As dozens of cars snaked into the grounds of a refurbished horse ranch on a sweltering June afternoon in Franklin, Tenn., a few volunteers stood at the entrance to cheerily welcome visitors to the local Pride festival.
The greeting, the volunteers said, also gave them a chance to see someone who didn’t wave back or smile, someone who might harbor more malicious intent.
Bags were searched and scanned with a metal detector. Across the street, a man in a white T-shirt from a nationalist fight club was carrying a poster with a homophobic slur. A SWAT team waited at the edge of the party.
The precautions underlined 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 Pride celebrations and commemorations as a threat to children.
In Franklin, permission to hold the 2023 Pride event was not given until the mayor, Ken Moore, chose to break a tie in favor of the festival. His voice closed a vitriolic debate over drag queens who had performed for children last 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 far right make a lot more noise than the people to the right or left of center,” Moore said in a recent interview. “And I think it’s an opportunity for those right and left of center to organize and say, ‘Hey, this is our community too.'”
In the decades since the first march commemorating the Stonewall Inn uprising in 1970, Pride events have boomed. But this year, as several conservative-led states have passed legislation targeting LGBTQ rights and transitional care for transgender minors, Pride Month is increasingly on shaky ground across the country.
Brands such as Bud Light have faced boycotts for their support of LGBTQ people, while Target reduced exposure of its annual Pride collection in stores after employees were threatened.
City officials across the country have chided proclamations recognizing Pride Month or flying the Pride rainbow flag on municipal property. And a Kansas man was charged on federal charges after posting threats online against this weekend’s Nashville Pride.
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 law in Tennessee targeting drag performances that has since been declared unconstitutional.
In Franklin, Redemption City Church chief pastor Jed Coppenger said he saw many in his congregation struggle with what they liked to see in schools and in public as conservatives opposed books or media featuring LGBTQ people.
“We’ve all been in the ocean when it drew you, and you don’t realize it until you look back at the beach,” said Mr Coppenger, who said he personally opposed the festival. “There are certainly many schools of thought at play, and there are some new ones.”
Founded in 1799 and now home to nearly 90,000 people, Franklin and surrounding Williamson County have proudly anchored their identities in an idyllic blend of American history and prosperous development. Agriculture and horse industries coexist with large companies and nearby manufacturing centers. The patriotic flags, historic churches, and manicured downtown are offset by landmarks commemorating some of the Civil War’s bloodiest conflicts and the removal of the Chickasaw from their tribal lands.
The city, which is about 80 percent white and 6 percent black, has retained deep Christian and conservative roots as it navigates the country’s rapid economic growth and shifts in diversity and civil rights. Several community leaders highlighted the decision to place a statue of a black soldier who fought for Union troops downtown in 2021, rather than remove a statue of a Confederate soldier that has long loomed over the public plaza.
The demographic changes and population shifts caused by the coronavirus pandemic, some residents said, are major drivers of 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 drew some liberals into more affordable housing within the orbit of the Democratic stronghold of Nashville, while also drawing conservatives seeking to escape progressive mandates and policies.
(An analysis of Internal Revenue Service data compiled by the head of Williamson Inc., the district’s chamber of commerce, found that between 2020 and 2021, more than 1,500 one-time Californians moved there from Orange County and Los Angeles County alone. moved.)
Eric Stuckey, the city manager whose staff oversaw the permitting process, said there’s an inherent tension with people arriving with different expectations of what Franklin is and should be.
“I think what we’ve seen has been part of this idea, do I want to protect it? he said. “And what does it mean to protect?”
The 10 members of the Pride festival’s own board understood what it means to deal with change. Some had waited years to come out, while others had felt the discomfort of their peers and themselves when their children said they were gay.
“My son came out and — I’m ashamed to say this — that’s when I really started deconstructing all the lessons of my childhood and realized not only that was wrong, but a bunch of other things as well,” said Ginny Bailey, 60, a board member who described her candor and work with Pride as a way of prepaying for the grace others had shown her. “It’s been quite a journey.”
Franklin held its first Pride in 2021, and prior to this year, organizers had never had a problem getting a permit from the city. When they heard of complaints about last year’s drag performance, the board wondered 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 circulated — on social media and at least one water aerobics class — about what kind of sex toys and debauchery a Pride festival might bring.
“People don’t like change — I don’t like it either,” says Rusty McCown, an Episcopalian priest in Franklin, where he has been open about his support for LGBTQ rights and manned the church’s Pride booth. “If those values are pushed, it’s easy to strike out.”
At a pair of town hall rallies in March and April, residents and representatives of conservative groups such as Moms for Liberty, founded in early 2021 to protest restrictions on schools in the pandemic era, demanded that city leaders deny permitting the event to force it onto private property and only for adults. They referenced clips from the drag performances in 2022 – one of them showed a performer known as “The Blair bitchcrouched in costume to accept a dollar bill from a child — and warned of biblical and political ramifications.
A man who described himself as a recently arrived “refugee” from Evanston, Illinois, warned of what he felt were the ominous lessons of his former city’s Pride celebrations — which eventually evolved into a series of events, along with increased LGBTQ visibility people in schools, churches and other organizations.
Defenders of the festival called for a single day to show acceptance and understanding, saying the event had been grossly misinterpreted. Nashville offered a much more daring scene on an average Saturday night, they said, compared to their plans for a six-hour event.
The deluge of emails, phone calls and threats shocked city leaders, who described sleepless nights and hours struggling with their faith, threats, demands from their constituents and the potential legal ramifications of engaging in cultural debate. (The position of alderman, an impartial one, is also ostensibly a part-time job.)
An alderman, Matt Brown, at one point bluntly expressed a desire to quickly return to the familiar business of arguing over roads and city issues, rather than a protracted and expensive battle over free speech.
The decision to go ahead with the festival did little to alleviate anger among opponents, who pledged to elect aldermen who would vote in their direction. But for Franklin Pride, it was a lifeline.
The controversy proved to have an appeal for more supporters, with nearly 7,000 people visiting the park at the end of the day, about 2,000 more than the previous year.
“It became very clear: Everyone is flagging and blocking agendas,” said Ed Lewis, a technical director who had recently moved from Chicago to Tennessee with his wife Kate and their children to be closer to family.
Despite ominous online chatter leading up to the event, protests were muted. Seven people were asked to leave and one person was arrested after refusing to leave, Mr Stuckey said, a decision that under the city permit was left to the discretion of organizers and what they characterized as disruptive. Worries about troublemakers even led to a man being asked to leave his worn-out Bible at the entrance. He agreed to the request and wandered the grounds, grabbed his Bible and joined the protesters across the street.
And in a shady tent, a group of teenagers blared pop songs, tied friendship bracelets and put on each other’s makeup, mixing rainbow eyeshadow and sequins across their foreheads. They sat in a circle and talked about the harassment they faced at school, their frustration with laws restricting LGBTQ rights, and their fear that they would lose a lonely day when it felt safe to openly be themselves.
“It’s like this fight to be constantly visible, so I’m not letting my community down, but not being too visible that I’m annoying everyone,” said Eli Givens, an 18-year-old high school graduate, adding that “the queer trans experience, especially in the South, is just constant apologies, like you don’t want to be too much.
But on this Saturday, the teens snapped pictures and talked about what it felt like to rest without worrying about what anyone else might say about them. And they talked about going to college and then maybe coming back to Tennessee, to prove that this was still a place for them.
“It’s like we made the most time-consuming cake in the world,” says Lucie Pitt, a 19-year-old student at Loyola University in Chicago. “And we finally get to eat it.”