'Things have changed': Why more Kentucky towns are embracing LGBTQ pride parades
For Kyle May, growing up gay in his conservative Appalachian town in Eastern Kentucky meant hiding his identity, overhearing slurs and driving 150 miles to a bigger city for LGBTQ events.
But last year his hometown of Pikeville, tucked in the mountains of coal country, drew more than 400 people to its first LGBTQ pride festival — a public celebration he thought he’d never see.
"There was a drag show right out in the open, in the middle of Pikeville City Park — in broad daylight," said May, who helped organize what he called "the most meaningful pride festival I’d ever been to."
While the state’s largest cities of Louisville and Lexington have held pride festivals for at least a decade, the events have been absent in small-town Kentucky, where more conservative attitudes have held sway.
But that is changing, with pride festivals, picnics and events springing up in a growing number of smaller communities such as Harlan, Owensboro, Madisonville, Berea, Shelbyville and Corbin.
Pride movement gains momentum
In all, they have expanded to nearly 20 towns across the state, said Chris Hartman, Louisville’s Fairness Campaign director.
There are also now festivals in Southern Indiana towns including Jeffersonville and some farther north in Spencer, Indiana.
Advocates say it’s a hopeful sign of shifting public attitudes toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents in Kentucky and other parts of rural America, where more than 2.9 million LGBTQ residents live.
It’s particularly notable in Kentucky, a historically arch-conservative state where voters in 2004 banned same-sex marriage, and where former Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis drew international headlines when she was jailed for refusing to comply with the landmark 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.
"It’s undeniable that the progress for LGBTQ rights has created stronger visibility and is emboldening folks who live in communities where they might not have felt safe previously to come out and celebrate pride," Hartman said.
Discrimination and prejudice still flourishes, and LGBTQ residents of rural areas tend to have fewer alternatives if doctors or employers deny them services. They also are less likely to be protected by explicit nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people.
Ten Kentucky cities have such "fairness" laws.
And a recent Pew Research Center report showed sharp increases in support for LGBTQ people and issues since 2004 among many groups.
And nationally, about 52% of rural residents support same-sex marriage (compared with 64% of urban residents), while 62% support nondiscrimination measures protecting LGBTQ people (compared with 72% of urban residents), according to a 2017 Public Religion Research Institute survey.
"There's more support for LGBT people in rural areas than we might believe," said Logan Casey, a policy researcher with the Movement Advancement Project, an LGBTQ think tank.
Meghan Kissell of the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for LGBTQ rights, said the growth of smaller-town pride events is a significant marker.
"A major part of life in rural communities, especially those in the South, is a strong sense of community. As we see more and more LGBTQ Pride celebrations in these areas, it demonstrates a slow but steady understanding that the LGBTQ community is our community, our family, neighbors and our friends,” she said.
Pride history dates back decades
Pride parades and events date to the 1970s. Louisville held picnics before a fuller pride festival began developing in the 1990s.
Lexington held one in 2008, with Northern Kentucky following a year later. But it wasn't until the past few years that they've spread to smaller cities and towns.
Coltt Vance, 23, a photographer from Paintsville, in Eastern Kentucky, said he drove hours to Lexington to his first pride festival in 2015, after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.
Last year, he attended the festival in Pikesville, a town of 7,000 in an area he called “one of the most anti-gay parts of the state." Social media comments on news stories suggested there would be protesters.
But May, the organizer, said "only two showed up: One lady had a sign and another had a Bible and suit. We just ignored them.”
"I was flabbergasted," Vance said. “There was no pushback. There was no big protest. No resistance to pride. I think I maybe saw one person" protesting.
Across the state in Madisonville, a town of about 20,000 more than two hours west of Louisville, Cody Lander had familiar struggles growing up. When he graduated about a decade ago, "there were instances where people found out I was gay, and I was denied a job because of that."
After moving back to town after college, he helped organize a pride festival in 2016 and was surprised when nearly 500 people showed up. While some balked at closing streets for the festival, he said, "The attitudes have completely changed, we had a dozen businesses support us."
He said the event has helped draw LGBTQ people to take jobs there. "I've talked to a lot of people who had to move to Western Kentucky for a job" and they choose places with an LGBTQ pride group or festival or fairness ordinance, he said.
In 2,200-resident Spencer, Indiana, 115 miles north of Louisville, LGBTQ residents had seen instances of discrimination and harassment in years past, such as a realtor who refused to show properties, or rainbow flags being vandalized, said Spencer Pride co-founder Judi Epp.
The tiny town held its first pride picnic more than a decade ago on the courthouse square, and the event has since been critical for building support and acceptance.
It now draws nearly twice the population of the town. And it's helped Spencer Pride create one of the only LGBTQ community centers in Southern Indiana, offering youth activities and other resources.
It's one of about 255 LGBTQ centers across the United States, which are growing at an average of 25% a year, according to CenterLink, a network of LGBTQ resource centers.
"In this area, things have changed," Epp said. "It’s not that the LGBT community hasn’t been in rural areas, there was just never the shared community."
Reporter Chris Kenning can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 502-582-4307.