Jason McCarty, Capital City Pride Executive Director (center) and Eleven Cook, were among a group of demonstrators protesting the University of Mississippi Medical Center's decision to close TEAM Clinic that provided care for the LGBTQ+ community, Tuesday, June 6, 2023 in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

A Jackson-based LGBTQ+ organization is withdrawing its volunteer support from this year’s Mississippi Book Festival due to the addition to a panel of former Vice President Mike Pence, a current Republican presidential candidate who is known for opposing the rights of gay and transgender people. 

In a press release, the Capital City Pride board of directors wrote that Pence, whose long track record of anti-LGBTQ+ actions includes opposing same-sex marriage and federal funding for some HIV/AIDS prevention, “directly contradicts” the inclusive values the nonprofit advocates for in Mississippi. 

“Our mission revolves around fostering an environment of equality, diversity and understanding, and we believe that supporting voices that promote hate and intolerance is antithetical to these goals,” the press release reads.  

Since it was founded in 2019, Capital City Pride has staffed the “writer’s breakfast” at the Two Mississippi Museums, an event for the writers and panelists, said Jason McCarty, the nonprofit’s consulting director. 

But after Pence was announced as a panelist, McCarty said he received dozens of calls from volunteers who were concerned about his anti-LGBTQ+ views. Now, about 25 volunteers with Capital City Pride will no longer staff the breakfast or an LGBTQ+ panel called “Out in Focus.” 

Though McCarty said he has a great relationship with the Mississippi Book Festival, it did not seem appropriate for the nonprofit, which advocates for safe spaces for LGBTQ+ people, to contribute to an event Pence might attend. 

In 2015, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence announced that the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services had approved the state’s waiver to try a different approach for Medicaid. Credit: Photo courtesy of Indiana University Health

Pence is slated to discuss his autobiography “So Help Me God,” which is about how his evangelical Christian values have shaped his personal life and politics, at 2:45 p.m. in Capitol Room 216. Former U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper will moderate. 

It was Harper’s suggestion to invite Pence, said Ellen Daniels, the festival’s executive director. Every year, the former congressman invites a guest with the board’s approval. Harper has also been a fiscal sponsor of the festival.

Though she respected Capital City Pride’s decision and thought the press release was “pitch perfect,” Daniels said that ultimately the Mississippi Book Festival’s goal is to be a big-tent event. She urged people not to boycott. 

“I want to put this into a kind of perspective,” she said. “Mike Pence and his session — he is one person out of over 160-plus authors appearing at the festival this year. Many of those authors have had their books banned. He is one hour out of a day with 47 hours of panel opportunities.” 

Daniels also noted that last year, the festival faced pushback for refusing to rescind its invitation to Alice Walker, the acclaimed author who faced criticism for praising a book by an antisemitic conspiracy theorist. Other controversial authors at prior festivals have included Joyce Carol Oates and Karl Rove. 

“We are a free speech festival,” Daniels said. “There is something for every type of reader at the festival, and we do not censor or ban books or authors.” 

Pence has opposed LGBTQ+ rights since he was a congressional candidate in 2000, according to the New York Times. The former governor of Indiana launched his presidential campaign this year by advocating for a nationwide ban on gender-affirming care for trans minors. He’s also called for a ban on trans people serving in the U.S. military

McCarty said that while Capital City Pride abhors Pence’s views, the nonprofit is trying to walk a line between not staffing, but still attending, the festival.

“It’s kind of a gut punch but it’s also like he is not going to run us off an event that we’ve always participated in,” McCarty said. 

Capital City Pride is now asking people to attend Pence’s panel, which will be broadcast on C-SPAN, and wear attire supporting the LGBTQ+ community.

The panel comes amid several efforts across the state to restrict the rights of LGBTQ+ Mississippians. Last week, the Harrison County School Board approved a policy requiring students to dress according to the gender they were assigned at birth

Earlier this year, lawmakers banned gender-affirming care for trans youth and the University of Mississippi Medical Center shuttered an LGBTQ+ clinic after it came under legislative scrutiny. 

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Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today. She works in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit news organization focused on investigating higher education. Originally from Melbourne Beach, Florida, Molly reported on public housing and prosecutors in her home state and worked as a fact-checker at The Nation before joining Mississippi Today. Her story on Mississippi's only class on critical race theory was a finalist for the Education Writers Association National Awards for Education Reporting in 2023 in the feature reporting category.