A single vote told the world what Starkville thinks about the local LGBTQ community, and it’s a problem.
By Ryan Phillips
Featured Photo By Bruce Newman
Starkville’s public image was defined by one vote on Tuesday night. That’s all it took.
One vote sent a ringing message to the entire LGBTQ community that they are not viewed as having the same constitutional rights as other groups to peacefully assemble in Starkville. In turn, I’m left wondering just how much thought was put into the decision by the four aldermen who voted to block the event permit for a harmless gay pride parade in the city.
I have tried my best to consider what the benefits for the community could be after this decision, but apart from the paltry amount of money saved by the city on in-kind services, I’m truly at a loss.
Without getting into the politics or morality concerning the issue, I think it’s important we consider and discuss the repercussions of a solitary vote.
The 4-3 vote was bipartisan and racially split (two white Republicans, two black Democrats) and not a word of feedback was given from a single alderman who voted against the measure. It is also worth acknowledging that this is a group that is normally vocal when they disagree with something, so it was disheartening to not hear a single reason from the four elected officials: Ward 1’s Ben Carver, Ward 3’s David Little, Vice Mayor and Ward 6 Alderman Roy A’. Perkins and Ward 7’s Henry Vaughn.
Saying yes could have meant a complete non-issue for city leaders, but now, Starkville is enduring a deluge of negative nationwide publicity that won’t soon go away. I’ve had friends contact me from out-of-state to lament how backward it makes Starkville and Mississippi look. It’s just frustrating, especially when you fight tooth and nail to defend Starkville as the progressive gem of the region.
It may still be too early to see any profound effects other than public outcry, but apart from a potential lawsuit facing the city of Starkville for violating the First Amendment rights of its LGBTQ community, this could simply be the beginning of a ripple effect of far-reaching consequences.
Mayor Lynn Spruill said it best when she claimed the decision sent a message. She’s right, because it sent a message to the entire LGBTQ community that they are not welcome in the business community, the arts community and above all else, at Mississippi State University, with its 22,000 money-spending students.
At the most fundamental level, it’s just not good business sense. There is no way to tell what the city can now expect at many of its diverse events that bring millions of dollars to this town. The news is still fresh, but it will be a long time before Starkville and its residents live this one down.
Does this mean vendors will have to operate in a free speech zone at the Cotton District Arts Festival if they want to fly a rainbow flag? What about the farmer’s market, Bulldog Bash, Sunday Funday or one of the city’s many other festivals?
This is hyperbole, of course, but the current perception of Starkville is far from inclusive now that the story has reached the national spotlight. And for what? What was the endgame of the aldermen who voted against this? It doesn’t take a First Amendment scholar to tell you that the city’s bottom line wasn’t considered.
Whether it was religious conviction or simple homophobia, the public has a right to know what factored into the decision to say no to issuing a permit after 16 people spoke out in favor of the parade during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting. We have yet to receive that insight from any of the four aldermen opposed.
Looking to the future, there seems to be more questions than answers as we consider what to expect in the aftermath of the decision.
What kind of business climate are we cultivating when we broadcast this message of discrimination? The city of Starkville has more events than I can count geared toward highlighting the diversity of local businesses. But, I guess we can say goodbye to prospective entrepreneurs looking for an inclusive community to start or grow their business.
In a town so dependent on tourism dollars, why do we want to limit Starkville’s appeal? This city’s bread and butter is tourism and the Board of Aldermen just told the entire LGBTQ community that they don’t have the same rights as other people when they come to Starkville. I’m blown away by how counterproductive of a move this could prove for tourism.
But, I don’t believe that hope has been lost.
I encourage the heavy hitters in the business community, and in economic development with the GSDP and the Golden Triangle Development Link, to come forward and condemn this action by the city and, in turn, open their arms to the LGBTQ community. The Board of Aldermen might speak for City Hall, but they don’t have to speak for our business community.
I don’t care what your sexuality, gender, religion, race or social status may be, your money spends the same as anyone else and those who turn it down will be the first to cite a lack of funds when a crucial infrastructure project needs to be addressed.
Simply put, I’m concerned that the four aldermen who opposed the parade couldn’t put their religious or social convictions aside long enough to consider the possibilities. We have progressed too far as a community, state and region to stand on principle while our roads crumble and our children’s schools can’t get the funding they need.
I don’t think there is any question that Starkville would be non-existent without Mississippi State University in its backyard and you can be sure that campus is buzzing with anger following the decision. The student body is diverse and those who don’t leave when they graduate often stay to make Starkville the culturally-vibrant place that it is. The next billionaire could be studying at MSU right now and leave town upon graduating because they do not feel like an equal member of the community in the eyes of local elected officials.
The diverse menagerie of highly-skilled professors attracted by Starkville to MSU, and to nearby places like EMCC, add the crucial ingredient of worldliness that makes Starkville the unique college town that it is. We simply can’t jeopardize that and expect to maintain a marketable identity capable of attracting more people to the area.
As is my hope for the business community, I urge MSU and other local institutions to speak out against the city and show its students that they are welcome in Starkville and afforded the same constitutional rights as everyone else.
We as a community must come together to change the narrative and show the rest of the world that Starkville is an amazing place to live, filled with colorful and diverse people who make the city a shining example of what is possible in the Deep South.
As a suggestion, find some way to show your support for the local LGBTQ community. If you’re a business leader, hang up a small rainbow flag or put a sticker on your shop window to show visitors that you are inclusive. Write letters, make phone calls, send emails, or give a public comment to the Board of Aldermen to let them know you disapprove of their actions. Don’t let this go quietly. Participate in the process and don’t allow the actions of four aldermen to determine the future of your city.
What is crucial to remember, though, is the power of a single vote. A single vote made this abhorrent decision possible and a single vote can remove the aldermen responsible.
Ryan Phillips is the executive editor of the Starkville Daily News and the Daily Times Leader. The views expressed in this column are his and do not necessarily reflect the views of either newspaper or their staffs.
(Reprinted with permission from the Starkville Daily News)