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How a Nashville suburb’s LGBTQ pride festival became a bitter flashpoint

The fight in Franklin, Tennessee, echoes earlier battles over LGBTQ acceptance and comes amid a nationwide backlash among conservatives against transgender rights.
People walk among vendor stands at the Williamson County Pride Festival
Some conservatives in Franklin, Tenn., are trying to block an LGBTQ pride festival from being held on public property.Stephanie Amador / The Tennessean via Imagn file

For the past two years, thousands of people have descended on a public park in Franklin, Tennessee — a suburb 30 minutes outside Nashville — for an LGBTQ pride festival featuring live music, food trucks and crafts vendors. Clayton Klutts, the president of the Franklin Pride organization, viewed the event as a glowing symbol of how far a small, conservative community had come in terms of LGBTQ acceptance. 

But this year, Franklin Pride’s attempts to obtain a city permit have been met with fierce resistance. What had been a procedural formality in past years has become a bitter flashpoint that mirrors similarly heated debates roiling the United States.

“The idea that we wouldn’t allow a pride event in the year 2023 is a little bit hard to fathom,” Klutts said. “It feels like we’re going backwards.”

The conflict came to a head during a public forum at City Hall late last month, one day after a 28-year-old shot and killed six people at a private Christian school in Nashville — a massacre that some on the right blamed on the suspect’s gender identity. More than 30 people, many of them wearing circular “Choose Decency” stickers, pleaded with Franklin’s mayor and the city board’s eight aldermen to deny the pride permit. 

One mother claimed that the festival was part of a coordinated national movement to groom children, attack families and destroy America. A man read a passage from the Bible about resisting “sexual immorality.” Others baselessly linked homosexuality with pedophilia and cited the school shooting a day earlier as a reason to block the event.

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

Only six people spoke in favor of the permit, nearly all of them members of the LGBTQ organization behind the festival.

In the end, Franklin’s city board voted to delay the decision until it could take up a separate “community decency” policy that would, among other things, ban “sexually suggestive behavior” and excessive “displays of affection” from public spaces. Votes on both issues are scheduled for Tuesday.

Williamson County Pride Festival.
More than 5,000 people, including many families, have attended Franklin Pride the past two years, organizers said.Courtesy Clayton Klutts

The fight in Franklin, a city of roughly 85,000 people, echoes earlier battles over LGBTQ acceptance from more than three decades ago and comes in the midst of a nationwide backlash among conservatives against the rights of transgender people to obtain medical care, drag artists to perform in public and LGBTQ people to see themselves reflected in school library books, curricula and the culture at large.

Republicans in state legislatures have introduced a raft of bills targeting LGBTQ rights — an issue that some GOP strategists see as a key to regaining the White House in 2024. Former President Donald Trump launched his re-election campaign with a promise to punish doctors who provide gender-affirming care to minors, which he equated with “child sexual mutilation.”

In Tennessee, where a federal judge has temporarily blocked a new law restricting drag performances, these debates have drawn a harsh national spotlight onto the efforts of GOP lawmakers in Nashville, particularly in the days since three children and three adults were gunned down at the Covenant School. The state GOP attracted additional scrutiny last week after Republican lawmakers expelled two Black Democrats from the state House over their protests against gun violence.

In Franklin, the seat of an affluent suburban county where nearly two-thirds of voters cast ballots for Trump in 2020, the heated pride festival backlash surprised some older members of the local LGBTQ community. Even in a conservative, predominantly Christian city, many believed the fights for LGBTQ equality and broad public acceptance had been won years ago.

Tom Rice, a 71-year-old retired art teacher who has owned a home in Franklin for decades, said he believes anti-LGBTQ rhetoric in the area has become more pronounced over the past few years, reaching a fever pitch at the city meeting on March 28.

“I was most concerned with how vicious some of those people were,” Rice said in an interview. “Basically, they think homosexuals are sexual perverts and we’re out to get their kids, and we’re doomed to hell. They wish we didn’t exist.”

Two people hug during the Williamson County Pride Festival in Franklin, Tenn.
In the opposition to Franklin's pride festival, local LGBTQ community leaders see echoes of earlier chapters in the long fight for acceptance and inclusion.Stephanie Amador / The Tennessean via Imagn file

Robin Steenman, a mother who leads a local chapter of the conservative activist group Moms for Liberty, spoke at the public meeting and framed the debate not in terms of equal rights but as a battle between good and evil. She told Franklin city officials that their decision was about far more than a permit.

“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,” Steenman 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.” 

Steenman didn’t respond to messages requesting an interview.

More than 5,000 people attended Franklin Pride’s first-ever festival two years ago, including many families. The event’s organizers were equally pleased with last year’s celebration — but by then, the national mood had shifted. In the midst of a growing conservative revolt against trans people and drag shows, Franklin municipal leaders were bombarded with complaints.

Beverly Burger, one of the aldermen who opposes granting Franklin Pride another permit to host the event on city property, said in an interview that she and many of her constituents were disturbed by videos showing a performer in drag “gyrating on the stage” in the presence of children. Burger said Franklin Pride should be held accountable for “breaching community decency standards.”

“If we had a heterosexual group hosting activities, and they ended up having pole dancing at the park, do you think that’s appropriate?” she said. “No, I do not.”

Another alderman who plans to vote against the permit, Gabrielle Hanson, expressed support and sympathy for LGBTQ people facing discrimination, but said she believed last year’s celebration was not appropriate for children.

Franklin Mayor Ken Moore didn’t respond to interview requests. 

The pride organizers insist that the event was family-friendly and not overtly sexual. Still, they agreed not to include a drag show in this year’s festivities, in part to protect themselves from the threats of violence from far-right militant groups that have shadowed such performances across the country in recent months.

Despite that concession, many Franklin residents are still furious — and some of the more incendiary comments at the city board meeting vividly illustrate that the furor is not just about drag but more broadly about LGBTQ acceptance. One speaker promoted a local Christian ministry that he said aims to help gay people give up homosexuality and lead “healthy lifestyles” — a practice known as conversion therapy that is widely rejected by mental health professionals. 

“I feel like the concern is they don’t want to see gay people in their community, and they’re looking for ways for us to be suppressed and not have the same rights that everyone else does,” said Klutts, a Tennessee native who has lived in Franklin for more than a decade.

He and other local LGBTQ community leaders see echoes of earlier chapters in the long fight for acceptance and inclusion. Robert McNamara, a Franklin Pride board member who is married to Rice, the retired teacher, views the fury over his group’s festival as a replay of the infamous “Save Our Children” campaign from the 1970s and ’80s, when the singer Anita Bryant and fundamentalist Christian groups falsely depicted gay people as child predators in their quest to crush ordinances banning anti-LGBTQ discrimination in employment and housing.

“The backlash feels like when I came out in the '80s,” McNamara said in an interview. “It feels like we have stepped back across the board in terms of equal rights.”

After hearing from residents, Franklin’s board decided to defer the permit approval until they could consider the public decency policy proposed by Burger. Burger said she still planned to vote against the permit, even if her decency proposal passes.

“There needs to be consequences for bad behavior,” she said. “This has nothing to do with First Amendment rights, constitutional rights. It has everything to do with behavior.”

Klutts said he’s angry that others on the city board have tied the festival permit to the decency policy. He believes some of the aldermen — like conservative activists across the country — are conflating LGBTQ people and identities with sex and indecency.

“If I meet my boyfriend out in public after work and we meet for happy hour in a local restaurant, what if we kiss each other for like one second?” Klutts said. “People may not like that, but it’s not obscene or indecent. Under this policy, who gets to decide what’s acceptable and what’s not?”

Spencer Lyst, 17, a gay student and activist who attends high school in Franklin, has felt animus building in recent years as local conservatives have fought to limit classroom discussions and library books about LGBTQ people. While leading his school’s pride club at a homecoming parade last fall, Lyst said he and other students were booed by a group of parents.

Image: Spencer Lyst.
"It was important to me to take a stance and fight back rather than to run away," 17-year-old Spencer Lyst said of his decision to speak out in support of Franklin Pride.Courtesy Spencer Lyst

Lyst, who normally wears dresses and makeup, wore more stereotypically male clothes when he came to City Hall to speak in support of the pride festival. At the lectern, the teen warned his fellow speakers that their words and actions were contributing to an epidemic of suicide among LGBTQ youths

“I’m here on my own volition,” Lyst said to the crowd before walking away. “Satan is not getting at me.”

Afterward, Lyst said some of the anti-pride speakers approached him to say that they were praying for him. One told Lyst he “loves the sinner, hates the sin.” None of that made Lyst feel safer or more welcome in his hometown.

Despite those fears, Lyst plans to be there again on Tuesday night when the board makes its final decision.

“I don’t need their acceptance,” Lyst said. “I just want to be free to be myself.”