JACKSON, Miss. – Leaders of a Mississippi college town voted Tuesday to permit a gay pride parade, reversing a previous denial and moving to defuse a lawsuit alleging discrimination and free speech violations.
Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill broke a 3-3 tie to allow the parade to go forward, after an alderman who previously had opposed the parade abstained, saying the city needed to move past the dispute. Aldermen had voted 4-3 to reject the application last month.
The parade will be held March 24.
Alderwoman Sandra Sistrunk had moved Friday to put the issue back before the city board. Tuesday, she said it was important to not treat the application for the city's first gay pride parade differently from any other application.
"I think we're in a position where we can make a more measured and reasoned vote tonight," Sistrunk said. "This has been a bit of a growing pain for the city of Starkville."
The revote came after a community group called Starkville Pride and two organizers filed a federal lawsuit, saying the city had denied their constitutional rights to free expression and equal protection. They asked a judge to overrule the city and immediately grant a parade permit to Starkville Pride. The judge has not yet acted on the lawsuit.
"What happened at tonight's meeting was a victory not only for our clients and for their equal dignity under the law, but also for the core principle that in this country, we do not restrict a person's ability to speak based on whether or not we agree with what they have to say," said Roberta Kaplan, lawyer for Starkville Pride and organizers Bailey McDaniel and Emily Turner.
Spruill, who doesn't normally vote on the board, had supported the parade, saying the rejection didn't reflect Starkville's diversity and welcoming attitude. She got the chance to cast the deciding vote after Alderman David Little said he maintained his "principled position" but would abstain.
"I believe the city of Starkville's interests are better served in moving forward beyond this and pressing forward on other positive matters facing our community," Little said.
Turner, who attended the meeting, said that's the moment she smiled.
"I think this indicates how accepting Starkville is and how much progress Starkville has made," the architecture student who grew up in the city of 25,000 said by phone. "We're having a pride parade approved by the city and that happened."
The aldermen who voted against the parade again did not explain their reasoning. Aldermen Ben Carver, who earlier had told a local newspaper that his constituents had supported his original vote, said Tuesday that he had received "numerous, numerous" threats over his earlier "no" vote.
The city's first-ever gay pride parade was proposed as part of a larger set of events, organized by Turner and McDaniel, also a Mississippi State University student. They said they wanted to hold a parade in downtown Starkville to show the presence of LGBT people as part of the larger community. Thanks to the university, Starkville is more cosmopolitan and diverse than many Mississippi towns.
Starkville has a recent history of public contention over lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. In 2015, aldermen repealed a resolution that made Starkville the first city in Mississippi to denounce discrimination based on sexual orientation. The same day, aldermen also repealed a city health insurance policy that allowed employees to insure same-sex partners. Gay marriage was legalized later that year nationwide by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The city meeting room was crammed past its capacity Tuesday, with people standing in the lobby. Supporters told aldermen that rejecting the parade was an assault on members of the community.
"The decision not to allow a pride parade in Starkville doesn't make me any less gay, and it doesn't quiet my voice, and it isn't going to make me want to move," Starkville resident Megan O'Nan, said. "But it tells a very special part of this community that we don't matter."
Opponents, though, asked aldermen to uphold their original decision. Tim Cummings said he wasn't bigoted, but said his study of anatomy as a veterinarian taught him that same-sex relationships are unnatural.
"Who's really doing the bullying? Have you really touched base with the constituents in your district versus the outsiders or the 'loud and proud?'" he asked.
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