PULASKI, Tenn. - When this rural town's fledgling Pride festival kicked off June 11, organizers braced for protests. Critics had made their opposition known. Sheriff's deputies were on hand to prevent trouble.
But by midafternoon, just one man holding a "REPENT" sign stood outside the Agricultural Park near Pulaski, a town of 7,600 residents, as several hundred cars - including a jeep sporting the phrase "Rednecks 4 Rainbows" - arrived for the festival that's in its second year.
"For something like this to happen here is an amazing step," Ashley Fitch, 20, told USA TODAY as she sat on a folding chair before a sequined drag queen strutted past sheriff's deputies toward a stage as the song "Y'all Means All" boomed.
Though LGBTQ pride events have long been mainstay celebrations in big cities, their presence in rural and small-town America has grown in recent years, experts said, claiming recognition in some of the more conservative areas of the country.
Rural America is home to about 3.8 million LGBTQ residents, representing as much as one-fifth of the total population, according to a report in 2019 by the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit think tank that works to advance equality. Some experts said it's probably higher.
Though there's no national database of Pride festivals, they have spread in small towns in states such as West Virginia, Texas, Kentucky and North Carolina. Mississippi has gone from one to about a dozen events, according to the Human Rights Campaign advocacy group.
Expansion to rural areas has been "quite significant," said Zack Hasychak, the campaign's director of membership outreach, who has attended Pride events all over the country for more than a decade.
Beck Banks, a University of Oregon doctoral candidate who studies transgender and rural LGBTQ issues, roughly counted 312 Pride festivals this year with more than one event, 114 of them held in towns of 50,000 or fewer residents.
"The largest growth in Prides is coming from these smaller towns," Banks said, citing tiny Gerlach, Nevada, and Poplar Bluff, Missouri.
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The growing numbers in smaller-town America are a hopeful sign to some, Hasychak said, a result of emboldened LGTBQ communities buoyed by polls showing rising public acceptance since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015.
"These small towns are often where pride is the most needed. The folks who are living there don't have access, in the same way that folks in big cities do, to organizations that serve the community or resources," he said. "It might be the first time that a young trans kid has access to pick up some publications or resources."
Some residents and experts said distrust and disdain are still a problem, and safety remains a concern. Police in Idaho arrested 20 white nationalists after receiving reports the group planned to disrupt Pride activities in Coeur d'Alene.
The new crop of rural Prides carries heightened significance at a time of midterm election rhetoric, transgender legislation, a Florida measure that restricts classroom discussions about LGBTQ people and acts of violence against transgender Americans, advocates said.
"These small-town Prides feel really radical to me. There's this claiming of space in places where we don't get to do that very often," said Rae Garringer, who lives in West Virginia and founded "Country Queers," an oral history project documenting LGBTQ experiences in rural areas. "And it's really powerful."
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LGBTQ Pride events bloom in rural spaces
Ericka Quinones, 35, and her wife, Layla, said they moved to Pulaski in 2018 from Nashville, unsure what kind of LGBTQ community they would find.
The city, whose downtown shopfronts are set around a courthouse, is 20 miles from the Alabama border and was the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. Its outskirts contain farm fields and pastures.
Last year, the couple wanted to build community, so they organized the city's first Pride event. They figured a small number would come. Hundreds did, including LGBTQ residents and allies. "I was shocked," Ericka Quinones said. Fitch, who attended, said she had no idea there were so many LGBTQ people in the area.
Pulaski resident Shane Wood, who started the online group "Rednecks4Rainbows," raised support while trying to dispel stereotypes.
"You can hunt, fish, go muddin' and listen to Merle Haggard - and go to gay Pride," he said.
Pride events began growing in the 1990s, moving in the past decade into smaller towns and rural America - a trend that has ramped up in the past five years.
In 2018, organizers of a Pride event in Starkville, Mississippi, were denied a permit before a lawsuit, growing public pressure and news coverage led to an event that drew thousands.
That same year, Jason Willis helped found "TriPride" in Johnson City, Tennessee, an event serving the areas of Bristol, Virginia, and Kingsport, Tennessee. Despite threats of protest that required heavy police security, the event attracted thousands.
In Decorah, Iowa, farmer Hannah Breckbill, 35, said she rode a tractor with a sticker reading "queerest farm around" in one of the city's first Pride parades several years ago. Seeing rainbow flags on the town's main drag was remarkable and emotional, she said.
"Wow, our city is actually celebrating us, which is not expected from a small town," Breckbill recalled thinking.
Last year, towns such as tiny Stockholm, Wisconsin, and 15,676-resident Hanover, Pennsylvania, held their first Pride events. This year, festivals began in Wilson, North Carolina, and 10,000-resident Berwick, Pennsylvania, which featured vendors, live music and karaoke.
Such public Pride events help counter the long-standing narrative that rural LGBTQ residents must move to major cities for acceptance and community.
"You can be who you want to be, no matter the rural or small town. You don't have to go somewhere large to a big city," Berwick organizer Jacob Kelley told WNEP, an ABC affiliate.
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Small-town Prides still face opposition, challenges
Before this year's Pulaski Pride, Quinones said, opposition brewed on social media and elsewhere - much of it focused on the event's family-friendly drag show.
Graham Stowe, a candidate for Giles County executive, said in an interview he posted on social media that a permit should have been denied because of the drag show. He argued that children's presence at such shows was inappropriate and that Tennessee lawmakers should ban them from attending.
"I can't believe that's happening here in Giles County," Stowe said. Some residents were angry, including those who had moved to the area "to get away from all that," he said.
Quinones said she thinks such opposition depressed attendance compared with last year, though 450 people showed up.
Chris Conner, a sociologist at the University of Missouri who studies LGBTQ issues, noted that attitudes overall have shifted, but he cautioned against an "overly optimistic" reading of Pride festivals in small towns.
The percentage of Americans who said homosexuality should be accepted has risen from 47% in 2003 to 72% in 2019, according to the Pew Research Center.
The partisan divide is wide: 85% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said homosexuality should be accepted, compared with 58% of Republicans and Republican leaners, the center reported.
A 2021 Public Religion Research Institute survey released this year found wide divides when asking about religiously based refusals by business owners to serve gay and lesbian people: 85% of Democrats opposed refusals of service, compared with 44% of Republicans.
"There is more openness for some of these conversations," Banks said, but many communities are "not quite there yet." In some cases, he said, "rather than slurs, people get left out of conversations. They get ignored. They don't get hired."
Rural LGBTQ residents are more likely to live in an area that lacks explicit discrimination protections, according to the Rural Pride Campaign.
Despite the welcomed presence of new Pride events, some rural LGBTQ residents have told Garringer they still lack year-round LGBTQ resources. "The rest of the year, we don't have anywhere to go. We don't have a space. We don't have a bar. We don't have a community center ... We need more," Garringer said.
Hasychak said Pride events "put a human face to the queer community. It really does change hearts and minds. And so this visibility is tremendously important."
At the Pulaski Pride event, not far from a bouncy house for children and rows of vendors, Caleb Potts, 25, and Steven Johns, 32, sat at a picnic table with friends dressed in rainbow colors. They said the festival was important for a very simple reason.
"Everybody should have the right to speak and be who they are in this world today," Johns said. "Equality is something everybody deserves."
Chris Kenning is a national news writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @chris_kenning
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: LGBTQ Pride events surge in small-town USA. Are attitudes changing?