BY CHRISTINA STEUBE
PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE SARAH ISOM CENTER FOR WOMEN AND GENDER STUDIES
Red. Orange. Yellow. Green. Blue. Indigo. Violet.
These colors mean much more than just a dispersion of light after it rains. The rainbow flag has become a symbol of hope and pride across the country and around the world. Now, each May, the Oxford Square lights up with these colors as people march through the town in solidarity with the LGBTQ community.
Pride Weekend was first organized three years ago, almost spontaneously. The Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies and several community partners knew they wanted to bring a celebration and a parade to Oxford. When a University of Mississippi student applied for and received a permit from the city in mid-spring, it was go time.
Jaime Harker, Isom Center director, is openly gay, and bringing a Pride parade mattered to her on both a personal and professional level. She knew that having this celebration in Oxford would send a positive message of support to LGBTQ youth.
“At first, we didn’t know how it would be received. There were rumors of protestors, but it went off without any issues,” Harker says. “The response in Oxford was tremendous. There was an outpouring of community support. Everyone really embraced inclusion, which I think Oxford is really known for.”
The celebration of Mississippi’s LGBTQ population could not have blossomed at a better time. In 2016, house bill 1523 had just passed in the state legislature. The bill essentially allows businesses and individuals to refuse service to someone on the basis of their own religious beliefs – a piece of legislation detrimental to the gay community, as many often cite their own religion in the argument against same-sex marriage.
With the controversy surrounding the bill, organizers had no idea what kind of response they would get from the Oxford community. They were overwhelmingly supported with open arms.
“I think it’s important because we’re now living in a state that has the reputation as the most homophobic state in the nation,” Harker says. “Young people in the LGBTQ community feel like it’s open season on them, but I don’t think that law represents Oxford or Mississippi as a community. In a state where many negative messages are coming from the pulpit and from the legislature, acceptance, love and inclusion make a huge difference.”
Harker said that Pride Weekend in Oxford and parades in other communities help make Mississippi a better place.
“Pride weekend reflects who Oxford is as a community and sends the message that people here are going to stand up for queer kids in the state,” she says. “Oxford has been a leader and we should be proud of that. We have to stand up and express our values now more than ever. We can create a much better Mississippi if we communicate that everyone is welcome.”
Blake Summers, co-founder of OutOxford along with his partner Jonathan Kent Adams, has traveled to Pride parades all over the country, but the local one in this small town has become the most meaningful to him.
“I’ve been to parades in New York, California, all over, and the small town one we had in Oxford was easily the most heartfelt,” Summers says. “I never thought it was something I’d see in Mississippi.”
OutOxford provides members of the LGBTQ community the chance to bring everyone together.
“With some events in gay culture, there’s alcohol, drag shows and dancing, but there’s so much more than that. We want to rebrand what it means to be gay and help other Southern people who need the opportunity to meet a gay person,” Summers says. “There’s a lot of negative identity association with being gay in the South. Some people lose everything when they come out. We want to provide love and support for everyone and create an easier way for them to love themselves.”
Many of the people in Oxford who offer their support and march in the parade are allies of the LGBTQ community. Summers says it’s vital to have that support system.
“The support of allies means everything. It’s the future. Allies are the ones that literally, biologically make the future and make people understand us,” he says. “We have to be a community that moves forward.”
The Pride parade in Oxford has also inspired other smalls towns in the state. Starkville held its first Pride parade earlier this year, but not without a fight. The city’s Board of Alderman originally rejected the idea, only to be faced with backlash.
“Once you have a group that wants something like that, they’re going to get it. It was a good experience to see their first parade. It was like a gift topped with a big rainbow bow,” Summers says. “It’s not our intention to make people uneasy or cause an uproar, but we have rights too. So many gay people aren’t used to being who they are, and the Pride parade is a time when they can walk down the street and be comfortable for maybe the first time in their life. It’s important for kids to see that.”
Pride Weekend in Oxford involves much more than just the parade. Businesses like Bottletree Bakery, The Lyric and Proud Larry’s, among others, have hosted events throughout the weekend each year.
“It’s been a great relationship between the Pride community and Oxford,” Summers says. “We really found out how loving and how kind everyone is to support us like they do.”
One of the events, called Code Pink, brings queer nightlife to the Square with drag shows, dancing and DJs.
“Pride is associated with all these extravagant things,” Summers says. “It’s colorful and bright and funny, and I love that about the gay culture, because it gets dark sometimes when we fight so hard to blend in. Pride allows us to show individuality in a place where we’re safe enough to be who we are.”
Ultimately, the goal of Oxford Pride is to celebrate individuality and equality.
“Some people aren’t ever accepted by anyone,” Summers says. “For people that haven’t had love in their life, this gives them the confidence to achieve what they want. It makes you believe you are strong enough or okay enough or normal enough to move forward.”
This year’s parade will be held on May 5 and is sponsored by the Isom Center, OutOxford, The Graduate Oxford, The Lyric, Proud Larry’s and Oxford Film Festival. For a full schedule of pride events, visit oxfordpride.rocks.