As Pride Month celebrates 51 years since the Stonewall riots, LGBT members in Northeast Mississippi reflect on how quarantine has highlighted the importance of community.
Starkville Pride was preparing to celebrate its third Pride when coronavirus in the U.S. began gaining traction in mid-March. The celebration traditionally occurs the third week of March, and the Starkville Pride team had been planning for a year. By March 12, the team had already planned to delay Pride.
“For us to be the reason that people came together at a time when that could be very dangerous was against everything that Pride stands for,” said President Mike Breazeale. “It’s especially poignant for us because we had to fight so hard to be able to have Pride here in Starkville, and we’ve had a couple of really strong Prides since then.”
The impact COVID-19 had on the LGBT social scene in North Mississippi was immediate. As one of the few drag performers in Tupelo, DeePression Holliday, known out-of-drag as Justin Tyler, said drag shows are harder to come by in small towns, so it hits a little harder to lose performance space.
Holliday, who performs primarily in Tupelo, Oxford, Starkville in Mississippi and Jonesboro in Arkansas, said it has taken a huge toll on the community. Drag in small towns means more hospitality, as drag queens have meet and greets and connect with audience members. She described it becoming like family, and knew several regular attendees who would travel over three to four hours to attend shows.
“It’s become a sense of community for a lot of these people. They don’t have the outlet to live their life and be around people like them except for at these shows because Mississippi is not a very inclusive place when it comes to something as delicate as drag,” Holliday said.
It was a huge devastation to the area when a show planned at the Link Centre on April 4 for the 40th birthday of her drag mother, Godiva Holliday, was cancelled due to COVID-19, Holliday said.
“(The community doesn’t) get that LGBTQ outlet and openness to be who they are year round because we don’t have a gay bar, we don’t have LGBTQ inclusive places, so when we don’t have our show, people lose their outlet of creativity,” Holliday said.
Oxford Film Festival moved to a virtual format this year. For Brian Whisenant, the LGBTQIA+ programmer for OFF, he hopes the digital format allows LGBT people in Mississippi to benefit from being able to watch films made by and about LGBT people.
“Any opportunity to add more content for queer people, particularly in Mississippi, to see themselves on screen represented is really important,” Whisenant said.
The LGBTQIA+ programming block was initially introduced after the passage of House Bill 1523 in 2016, which LGBT advocates argue allows discrimination against LGBT people. LGBT people who attend often tell Whisenant about not being able to find films elsewhere, and it was important for OFF overall to try to find a way to showcase their films.
The OFF team offered filmmakers the option to show their film virtually or not. Whisenant said most of his filmmakers were willing to move to virtual and were excited to still showcase their films. The virtual festival allows participants to purchase online access to a film. The festival hosts live Q&As on its Facebook page to allow participants to ask questions in real time.
“When we first started, the response was electric. I felt it everywhere,” Whisenant said. “One of our first screenings was a world premiere of ‘Dim Valley,’ which is a really quirky, touching film. I was concerned they might not want to premiere virtually, but they did. I felt (the response) on Facebook, Twitter, in the live Q&A. There was just so much excitement that we had this content.”
Open Pride celebrations are still new in Northeast Mississippi, yet Breazeale said they serve as a great way to show how many people in the community support the LGBT community as allies.
“For Mississippi, which is not someplace traditionally known for being socially progressive, that’s a really good thing,” Breazeale said. “I think our town is progressive in the best ways, though we still have a ways to go, and I think that Starkville Pride is one of the forces that serves to at least highlight that change.”
The group has been able to sell merch online to help fund future efforts, and Breazeale said many members have hosted online happy hours and events to remain in contact. Starkville Pride is considering hosting virtual drag shows based on similar efforts in bigger cities to allow people to support Starkville Pride while at home. The organization hopes to be able to host a bigger event once the threat of coronavirus is over. It will largely depend on if students are able to return in the fall since students are a big part of Pride, Breazeale said.
Besides forcing the postponement of the Starkville Pride parade, it also forced the cancellation of Drag Bingo. Drag Bingo is both a major fundraiser for Starkville Pride and a way for the community to regularly see support. The organization wants to raise funds to provide scholarships via fundraising, but are currently out of revenue due to having to cancel the Pride celebration.
Oxford Pride Week had to postpone its May celebration. They created a virtual Pride parade video to still honor the celebration, and their social media mentions potentially hosting a smaller celebration the second weekend of October in partnership with other North Mississippi groups. Tupelo Pride normally hosts its celebration in October, and President and Pride Resource Center of North Mississippi founder Linn Wotring said she is uncertain what the outcome will be for that celebration.
“With all the businesses that would normally sponsor shut down, they’re probably just not going to have the money to sponsor us this year,” Wotring said.
Wotring also noted that their big donor, Toyota, is not making any commitments at this time.
The Pride Resource Center of North Mississippi, located in the Link Centre in Suite 134, also had to close its doors temporarily in March.
“We were kind of stuck shutting down just as we were starting to gain some momentum, so it was kind of sad,” Wotring said.
Worting still accepted text messages and Facebook messages from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and said the Facebook page has remained very active. She also shares what resources are still available and notes that most resources in the area, such as counseling, have gone virtual.
Wotring is reopening the Pride Center’s office to be able to offer physical space again.
Additionally, she hopes they can host virtual drag shows and readings with a drag queen.
Keeping sense of community
Whisenant said OFF is important for helping maintain connections with others in the LGBT community. While he currently is on the West Coast, he remembers there being many outlets for the queer community during his time living in Oxford. Within quarantine, Whisenant said he has been grateful for the film festival keeping him connected to queerness.
“That’s what queer people have had to do. We’ve had to foster our own communities and sometimes, we have to create our own families,” Whisenant said. “Just like we had to foster our own communities when maybe our family and friends didn’t accept us for being queer, we have to create a new community during this pandemic.”
OFF has screened films consistently since March, with plans to show films up to September. More than 80 films have been shown so far, with plans to show more than 90 more. OFF will also be implementing some drive-in screenings. To find future screening dates, Whisenant suggests checking out the Oxford Film Fest website and following it on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Live Q&As are shared for free on Facebook.
Whisenant said in order for the film festival to continue and host another in-person festival, they need support now. He encourages people to buy tickets to the virtual festival.
Starkville Pride became more active on social media by highlighting out and proud members of the community on a regular basis. Breazeale said it was important people know they have not given up on Pride.
“We didn’t want people to think that because we weren’t having Pride doesn’t mean that we aren’t committed to the cause of Pride in Starkville,” Breazeale said. “Pride events have been postponed, but Pride is everyday in Starkville.”
Holliday has also taken to Facebook and social media to let people know she is still there and providing support. As a performer, Holliday said it is hard not being around the community. While some queens offer living room shows on Facebook, Holliday said she feeds off the crowd when performing and hasn’t been able to feel that same initial rush with livestreaming. She instead is taking time to work on her craft so her return can be better. However, she knows some queens are having a hard time not being able to be around the community and perform as before and knows many who have had mental health crises since quarantine began.
“It makes you feel kind of helpless and hopeless when you have your sense of community taken away because of something that’s out of your control,” Holliday said.
Even as the state reopens, Holliday said the risk remains. Many people remain scared that if they start going out again, there will be another flareup, and Holliday said as sad as it is, staying home helps remind everyone that things will be OK one day.
She hasn’t seen any plans for Pride celebrations for June and said organizations may fear giving a false sense of hope by offering dates without knowing if they will have to cancel. Drag shows often rely on bars, and Holliday said many cannot afford to bring in drag performances yet due to the fact that they typically draw large crowds. There is also the reality that some bars have not been able to recoup the financial losses of being forced to close for months, meaning there is a possibility of permanently losing some spaces. Holliday knows of at least one bar in Columbus that sold during quarantine, and she believes it will continue to happen over the next few months.
Quarantine has amplified the importance of drag shows as a place of community for Holliday.
“You never realize how much a small show like this means to you until you don’t have it anymore,” Holliday said. “I’ve learned not to take it for granted because you don’t realize how short life truly is and how one small thing can affect so many people at once. You never realize that we take every day for granted and that we take our freedom for granted.”
Breazeale gained a similar appreciation for current freedoms being taken for granted, and believes their next celebration will play a big part in celebrating that.
“The right for LGBT people to gather for many, many years was illegal. Bars were raided regularly. People were arrested for being in a gay bar, so we have kind of forgotten how nice it is to just be able to come together and celebrate each other,” Breazeale said. “That freedom has been taken away for a different reason now.”