event all the way to the Cotton District Arts Festival," Sistrunk said. "The groups who are going to be providing in-kind services are experienced with it. I think it will be a larger event than originally thought and may have more police presence and just crowd control kind of things."
Because of the meeting's high attendance, Spruill set public comments to a total of 30 minutes -- 15 minutes for those who wanted to speak in favor of the parade, and 15 minutes for those who wanted to speak against it.
Hunter Andrews, one resident who spoke in favor of the parade, said society celebrates women's rights and celebrates African American rights, but the LGBT community is still fighting for rights.
"Members of the heterosexual community don't understand what it's like to fight to be able to marry the person you love, to be able to share the same insurance," Andrews said. "They don't know what it's like to go home and to have to tell parents, loved ones, family and friends the three words 'I am gay' and wonder if they're going to love you.
"That is why we need a parade," he said. "That is why we're entitled to a parade -- to celebrate the trials and tribulations that we have gone through and still fight through."
Johnny Buckner, pastor of New Horizons Christian Fellowship, spoke against the parade. He said the board had a duty to protect against "obscene and lewd" behavior that could happen at the parade.
He also said he felt the parade's application was misleading.
"Starkville Pride is a new organization," he said. "Starkville Pride could have easily been mistaken as civic pride. There was a mention of an art market on the cover sheet, but no mention of it being a queer art market as promoted by Starkville Pride on Twitter."
Local business owner Megan O'Nan, speaking to the board during a public appearance, said the parade is to celebrate a community that is often at risk.
"The LGBT community needs to know that they are worthy -- that they are loved and that they are accepted," O'Nan said. "The intention of the parade is to celebrate who you are."