Tennessee pride celebrations showcase queer joy amid neo-Nazi threats and legal attacks

Tennessee pride celebrations showcase queer joy amid neo-Nazi threats and legal attacks

PULASKI, Tenn. — Members of the LGBTQ community and their allies kicked off Pride month here with a common theme: defiance.

No matter the string of anti-gay actions by Tennessee's Republican-controlled state government or threats by avowed neo-Nazis plotting in the shadows. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer residents and their allies celebrated in even some of the state’s deepest red counties while taking heart from a federal court ruling this weekend that struck down the state’s new anti-drag show law as unconstitutional.

Thousands of people streamed into a Pride celebration held at a city-owned horse park Saturday in Franklin, where a tie-breaking vote cast in April by the Tennessee city's mayor proved to be the deciding factor in the event obtaining a municipal permit.

Police presence was significant: law enforcement officials established a mobile command center and positioned a SWAT unit truck on the gently rolling grounds of the park, and arrested at least one protester. Other protesters held placards at a gas station across the street from the celebration, well beyond the sight line of attendees strolling a fairway between vendor tents and listening to music from a mobile stage.

Sixty miles to the south, in Pulaski, local police staged inside the city's courthouse with helmets, riot shields and batons, but the martial display didn’t dampen the festival's mood on an adjacent street, where families danced with children, friends mingled, drag queens posed for photos with children and a funk band played on the courthouse steps. Opponents with religious-themed signs occupied a protest zone on the opposite side of the courthouse.

“It’s amazing to have it on the square,” said Ericka Quinones, who organized the first Pride in Pulaski — a city of 8,397 people — with her wife, Layla, in 2021. “They have events here all the time. Why should we be treated any different?”

After organizing Pride two years in a row, the Quinones family passed responsibility to the Giles County Inclusivity Coalition when Layla got pregnant. For the first two Pride celebrations, they had secured the county Agri-Park, a facility used for county fairs and 4-H competitions. But following a divisive local election in 2022, the county commission enacted new rules prohibiting performances with “male and female impersonators,” effectively shutting out Pride. The new rule was approved two months before Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed a Tennessee law that likewise banned drag performances in the presence of children.

Katie Whitfield, secretary of the Giles County Inclusivity Coalition, told Raw Story she was worried the venue change would expose attendees who might not want to be outed as LGBTQ to passersby “walking through on the street and taking photos like paparazzi,” but Ericka and Layla Quinones said they view the increased visibility of the new location as an improvement.

The two Middle Tennessee cities are both nestled in GOP strongholds. Donald Trump carried about 62 percent of the presidential vote in both the 2016 and 2020 presidential election in Williamson County, the wealthiest in the state and home to Franklin.

In Giles County, with a median household income below the state average, Trump expanded his vote share from 71.6 percent in 2016 to 74.1 percent in 2020.

As in Pulaski, the Pride event in larger Franklin, with a population of 83,454, similarly ran into opposition earlier this year.

Surrounding Williamson County — home to Lee, U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn and state Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, the author of the anti-drag bill — has become a target of far-right organizing.

During a raucous public comment period during a work session held by the Franklin City Council in March, some residents urged council members to deny a permit to the Pride event.

“It is part of a social change agenda that wants to come to Franklin, and we are seeing it play out all over the country,” one woman said. “That agenda is not pro-religion, pro-community, pro-Christianity, pro-family or pro-America. Rather, it seeks the destruction of all of those elements.”

“You think you are doing things based on laws, but you are doing things and you are letting Satan in,” another woman said. “He will not take an inch, I promise you. He will take everything, and it will not stop.”

But in a preview of the defiance on display this weekend, another speaker pushed back, telling the council he moved to Franklin because of his husband.

“So, I’m here in the midst of you, but I am here,” he said. “We are here. I know people have moved here to not be with me or my kind. But we are here. But we urge you to vote yes and give us one day of celebration.”

One man was arrested during Franklin Pride. Jordan Green/Raw Story

Despite online chatter from neo-Nazis falsely labeling the Pride celebrations as “groomer” events and urging one another to “take your streets from the degenerates,” only one neo-Nazi appeared to show up at the Franklin Pride event. He carried a sign with a homophobic slur, but eventually left after a couple hours, after complaining about losing his job due to being doxxed in response to a man accusing him of being a federal agent.

Across the street from Franklin Pride, a group of right-wing influencers secured an event space in the Factory, an industrial space repurposed as a high-end shopping mall. Vaguely marketed as counter-programming to Pride, the event promised “an epic weekend of liberty-centered music, comedy, lectures, live podcasts, aerial acrobatics, community building and more.”

Despite top billing for prominent right-wing conspiracists such as election denier Patrick Byrne and InfoWars host Owen Shroyer, who faces charges for his involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection, the low-key event drew only about 75 people.

In spite of the attention on Franklin and Williamson County by conspiracy theorists and extremists as a flashpoint for culture war, Holly McCall, editor-in-chief of the Tennessee Lookout and a longtime resident, told Raw Story that most residents and elected leaders are uncomfortable being pushed beyond traditional chamber-of-commerce Republicanism.

“They don’t want that reputation as a place where hateful people come,” she said. “It’s bad for the brand.”

While Franklin is shrouded in Civil War history, with a Confederate monument soaring from the middle of the roundabout in the center of town and a newer bronze statue commemorating the United States Colored Troops in front of the courthouse, Pulaski has a more unambiguous association with hate, as the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan.

Members of Rocket City Medic Collective staff a tent at Pulaski Pride on June 3. Jordan Green/Raw Story

During Pulaski Pride, the Rocket City Medic Collective from Huntsville, Ala., staffed a tent directly across from the courthouse steps, where about six members equipped with tactical vests handed out cold water.

One of the members, "Foxtail", wore a patch announcing her pronouns as “she/they” and another with an assault rifle silhouette superimposed over a Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) trans pride flag. She said Tennessee’s unrestrictive gun laws and active organizing by extremist groups made Pulaski a priority for the medic collective, which describes itself as a group providing first aid while protecting people from right-wing extremist attacks.

“People are allowed to carry firearms in Tennessee,” she said. “We may not know who is carrying a firearm. That is an unknown. Tennessee has a significantly higher level of right-wing extremists, including the Tennessee Active Club, White Lives Matter and the Ku Klux Klan.”

As she was speaking, Foxtail interrupted herself to inform another member of the collective: “Open carry behind you," indicating an unknown man believed to have a pistol on his waist.

Tiffany York, a drag queen from nearby Lewisburg, Tennessee, chatted with young people and handed out prizes during a drag queen trivia event at Pulaski Pride. York, a gay man, said he started doing drag as “Halloween fluke” 19 years ago, and the current political backlash has caused him to commit more deeply to the art form.

“After last night, with [the drag ban] being ruled unconstitutional, to not have to go back to 1970 and to not have to go back into the closet, it’s a relief,” he said. “I’m happy it happened on a Pride day that I’m a part of. That’s such a wonderful feeling.”

Chad Nance contributed reporting for this story.

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