As dozens of cars meandered through the grounds of a renovated horse farm on a sweltering June afternoon in Franklin, Tennessee, some volunteers stood at the entrance, cheerfully welcoming visitors to the local Pride festival.
The wave, the volunteers said, also gave them a chance to spot anyone who didn’t wave back or smile, someone who might harbor more malicious intent.
There were searches of bags and scans with a metal detector. Across the street, a man in a white Nationalist Fight Club T-shirt held a sign with a homophobic slur. A SWAT team waited outside the celebration.
The levels of caution underscored what had become an unexpectedly volatile situation not only in Franklin, a city 20 miles south of Nashville, but across the country as right-wing activists have attacked established celebrations and commemorations. of Pride as a threat to children.
In Franklin, permission to hold the Pride 2023 event came only when the mayor, Ken Moore, chose to break a tie in favor of the party Her vote capped a virulent debate over drag queens performing in front of children the previous year, an issue that left the city’s governing body deadlocked and exposed painful divisions in the community.
“At the edges, the far left and the far right are making a lot more noise than people who are to the right or left of center,” Moore said in a recent interview. “And I think it’s an opportunity for those on the right and left of the 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 laws targeting LGBTQ rights and transitional care for transgender minors, 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 scaled back its annual Pride collection in stores after employees were threatened.
city officials all over the country have reprimanded proclamations recognizing Pride Month either allowing rainbow pride flag to be blown up on municipal property. And a Kansas man has been indicted on federal charges after posting online threats against Nashville Pride this weekend.
At the same time, some celebrations moved defiantly: The 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, the senior pastor at 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 the books or media they presented. to LGBTQ people.
“We’ve all been in the ocean when you were drawn to it, and you don’t realize it until you look back at the beach,” said Coppenger, who said he was personally opposed to 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 its surrounding Williamson County have proudly anchored their identity in an idyllic blend of American history and thriving development. The agricultural and equine industries coexist with large corporate and manufacturing centers nearby. Patriotic flags, historic churches and a manicured downtown area are offset by monuments commemorating some of the bloodiest conflicts of the Civil War and the removal of the Chickasaw from their tribal lands.
The city, which is roughly 80 percent white and 6 percent black, has retained deep Christian and conservative roots as it works to navigate its rapid economic growth and the nation’s 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 looms over the public square. for a long time.
Demographic changes and population shifts brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, some residents said, are major driving forces behind the intense conflict over Pride. Franklin offered the transplants a chance to get out of the more expensive parts of the country and work in the lush greenery of Tennessee. He lured some liberals into more affordable housing within the orbit of the Democratic stronghold of Nashville, while luring conservatives seeking to escape progressive mandates and policies.
(An analysis of Internal Revenue Service data, compiled by the director of Williamson Inc., the county’s chamber of commerce, showed that between 2020 and 2021, more than 1,500 Californians who ever moved there from Orange County and Los Angeles County only.)
Eric Stuckey, the city manager whose staff oversaw the permitting process, said there is an inherent tension with people coming in with different expectations of what Franklin is and should be.
“I think what we’ve seen has been something of this idea of, do I want to protect it? ” he said. “And what does it mean to protect him?”
The 10 members of the Pride festival’s own board understood what it meant to deal with change. Some had waited years to come out, while others had faced discomfort from their peers and themselves when their children came out as gay.
“My son came out and, I’m ashamed to say this, that’s when I really started to deconstruct all the lessons from my childhood and realized that not only was that wrong, but so was a lot of other things,” said Ginny Bailey, 60 years old. , a board member who described her outspokenness and her work with Pride as a way of repaying the grace others had shown him. “It’s been a great journey.”
Franklin held its first Pride in 2021, and before this year, organizers have never had a problem getting a permit from the city. When they heard about the complaints about last year’s drag performances, their board agonized over how to respond. After several meetings, they reluctantly agreed to drop the show schedule, although attendees were allowed to dress however they wanted.
But he did not satisfy his critics. Rumors swirled, on social media and at least in one aqua aerobics class, about what kind of sex toys and debauchery a Pride festival might bring.
“People don’t like change, I don’t like change either,” said Rusty McCown, an Episcopal priest in Franklin, where he has been outspoken about his support for LGBTQ rights and manned the church’s Pride booth. “When those values are promoted, it is easy to cross yourself out.”
In a pair of public 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, demanded that city leaders deny permission to the event to force it onto private property. and only for adults. They referenced clips from drag performances from 2022: One showed an artist known as “blair’s bitch”, costumed squatting to accept a dollar bill from a child, and warned of the biblical and political consequences.
A man who described himself as a “refugee” recently arrived from Evanston, Ill., warned about what he discovered were the sinister lessons of Pride celebrations in his old town, which ultimately turned into a series of events. , along with increased LGBTQ visibility. people in schools, churches and other organizations.
Festival supporters called for a single day to show acceptance and understanding, saying the event had been misconstrued. Nashville offered a much raunchier scene on an average Saturday night, they said, compared to their plans for a six-hour event.
The barrage of emails, calls and threats rocked city leaders, who described sleepless nights and hours spent dealing with their faith, the threats, lawsuits from their constituents and the potential legal ramifications of getting into a culture debate. (The nonpartisan position of alderman is also ostensibly a part-time job.)
One councilman, Matt Brown, at one point bluntly expressed his desire to quickly return to the family business of discussing highways and city issues, rather than a protracted and costly fight for free speech.
The decision to allow the festival to go ahead did little to quell anger among its detractors, who vowed to elect councilors who would vote for it. But for Franklin Pride, it was a lifesaver.
The controversy proved to be a draw for more fans, with nearly 7,000 people visiting the park by the end of the day, some 2,000 more than the previous year.
“It was made very clear: Everybody put out your flags and lock down your calendars,” said Ed Lewis, a technology executive who recently moved to Tennessee with his wife, Kate, and their children from Chicago to be closer to family.
Despite ominous online chatter leading up to the event, the protests were silenced. Seven people were asked to leave and one person was arrested after refusing to leave, Stuckey said, a decision left to the discretion of organizers under city permission and characterized as disruptive. Concerns about rioters even led to a man being asked to leave his well-worn Bible at the entrance. He agreed to the request and wandered the grounds, before retrieving the Bible from him and joining the protesters across the street.
And in a shaded tent, a group of teens blasted pop songs, intertwined friendship bracelets, and did each other’s makeup, mixing rainbow eyeshadow and sprinkling sequins on their foreheads. Sitting in a circle, they talked about the bullying they faced at school, their frustration with laws meant to restrict LGBTQ rights, and their fears of losing a lonely day where they felt safe to be openly themselves.
“It’s like this struggle of constantly being visible, so as not to let my community down, but not so visible as to upset everyone,” said Eli Givens, an 18-year-old high school graduate, adding that “queer people experience trans, especially in the south, is constantly apologizing, like he doesn’t want to be too much.”
But this Saturday, the teens took photos of each other and talked about how it felt to rest, not caring what anyone else would say about them. And they talked about going to college and then maybe going back to Tennessee, to show that this was still a place for them.
“It’s like we’ve made the world’s longest-consuming cake,” said Lucie Pitt, a 19-year-old student at Loyola University Chicago. “And finally we can eat it.”