The Starkville Board of Aldermen voted Tuesday to allow the city’s first gay pride parade, a stunning reversal of its vote to block the parade two weeks ago.
None of the aldermen changed their vote, technically speaking. Ward 3 Alderman David Little abstained, allowing Mayor Lynn Spruill, who has been a vocal advocate of the pride parade, to break a 3-3 tie and cast the deciding vote.
“I feel like I’ve had a lot more time in the last few weeks to ponder this,” Little said. “… I believe the city of Starkville’s interests are best served by moving forward beyond this and pressing forward on other positive matters facing our community. That being said, while I maintain my principal decision I abstain on my vote.”
Although Spruill remained impassive for much of the debate Tuesday, after casting her tie-breaking vote, she cracked the slightest smile. Spruill has been very public in her support of the parade and her concern over “what kind of message” refusing to allow it sent.
“Absolutely I’m hopeful that it might change. I’ve made no secret of the fact that it’s a vote that does not represent the Starkville community,” Spruill said before the meeting Tuesday afternoon.
The parade is scheduled for March 24.
Since the board’s 4-3 vote on Feb. 20, Starkville has been mired in controversy over the board’s refusal to grant Starkville Pride a parade permit. Within hours of the vote, national media had picked up the story, and constitutional law experts had begun predicting a lengthy legal battle—one they said Starkville was likely to lose.
“This is a blatant violation of the Constitution,” said attorney Rob McDuff, who has challenged the state on several constitutional matters and is not involved in the Starkville lawsuit.
According to Ward 5 Alderman Patrick Miller, the board has not rejected an event permit since 2010. During the hearing, no board member raised concerns about the details of the permit application.
Two Starkville residents, however, did speak out against the parade permit in that Feb. 20 meeting. Both cited concerns that a parade for gay, lesbian and transgender people would, in essence, present a public conflict with their religious views. According to the lawsuit, filed in federal court on Feb. 26, the city’s refusal violated residents’ First Amendment freedom of speech, assembly, and petition and the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
“The city banned plaintiffs from speaking in a public forum solely because it disagreed with the viewpoint and content of their speech. That hostility to their message was inextricably intertwined with hostility to their LGBT identity and pro-LGBT advocacy,” states the lawsuit.
Mississippi Today has reached out to all four of the Starkville aldermen who voted against the parade, including Little, multiple times since the initial vote, but none has responded to requests for comments.
Ward 4 Alderman Jason Walker, who voted for the parade, predicted that defending the lawsuit could “easily cost the city six figures,” and given the outcome he said it would be a waste of taxpayer resources.
“I think all the aldermen have been notified by the city attorney by now that it’s not a case we can win. We’ll see if that persuaded anyone to change their vote,” Walker said hours before the meeting Tuesday.
Although Little did not say so explicitly, his comments about “moving forward beyond this” on Tuesday night suggested that the specter of a long, expensive legal battle hung heavy on town leadership.
Given that Starkville has reversed its vote, the status of the lawsuit is currently up in the air. One of the attorneys representing Starkville Pride is Roberta Kaplan, who in the last three years successfully sued the state over is ban on gay marriage and gay adoptions.
But why Little, alone, abstained on the issue remains unclear.
On Sunday, Chip Stevens, the pastor at First Baptist Church in Starkville, where Little is a member, gave a sermon about the controversy surrounding the Pride Parade. Although the Southern Baptist Convention, of which First Baptist is a member, has long been publicly opposed to the mainstreaming of gay culture, Stevens had a different take on opposition to the parade.
“Sometimes with a church when we’re faced with social issues we begin to panic and we begin to scramble and we begin to twist verses and we begin to just react. And we want the government to do what God has called the church to do, and we do it under the guise of ‘we cannot be silent on these issues,'” Stevens said in his sermon.
“Could it be that the problems that we face in our world are not because we’ve been silent on issues but because we’ve been silent with the gospel?”
The permit approved on Tuesday differed slightly from the one denied two weeks earlier. Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk, an advocate of the parade, moved to allow the it but this time without Starkville being an official sponsor, a move she admitted was partly “a question of optics.”
“If that was the stumbling block, I didn’t want it to be a stumbling block,” Sistrunk said after the meeting Tuesday.
In recent years, Starkville has had a rocky relationship with LGBT issues. In 2014, Starkville became the first town in Mississippi to pass an anti-discrimination resolution that included sexual orientation and identity, and later the city added a policy that extended health benefits to domestic partners of city employees.
But months later, the city quietly repealed both policies under pressure from local religious leaders, according to members of the board of aldermen.
Part of this is that this is also a time of growth and transition for Starkville, itself, according to many residents who live there. Starkville, like many towns along the eastern side of the state, has strong small-town agrarian roots. But unlike most of those towns, Starkville is growing, rapidly. This is due in large part to Mississippi State, a thriving university that brings money and jobs and youth to a part of the state rarely teeming with any of these things.
“If it weren’t for Mississippi State, it’d be like Sturgis, here,” said Trace Day, a lifelong Starkville resident. “It’d be a little hole in the wall.”
And while residents of Starkville, which calls itself ‘Mississippi’s College Town,’ rarely miss an opportunity to express their love for their local university, it’s also true that the people Mississippi State attracts are often younger and more diverse than local residents, with nearly a third of the students and more than half of the professors hailing from out of state.
“We interact more with the university now than we have in the past, and more of the students live among us in the community. We’re not that 1950s town or even that 2010 town that some people hope we’ll go back to being. And we just need to be mindful of the greater community and how different people might see what to me was a very routine administrative matter,” Sistrunk said.
“I do think it’s a kind of growing pains moment for the city. But we’ll get better at this.”