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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

This city had quietly celebrated Pride before. In 2023, that was not an option.

Law enforcement officers escort a protester out of Harlinsdale Park during the 2023 Pride festival in Franklin, Tenn. on June 3, 2023.

By Emily Cochrane

As dozens of cars snaked their way onto the grounds of a refurbished horse farm on a sweltering June afternoon in Franklin, a few volunteers stood at the entrance, cheerfully welcoming visitors to the local Pride festival.

The greeting, volunteers said, also gave them a chance to spot any person who didn’t wave back or smile, someone who might harbor more malicious intentions.

There were bag searches 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 outskirts 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 have assailed established Pride celebrations and commemorations as a threat to children.

In Franklin, permission to hold the 2023 Pride event came only when Mayor Ken Moore chose to break a tie in favor of the festival. His vote capped a vitriolic debate over drag queens having performed in front of children the previous year, an issue that left the city’s governing body deadlocked and exposed painful divisions in the community.

“On the edges, the far left and the far right are making a lot more noise than the people that are either right or left of center,” Moore said in a recent interview. “And I think it’s an opportunity for those in the right and left of center to organize and say, ‘Hey, this is our community, too.’”

In the decades since the first march commemorated the Stonewall Inn uprising in 1970, Pride events have flourished. But this year, as several conservative-led states have pushed through legislation targeting LGBTQ rights and transition care for transgender minors, Pride Month is increasingly on shaky ground nationwide.

At the same time, some celebrations defiantly moved forward: Memphis Pride Fest booked its largest lineup yet of more than 50 drag performers, despite a Tennessee law targeting drag performances that has since been ruled unconstitutional.

In Franklin, Jed Coppenger, lead pastor at Redemption City Church, said he saw many in his congregation wrestle with what they felt comfortable seeing in schools and in public, as conservatives opposed books or media that featured LGBTQ people.

“We’ve all been in the ocean when it pulled you, and you don’t realize until you look back at the beach,” said Coppenger, who said he personally opposed the festival. “There are definitely a lot of 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 equine industries coexist with large corporate and nearby manufacturing hubs. The patriotic bunting, historic churches and manicured downtown are offset by landmarks commemorating some of the bloodiest conflicts of the Civil War and the removal of the Chickasaw from their tribal lands.

The city, which is about 80% white and 6% Black, has retained deep Christian and conservative roots, while working to navigate its fast-paced economic growth and the nation’s shifts on diversity and civil rights. Several community leaders highlighted the decision to add a statue of a Black soldier who fought for Union troops to downtown in 2021, rather than remove a statue of a Confederate soldier that has long loomed over the public square.

The demographic changes and population shifts brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, some residents said, are significant driving forces behind the intense conflict over Pride. Franklin offered transplants a chance to leave more expensive parts of the country and work in the lush greenery of Tennessee. It attracted some liberals to more affordable homes within the orbit of the Democratic stronghold of Nashville, while also drawing in conservatives seeking to escape progressive mandates and policies.

(An analysis of IRS data, compiled by the head of Williamson Inc., the county’s chamber of commerce, showed that between 2020 and 2021, more than 1,500 onetime Californians had moved there from Orange County and Los Angeles County alone.)

Eric Stuckey, the city administrator whose staff oversaw the permitting process, said there is an inherent tension with people arriving with different expectations of what Franklin is and should be.

“I think what we have seen has been some of this idea of, do I want to protect it?” he said, referring to the city’s character. “And what does protect it mean?”

The 10 members of the Pride festival’s board understood what it meant to grapple with change. Some had waited years to come out, while others had confronted discomfort from their peers and within themselves when their children said they were gay.

“My son came out and — I’m embarrassed to say this — that’s when I really started deconstructing all the lessons of my childhood and realizing not only was that wrong, a bunch of other stuff was, too,” said Ginny Bailey, 60, a board member who described her outspokenness and work with Pride as a way to pay forward the grace others had shown her. “It’s been quite a journey.”

Franklin held its first Pride in 2021, and before this year, organizers had never faced an issue getting a permit from the city. When they learned of complaints over last year’s drag performances, its board agonized over how to respond. After several meetings, they reluctantly agreed to drop all drag from the entertainment lineup, though attendees could dress as they pleased.

But it did not satisfy their critics. Rumors swirled — on social media and at least one water aerobics class — about what sort of sex toys and debauchery a Pride festival could bring.

“People do not like change — I don’t like it either,” said the Rev. Rusty McCown, an Episcopal priest in Franklin, where he has been open about his support for LGBTQ rights and staffed the church’s Pride booth. “When those values are being pushed, it’s easy to strike out.”

In a pair of town hall meetings in March and April, residents and representatives from conservative groups such as Moms for Liberty, founded in early 2021 to protest pandemic-era restrictions in schools, demanded that city leaders deny the event’s permit to force it to private property and for adults only. They referenced clips of the 2022 drag performances — one showed a performer known as “The Blair Bitch,” squatting in costume to accept a dollar bill from a child — and warned of biblical and political consequences.

Defenders of the festival pleaded for a single day to demonstrate acceptance and understanding, saying that the event had been grossly misconstrued. Nashville offered a far more risqué scene on an average Saturday night, they said, compared with their plans for a six-hour event.

The decision to allow the festival to go forward did little to quell anger among its detractors, who vowed to elect aldermen who would vote their way. But for Franklin Pride, it was a lifeline.

The controversy proved to be a draw to more supporters, with close to 7,000 people visiting the park by the end of the day, about 2,000 more than the previous year.

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