First city in South Mississippi recognizes Pride Month

Published 7:00 am Saturday, June 12, 2021

For the first time, the City of Ocean Springs has issued a proclamation recognizing June as LGBTQ Pride Month.

For LGBTQ people in Ocean Springs who remember the backlash to a pride march back in 1993, which organizers said was Mississippi’s first such event, it was a sign of how much has changed in one generation.

“It’s a big deal,” said Bethany Fayard, 44, who was a teenager in Ocean Springs in the early 1990s.

When an Ocean Springs resident named Todd Emerson organized a pride march in September of 1993, 100 policemen stood on street corners and building tops along the six-block parade route. A red pick-up truck was spray-painted with the words “F— GO BACK TO AFRICA.”

On Monday, Mayor Shea Dobson signed a proclamation declaring that “the City appreciates the cultural, civic, and economic contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, plus (LGBTQ+) community which strengthens our social welfare.”

“It is imperative that young people in our community, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression, feel valued, safe, empowered, and supported by their peers and community leaders,” the proclamation continues.

Advocates and LGBTQ community members, who had in the past been frustrated by the city’s failure to issue a Pride proclamation or a non-discrimination ordinance, were jubilant on Monday afternoon.

Bay St. Louis and Waveland passed resolutions against discrimination against LGBTQ people in 2014, but Ocean Springs looks to be the first Coast city to issue a proclamation recognizing Pride month, said Rob Hill, state director for the Human Rights Campaign in Mississippi. Pride proclamations are uncommon across the state, he added.

“It’s like when a baby takes its first steps,” said Noelle Nolan-Rider of the organization Ocean Springs Pride. “To me, it’s really big. It’s a really big first step. And I’m really proud of this. It means a lot to our community.”

HOW DID THE PRIDE PROCLAMATION COME TOGETHER?

Ocean Springs Pride council member Diana Schmied requested the proclamation through a form on the city’s website. She used Google to find the language from other cities’ pride proclamations and drafted one that covered everything she wanted to see in the Ocean Springs version.

The form offers a few options to receive the proclamation: at a board of aldermen meeting, at an event, or in the mail. Schmied chose “Mailed to me” and then followed up with the mayor’s office to ask to pick it up in person. Her goal was to have it in hand in time for the Ocean Springs Pride Bike Ride on Saturday.

On Monday, she got the call that the proclamation was ready.

“It was super smooth, super easy,” she said. “You know, all I had to do was ask and the mayor and the mayor’s office were very accommodating.”

Reached by phone Monday, Dobson declined to be interviewed.
“I have no comment,” he said.

A REPUBLICAN MAYOR’S SUPPORT FOR LGBTQ EQUALITY

But he has expressed support for LGBTQ rights and equality in the past, often in personal terms. His grandfather, Roland Dobson, founded one of New Orleans’ early gay Mardi Gras krewes in 1969.

“I’ve always supported the gay community,” Dobson said in an interview with the Sun Herald last June. “To me it’s a no-brainer.”

Hill, with the Human Rights Campaign, said he had had several productive conversations with Dobson during his tenure.

“The case I made with him and other leaders: the issue of equality, specifically LGBTQ equality, shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” he said.

Hill’s organization publishes an annual evaluation of Mississippi cities’ policies and leadership stances on LGBTQ rights. In 2020, Ocean Springs got only four points out of 100, all in the category of “Leadership’s public position on LGBTQ equality.”

Hill said he and Dobson met this past spring and discussed ways Ocean Springs could increase its score on the HRC’s Municipal Equality Index. They didn’t talk about a pride proclamation specifically, but Hill called it “a great first step.”
“It’s important for young people especially — for a kid to feel valued in their city, like their city wants them to be safe,” he said. “It’s a very positive thing.”

Dobson will leave office later this summer.

The proclamation was not approved or reviewed by the board of aldermen and it bears only his name and signature.

IN THE 90S, A BACKLASH TO LGBTQ VISIBILITY

For Fayard, the proclamation was remarkable because of what she remembers from growing up in Ocean Springs.
In early 1993, Emerson, the organizer of the pride march in Ocean Springs, placed a small newspaper advertisement to invite people to a meeting at his home to discuss a gay and lesbian community center. According to a column in the Philadelphia Daily News, nine people showed up.

But a week later, dozens of people showed up at City Hall to present a petition, organized by First Baptist Church, asking the board of aldermen to stop Emerson from hosting more meetings in the future.

Ward 1 Alderman John Gill, who was serving on the board in 1993 and is retiring, did not return a phone call requesting comment Monday afternoon.

The board rejected the petition, which had hundreds of signatures.

Even so, Emerson told columnist Mubarak Dahir, he got more than 100 threatening phone calls and frequently called the police on people trespassing on his property. One night, people drove by his house and shouted “go back to San Francisco.” Emerson had never been there.

“I have just as much right to be here as anyone else,” he told Dahir. “This is my home as much as it is anybody’s.”
Later that year, Emerson opened the GL Friendly center in Biloxi to serve the Coast’s LGBTQ community.

And on June 7, 2021, nearly 30 years after Mississippi’s first pride parade passed through Ocean Springs, the city formally recognized Pride Month.

Growing up in the early 1990s, Fayard remembers hearing adults talk about how LGBTQ advocates were trying to “have this big gay downtown Ocean Springs,” when they were actually trying to establish a community center where people could get resources and support.

“So going from that to seeing the city leaders doing what they did is a big deal,” Fayard said.

“It’s kind of come full circle.”