How a Pastor and a Popcorn Shop Owner Helped Save Pride in Starkville

More than 2,500 people attended in the first Pride parade in Starkville, Miss., on March 24.

On Sunday, more than 40,000 people are expected to march through the streets of New York City for the Pride parade. That’s equivalent to every single resident of Ithaca, N.Y., plus 10,000 friends.

Several hundred thousand more are expected to stand cheering on the sidelines, while a small — but not insignificant — group of L.G.B.T.Q. New Yorkers are expected to stay home and maybe take a nap. Or maybe they’ll head off to the beach.

They will be participating in the time-honored L.G.B.T.Q. tradition of never quite making it there. (This tradition is sometimes accompanied by a comment about the individual’s discomfort with crowds or a criticism of the “corporate vibe.”)

I tried to explain this the other day to Bailey McDaniel, 22, a woman who had spent more than a year battling to bring Pride to her town, Starkville, Miss.

She thought I was joking.

Our conversation went roughly like this: Bud Light and Target really sponsor Pride in New York City? Yes, they do. There are queer people who resent this? Yes.

“It’s just too wild to imagine,” said Ms. McDaniel, who was president of the L.G.B.T.Q.+ Union at Mississippi State University in Starkville until she graduated in May.

“One day I want to be in a place where you boycott Pride ’cause it’s too corporate.”

The idea that being an L.G.B.T.Q. person in one part of the country is different from being an L.G.B.T.Q. person in another part of the country is not new. But there is something about the nature of the contrasts in this moment that feels different to many people.

“We’re moving toward a time of emotional, ethical and psychological confusion where there are so many things contradicting one another and going up against one another,” said Michael Bronski, a Harvard professor and the author of “A Queer History of the United States.

“We can watch RuPaul on TV, but look what the Supreme Court just did,” he added, referring to the court’s 7-2 decision in favor of a Colorado baker who had refused to create a wedding cake for a gay couple.

Credit...Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

In acknowledgment of this unusual time, we zoom in on five particularly contradiction-filled weeks.

This is the story of pride in Starkville and how over the course of a little more than a month in February and March, the city of roughly 25,000 people went from denying an event permit, because of religious concerns, to hosting a Pride parade that attracted more than 2,500 people and featured multiple religious leaders.

It’s also the story of how queer love and life may differ strikingly from one mile to the next — or one hour to the next. And how a few days after an openly transgender woman presented for the first time at the Oscars, a judge ruled that pushing an African-American transgender woman into a river, where she died, was not criminal conduct.

On Feb. 20, as part of the N.H.L.’s Hockey Is for Everyone efforts, the Vancouver Canucksposted a photo of a hockey stick covered with rainbow tape on Instagram. In a typically nasty comment, a fan urged the team to delete the image, “before I burn every Canucks jersey I have.”

Credit...Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

On the Mississippi coast, a transgender woman who had retired from the Air Force and was working as a broadcast engineer, opened her email to find … perfectly pleasant emails from colleagues and family, as she had every week since becoming Molly Kester four years earlier.

The Starkville Board of Aldermen meeting on that same day was unusually packed. After comments on a clogged sewer system, Ms. McDaniel stepped to the podium and made her case for why she should be granted a permit for the city’s first Pride parade, which she hoped to hold on March 24, strategically timed between spring break and finals.

She told them how she had grown the L.G.B.T.Q. group at Mississippi State University from just five people sitting in the library four years earlier to 135 and emphasized how the festivities would bring the community together.

What she didn’t tell them was that she and her friends were accustomed to being greeted with “Oh, it’s the dykes,” when they walked into bars; that someone threw a can at her professor when he walked down the street holding hands with his husband; that a repairman left a swastika on the wall of a local drag queen’s house.

As other organizers followed, with their own carefully crafted, generally upbeat speeches, Rosa Dalomba, 29, the owner of a local popcorn store, found herself moved and disturbed. Why did these residents have to beg for a permit in 2018? She eyed the lectern.

“I’m having a convo with myself and telling myself, ‘Dalomba — stay,’ ” she recalled, thinking about her own struggles as a black business owner on Main Street.

Ms. Dalomba, born in the Cape Verde islands in West Africa, had recently moved to Starkville with her boyfriend, a grad student, after a long stint in Rhode Island and several Southern locations.

The night President Trump was elected, she had been startled by shouts of “white power” in Monroe, La. Did she really want to draw attention to herself?


“For a business owner, it’s foolish not to have Pride ’cause it brings business downtown,” she said when she stood at the lectern. “I’m already planning a rainbow popcorn.”

She was followed by a woman who told the room, “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” and several others who also objected on religious grounds.

Mayor Lynn Spruill, 65, who supported the effort, was not concerned. A “perfectly happily single” woman, and the first female aviator to qualify to land on a Navy aircraft carrier, her own experience had taught her that Mississippi is more open-minded than most outsiders realize.

Throughout her life, she said in an interview, she has had good relationships with men and women and has never felt the need to identify as anything in particular. It was frustrating when opponents occasionally alluded to her sexuality while discussing city matters, where she felt it was irrelevant.

But she could not imagine even those who didn’t approve refusing to let people assemble.

A show of hands of those in the room revealed that the majority supported the parade. Nonetheless the aldermen voted, 4 to 3, to deny the permit.

A New York federal appeals court on Feb. 26 ruled on behalf of a man who had been fired from his job for being gay.

News spread that in Georgia, the State Senate had approved a bill that would give adoption agencies the ability to refuse on religious grounds to work with L.G.B.T.Q. couples.

Starkville’s denial of Pride had spread quickly across the internet. The town had become national news, a symbol of backward thinking that persisted in the South. This framing felt icky to some residents.

At church the Sunday after the aldermen voted to deny pride, the Rev. Bert Montgomery made sure his congregation knew that he supported Ms. McDaniel, the Pride organizer, a longtime attendee of his Baptist church.

“Our faith calls for acceptance and affirmation, not for denial and for power,” he said in an interview. “On the one hand there has been this tradition of a rigid, narrow, fundamentalist restrictive version of Christianity, defending slavery and segregation and the oppression and submissiveness of women. But on the other hand it was rich Christian tradition that was leading the abolitionists’ movement and the civil rights movement.”

Organizers were touched to hear that pastors at other churches had also been emphasizing messages of love and acceptance.

Ms. McDaniel — who was being trailed by a crew from Vice News and taking calls from “everyone and their mother” — was too busy to go to class. The day after the denial, the Campaign for Southern Equality had called, connecting her and her co-organizer, Emily Turner, to Roberta Kaplan, the lawyer who helped win the battle at the Supreme Court in 2013 to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act. They filed a lawsuit against Starkville.

The response around town was better than they were expecting.

Every day, it seemed, a rainbow flag appeared in the window of a local business. Someone told them the owner of the Pop Porium was offering to host Pride at her shop if the permit didn’t come through.

Daniela Vega became the first transgender person to present at the Academy Awards. “Gives me hope that trans women will begin to be acknowledged for our skills across industries,” wrote a woman on Twitter. Trans activists began organizing a response to a judge’s ruling that the actions of a man who “inadvertently” pushed an African-American transgender woman into a river, where she drowned, did not rise to the level of criminal conduct. “Her name was Kenne McFadden. Her life mattered. She was killed and she will receive no justice. That is why I say #BlackLivesMatter that is why I say #translivesmatter,” wrote a man on Twitter.

Credit...Jordan Strauss/Invision, via Associated Press

On March 6, Starkville’s Board of Aldermen voted again. This time, Alderman David Little, who had previously voted against the permit, abstained, knowing it would allow the mayor to break the tie.

The lawsuit, which would be settled, was no longer necessary. Pride was on.

Mr. Little did not respond to an interview request, but Lillian Faderman, an L.G.B.T.Q. historian, considers him one of the most interesting characters in this.

He is the person who saw how the country — and his community — reacted, and he changed his mind.

“That suggests to me we’re making progress somehow,” she said.

A writer in Los Angeles, who married and divorced her wife in the course of a year, found herself wondering why her super woke queer friends, with their fiery support of the #MeToo movement, seemed unable to believe that a woman could also be an abuser.

Residents of Starkville started hearing reports that quite a lot of people might be coming to the parade from far beyond their city.

A Utah newspaper published a letter by a woman lamenting the fact that a rainbow flag was stolen off her family’s deck. “We are on our third flag,” Ginger Lockhart told me in an email. In Tucson, a woman cried tears of joy as the audience cheered wildly for two boys making out — in the movie “Love, Simon.” “I never thought we would be in a place where young folks cheer for two guys just like I cheered when Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger finally got together in ‘10 Things I Hate About You’ back in 1998,” Jennifer Nguyen wrote to me.

Credit...Ben Rothstein/20th Century Fox

No one knew quite what to expect on March 24, the day of Starkville’s Pride parade. The mayor had been fielding concerns that it would just be a sea of naked people, performing lewd acts. But the streets were mostly filled with joyful children and their parents, many carrying picnic baskets.

As Ms. McDaniel walked around, she realized that for five full blocks all she could see was people. They began with a goal of 150. They ended up with around 2,500.

“That brought me to my knees,” she said.

A number of protesters with signs mentioning God and sin could be spotted shouting at the side. They appeared to be a much smaller group than the 75 or so people representing various religious institutions who walked alongside Mr. Montgomery and a rabbi, observed Antonio Tarrell, a filmmaker documenting the parade.,

Ms. Dalomba found herself choking up as she sambaed past her popcorn shop. In the end, her decision to fight for Pride had brought her a stream of new customers and friends.

“For a long time I truly believed that someone like me could not live in the South,” she said. “That day gave me hope.”

For Ms. McDaniel, it was hard to pick a favorite moment. There was the encounter with the man, so tall and joyful that he reminded her of the Jolly Green Giant, who told her, “I think this is the happiest moment in all the 70 years I’ve been alive.”

That got her.

There was seeing her boss from work who she had no idea was “accepting.” That got her, too.

But really, probably, it was the parents. So many parents — straight and gay — all hugging her.

“Thank you for letting our child experience it,” one told her, “because this is everything we want them to fight for — but they didn’t have anything to fight for before because nothing happens here.”

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