As dozens of cars made their way through the grounds of a renovated horse farm on a sultry June afternoon in Franklin, Tennessee, a few volunteers stood at the entrance, cheerily welcoming visitors to the local Pride festival.
The salute, the volunteers said, also gave them the ability to spot any person who didn’t return the wave or smile, someone who might be harboring more malicious intentions.
There were searches of bags and scans with a metal detector. Across the street, a man in a white Nationalist fight club T-shirt carried a poster with a homophobic slur. A SWAT team waited on the periphery of the celebration.
The layers of precaution underscored what had become an unexpectedly volatile situation not only in Franklin, a city 20 miles south of Nashville, but also across the country as right-wing activists stormed Pride celebrations and commemorations as a threat to children.
In Franklin, permission to hold the 2023 Pride event only came when the mayor, Ken Moore, chose to break a tie in favor of the party. Her vote capped a vitriolic debate over drag queens who performed in front of children the previous year, an issue that left the city’s governing body in a deadlock and exposed painful divisions. in the community.
« On the fringes, the far left and far right are making a lot more noise than people who are right or left of center, » Mr. Moore said in a recent interview. « And I think it’s an opportunity for those right and left of center to organize themselves and say, ‘Hey, this is our community too.' »
In the decades since the first march commemorated the Stonewall Inn riot in 1970, Pride events have flourished. But this year, as several conservative-led states have pushed through legislation targeting LGBTQ rights and transition assistance for transgender children, Pride Month is increasingly on shaky ground across the country.
Brands like Bud Light have faced boycotts for their support of LGBTQ people, while Target has reduced the prominence of its annual Pride collection in stores after employees were threatened.
City officials across the nation have scolded proclamations recognizing Pride Month OR allowing the Pride rainbow flag to be flown on municipal property. And a Kansas man has been indicted on federal charges after posting threats online against this weekend’s Nashville Pride.
At the same time, some celebrations defiantly went ahead: Memphis Pride Fest booked its largest lineup of more than 50 drag performers, despite a Tennessee law targeting drag performances that has since been declared unconstitutional.
In Franklin, Jed Coppenger, the chief pastor of Redemption City Church, said he saw many in his congregation struggle with what they felt comfortable seeing in schools and in public, as conservatives objected to books or media that featured LGBTQ people.
« We’ve all been in the ocean when it pulled you in, and you don’t realize it until you look back at the beach, » said Mr Coppenger, who said he is personally against the festival. « There are certainly many currents at play and there are some new ones. »
Franklin, founded in 1799 and now home to nearly 90,000 people, and surrounding Williamson County have proudly anchored their identity in an idyllic blend of American history and affluent development. Agricultural and equestrian industries coexist with large corporate and neighboring manufacturing centers. The patriotic stamina, historic churches, and well-manicured downtown are offset by landmarks commemorating some of the bloodiest conflicts of the Civil War and the Chickasaw’s removal from their tribal lands.
The city, which is approximately 80 percent white and 6 percent black, has maintained deep Christian and conservative roots as it works to address its rapid economic growth and nationwide changes in diversity and civil rights. Several community leaders highlighted the decision to add a statue of a black soldier who fought for Union troops downtown in 2021, rather than remove a statue of a Confederate soldier that has long loomed over the public square.
Demographic shifts and population shifts caused by the coronavirus pandemic, some residents have said, are significant driving forces behind the intense Pride conflict. Franklin offered transplants a chance to leave the more expensive parts of the country and work in the lush greenery of Tennessee. She lured some liberals to cheaper homes in the orbit of the Democratic stronghold of Nashville, while also attracting conservatives looking to escape progressive mandates and policies.
(An analysis of Internal Revenue Service data, compiled by the head of Williamson Inc., the county chamber of commerce, showed that between 2020 and 2021, more than 1,500 Californians once moved there from the county alone of Orange and Los Angeles. )
Eric Stuckey, the city manager whose staff oversaw the permitting process, said there is an inherent tension with people arriving with differing expectations of what Franklin is and should be.
“I think what we saw was a part of this idea of, do I want to protect her? » He said. «And what does it mean to protect him?»
The 10-member Pride festival board understood what it meant to embrace change. Some had waited years to come out, while others had faced discomfort from their peers and within themselves when their children came out as gay.
« My son came out and — I’m ashamed to say — that’s when I started deconstructing all the lessons from my childhood and realized that not only was it wrong, but a whole bunch of other things, too, » said Ginny Bailey, 60 years. , a board member who described her openness and her work with Pride as a way to repay the grace others had shown her. « It has been a nice trip. »
Franklin held its first Pride in 2021, and prior to this year, organizers had never had a problem getting a permit from the city. When they learned of complaints about last year’s endurance performance, its board agonized over how to respond. After several meetings, they reluctantly agreed to drop any entrants from the entertainment lineup, although attendees could dress however they pleased.
But it didn’t satisfy their critics. Rumors swirled — on social media and at least one water aerobics class — about what kind of sex toys and debauchery a Pride festival might bring.
« People don’t like change, I don’t like it either, » said Rusty McCown, an Episcopal priest in Franklin, where he has been open about his support for LGBTQ rights and worked at the church’s Pride booth. « When these values are pushed, it’s easy to knock them out. »
At a pair of town hall meetings in March and April, residents and representatives of conservative groups like Moms for Liberty, founded in early 2021 to protest pandemic-era restrictions on schools, called for city leaders to deny the permission of the event to force it into private property and adults only. They referenced clips from 2022 drag performances: one featured a performer known as « Blair’s whore”, crouched in costume to accept a dollar bill from a child – and warned of biblical and political consequences.
A man who described himself as a « refugee » recently arrived from Evanston, Illinois, has warned of what he has found to be the ominous lessons of his former city’s Pride celebrations, which eventually evolved into a series of events , along with the increased visibility of LGBTQ people in schools, churches and other organizations.
Defenders of the festival called for just one day to show acceptance and understanding, saying the event had been grossly misunderstood. Nashville offered a much bolder scene on an average Saturday night, they said, than their plans for a six-hour event.
The onslaught of emails, calls and threats rocked city leaders, who described sleepless nights and hours spent grappling with their faith, threats, their constituents’ demands, and the possible legal ramifications of plunging into a cultural debate. (Even the non-partisan alderman position is apparently a part-time job.)
One alderman, Matt Brown, at one point bluntly expressed a desire to quickly return to the familiar business of debating streets and city issues, rather than a long and costly fight for free speech.
The decision to allow the festival to go ahead has done little to quell the anger among its detractors, who have promised to elect aldermen who would vote in their favour. But for Franklin Pride, it was a lifeline.
The controversy proved to attract more supporters, with nearly 7,000 people visiting the park by the end of the day, about 2,000 more than a year earlier.
« It’s become very clear: Everyone is putting out flags and blocking calendars, » said Ed Lewis, a tech executive who had recently moved to Tennessee with his wife Kate and their kids from Chicago to be closer to family.
Despite ominous online chatter leading up to the event, the protests were muted. Seven people were asked to leave and one person was arrested after refusing to leave, Stuckey said, a decision that under city permit was left to the organizers’ discretion and what they called disruptive. Concerns about agitators even led to a man being asked to leave his well-worn Bible in the entryway. He accepted the request and wandered the grounds, before retrieving his Bible and joining the protesters across the street.
And in a shady tent, a group of teenagers blasted pop songs, strung together friendship bracelets, and did each other’s makeup, smudged rainbow eyeshadow and studded sequins along their foreheads. Sitting in a circle, they talked about the harassment they experienced at school, their frustration with laws aimed at limiting LGBTQ rights, and their fears of missing out on a lonely day of feeling confident that they were openly themselves.
« It’s like this struggle to be constantly visible so I don’t disappoint my community, but not being too visible that annoys everybody, » said Eli Givens, an 18-year-old college graduate, adding that « the queer trans experience, especially in the south, it’s just constantly apologizing, like not wanting to be too much ».
But on this Saturday, the teens took pictures and talked about how it feels to rest, not caring what anyone else might say about them. And they talked about going to college and then maybe moving back to Tennessee, to show that this was still a place for them.
« It’s like we made the world’s most time-consuming cake, » said Lucie Pitt, a 19-year-old student at Loyola University Chicago. « And we finally get to eat it. »