color photograph of an outdoor Pride parade. a masc person holds a large red sign with white text that reads "trans rights are human rights"
MIAMI BEACH, FL - APR 16: Attendees at the 15th annual Miami Beach Pride Parade which celebrates the LGBTQIA+ community march on Ocean Drive on Sunday, April 16, 2023, in Miami Beach, Florida. (Photo by Sean Drakes/Getty Images)

More than 50 years after the first Pride celebration in Manhattan, New York, LGBTQIA+ advocates continue to fight for local recognition. Pride Month has had federal recognition for more than 20 years, but some city, county, and town governments are just now issuing official proclamations supporting the month. While some activists celebrate the new recognition of Pride Month in their hometowns, LGBTQIA+ people in other parts of the country face roadblocks. Pride goes on without or without the proclamations, but advocates say it does have significance.

“All we want is them to acknowledge our proposal for Pride to be formally recognized … that we’re human beings, and that we’re part of the community, and we deserve to live with dignity and respect,”  said Winter Cayman, a member of Appalachian OUTreach, a group that has been helping local activists organize to get Sevier County, Tennessee, to issue a proclamation recognizing Pride Month. 

Cayman said part of the inspiration for the Appalachian OUTreach team to request a Pride Month proclamation was to help the community heal from County Commissioner Warren Hurst’s homophobic and racist comments made during a council meeting in 2019. Hurst’s comments have since opened the floor to more anti-LGBTQIA+ comments at public council meetings, where the commission and steering committee, including Hurst, continues not to put the request on the agenda. Advocates submitted a petition for the proclamation in April, signed by more than 1,000 constituents, but it hasn’t been acknowledged. 

“Our county can be pretty backward, but we thought we could bridge that gap and build trust in the community,” Cayman said. “This proclamation was supposed to do that, but if they won’t even hear it out, then I don’t really know how to get through to them.”

Pride has been celebrated, though not originally under that name, since 1970 when a liberation march was held on the first anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising in New York City. At the time, all levels of government criminalized multiple forms of LGBTQIA+ expression and weren’t sanctioning Pride marches or honoring them with proclamations. 

Proclamations do not hold any legal weight and are ceremonious gestures of support. Since the Clinton administration, U.S. presidents have typically issued an average of 10-15 proclamations per month. On town levels, they can be common as well. The Sevier County Commission, for example, often uses them to honor local school sports teams.

President Bill Clinton issued the first federal proclamation of Pride Month in 1999, and a new proclamation has been issued every year Presidents Clinton, Barack Obama, or Joe Biden has been in the White House. No Pride proclamations were issued under the Bush or Trump administrations. Several state governments and federal agencies also issue statements of recognition, but the town level is ruled by personal, hyperlocal politics decided by very few individuals. 

Statements of support can be meaningful, especially in the current climate where a record-breaking number of anti-LGBTQIA+ laws are being passed nationwide. 

In Cedar Falls, Iowa, Mayor Rob Green originally stated he would not sign a Pride Month proclamation for his town this year, citing his Christian beliefs—one of the main reasons county commissioners tell Cayman they won’t issue anything similar in Sevier County. In Cedar Falls, Green listened to the constituents who showed up to ask him to change his mind at the next city council meeting—37 for and one against. 

“I appreciate what’s being said that it’s not that you’re looking for me to agree, it’s to support the community,” Green said at the May 1 meeting. “We don’t have to agree to support, we don’t have to agree to care, we don’t have to agree in order to love each other and to try to understand each other. So with that, I will sign the proclamation.”

Religious text interpretations reinforcing bigoted views aren’t the only obstacle to the approval of Pride Month proclamations. Cayman said residents and commission members in Sevier County also wondered if acknowledging Pride Month would then need to follow suit with Black History Month and other identity-based celebrations. 

That concern is the basis of other decisions by city legislatures to not recognize Pride Month this year. The city council in Temecula, California, made a decision in January not to issue any citywide proclamations for Women’s History Month, Native American Heritage Month, Jewish Heritage Month, Arab American Heritage Month, and five others, including Pride Month.

“Pride isn’t something that requires city, state, or federal government to condone or not,” said Jaimee Flores, the president of the board of directors of Temecula Valley Pride. “While the support of City Hall would be great, it is not going to prohibit nor invalidate our message of equality and inclusion.” Temecula Valley Pride’s events will be scaled down this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic but will not be affected by the council’s lack of proclamation, which they have never had.

Kathi Bradford, an organizer with Westfield Pride Committee, told Prism that having the support of the Westfield, Massachusetts, City Council means a lot.

“It was a big deal because it was an outward communication with the city that this was what this month was going to be about,” she said. “Having it be so powerful in our city is important to the whole committee. We sort of did a celebratory dance in our meeting.”

Similar to other towns, bringing the question of LGBTQIA+ recognition to a public forum for debate also opened the Westfield community up to hateful comments. Councilor Nick Morganelli, one of three council members to vote against the resolution, made transphobic remarks for eight minutes at a council meeting on May 4. 

Bradford said the remarks were very difficult to hear, but the committee is choosing to focus on the joy of the resolution passing. 

“I think that having that just adds an extra boost of excitement as we’re each planning the things that are most important to us,” she said. Plans include a flag-raising, an educational panel, two radio shows, an open mic night, an art show, an ecumenical service, a silent vigil, a social breakfast, and a parade.

Cayman said Sevier County activists aren’t going to stop going to commission meetings until they get a vote on their proposal, adding that persistence is living out the spirit of Pride. 

“To be yourself, and refuse to yield and compromise a part of your existence, to just be your true authentic self when the world tells you that who you are is wrong is the ultimate celebration,” they said. “That’s what Pride is about.”

Sarah Prager’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, National Geographic, The Atlantic, NBC News, and other national outlets. She is the author of four books on LGBTQ+ history for youth: Queer,...