Mississippi city to allow gay pride parade, reversing denial

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.

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 Starkville Community Theatre in downtown Starkville, Miss.

The Starkville Community Theatre in downtown Starkville, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

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.

The mayor, who doesn't normally vote on the board, had also supported the parade, as had the local chamber of commerce.

The aldermen who originally voted against the parade had declined to explain their reasoning, although one told a local newspaper that his constituents agreed with the move.

The city's first-ever gay pride parade was proposed as part of a larger set of events, organized by McDaniel and Turner, two Mississippi State University students. 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.