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By: Amy Robertson

On June 1, 2018, history will be made with Lee County’s first annual Pride Parade. Previously having to travel to Birmingham or Atlanta to participate in Pride festivities, Auburn’s Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer community will now be able to celebrate their Pride right at home in downtown Opelika.

Pride on the Plains, a Lee County activism and advocacy group, will be hosting the event, and Pride groups from all over Alabama will be featured in the parade.

The display will end with celebrity speakers and non-profit information tables, with a festival kicking off the following morning.

The family-friendly Pride Festival will take place at Kiesel Park, including live entertainment, kids’ activities, non-profits, food vendors and bounce houses.

“We are so excited to be able to celebrate our pride in our own town,” said Chad Peacock, Pride on the Plains’ passionate president and founder.

Since organized one year ago in 2017, Pride on the Plains has initiated the first Pride floats in both the Auburn and Opelika Christmas Parades as well as the Mardi Gras Parade.

Adding an entire weekend dedicated to celebrating the community’s Pride marks change for the county housing Auburn University, once known as “The Most Conservative College in the Nation.”​ 

In the 2017 Municipal Equality Index by the nation’s largest LGBTQ civil rights group, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, Auburn was ranked as one of the worst cities for LGBTQ equality and inclusion in the country. After being scored in Non-Discrimination Laws, Municipality as Employer, Municipal Services, Law Enforcement and Relationship with LGBTQ Community, Auburn was rated a zero in every category.

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation graded Auburn a zero out of 100 in its final score, making “The Loveliest Village on the Plains” one of only eight cities in America not to receive a single point toward its support of its LGBTQ community.

The predominant cause for Auburn’s unimpressive ranking is the fact that the city of Auburn and the state of Alabama have not accepted many of the progressive, national policies that protect LGBTQ citizens and the emphasis on antiquated education policies.​ ​

The lack of education in the Alabama public-school systems regarding LGBTQ history, physical and mental health, positive communication strategies and acceptance is harmful not only to LGBTQ students, but also to straight students. In Alabama, it is illegal in the public-school system to teach anything outside of heterosexual, abstinence-only sexual education, leaving LGBTQ students as well as straight students dangerously uninformed, according to non-profit leaders. The city of Auburn also has no nondiscrimination policies that protect LGBTQ people from prejudice based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and there is no workplace protection.

According to Kelli Thompson, a bubbly, bright post-op research fellow in the psychology department at Auburn University and the secretary of the activist group Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), the lack of protection makes it dangerous for LGBTQ members to defend themselves.

“The fact that Alabama doesn’t include sexual orientation and gender identity in the anti-discrimination laws means that LGBTQ members can’t advocate for themselves in many instances in this state,” Thompson said. “So, ally groups like PFLAG are so critical for advocacy because we can go out on the front-lines without having to fear for our jobs, fear for our housing or any other types of benefits.”

Auburn-Opelika houses four primary LGBTQ activist groups: PFLAG, Auburn Spectrum, Auburn High and Auburn Junior High School’s Gay-Straight Alliances and Pride on the Plains.

PFLAG is the first and largest national organization in the United States uniting allies with members of the LGBTQ community. Re-founded in response to the 2016 election conflicts, the Auburn PFLAG chapter aims to help family and friends of LGBTQ individuals learn how to better support their loved ones and how to respond and react with sensitivity.

With a mission focused on support, education and advocacy, PFLAG meets once a month for confidential discussions for allies and LGBTQ people, featured speakers, activism planning and counseling.

Thompson said she believes that these meetings are vital to educating a community that has not had inclusion reinforced historically. “It’s a safe space for LGBTQ people to exist and a safe space for allies to make mistakes and be educated,” said Thompson.

Progressive change may not be enacted institutionally within Alabama’s public-school systems yet, but Auburn students are taking the initiative to create a more accepting, comprehensive learning environment by developing Gay-Straight Alliances. Organized and led by the students, Auburn High School and Auburn Junior High School have both developed a GSA, a club which provides a safe place for students to meet and support each other and work to end homophobia and transphobia within their school as well as the surrounding areas.

Daisy Griffin, president of PFLAG, is driven to conduct positive change within the school systems in honor of her friend who was struggling to come out in high school and eventually ended his own life.

“Research shows that in cities with GSA programs in their education systems, the amount of hate crimes goes down in the cities exponentially,” said Griffin. “It also decreases suicide rates of straight students as well as gay students.”

Auburn University’s LGBTQ advocacy organization, Spectrum, combats Auburn’s hyper-conservative reputation by opening up a support group for students and faculty.

In 2013, The Princeton Review ranked Auburn University as the most conservative student body in the country and Auburn is still ranked in the top 20 most “LGBTQ Unfriendly” campuses in America.

Comprised of students promoting the idea that Auburn University is strengthened by the diversity of its people, Spectrum strives to create a safe place where everyone regardless of gender or sexuality is treated with dignity and respect. Spectrum hosts activities that educate the general public and increase awareness and acceptance on campus and throughout the surrounding community.

Unity Walker, a graduate student at Auburn studying clinical health counseling who has taught approximately 100 hours at Auburn centering on LGBT life, issues faced by the community and differences between gender identities and sexual orientations, is the director of political affairs and president of Spectrum.

Having transitioned from a male to a female while at Auburn, Walker has experienced Auburn’s prejudices first-hand. “I think that the student body is more welcoming than one might expect, but overall the majority is still very conservative,” Walker said.

“I’ve been on campus today for two hours, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve already heard LGBT slurs.” While the resources that the university gives to the group are helpful, Walker said that the school should be doing more to support its students and faculty of every minority-type.

Auburn provides the least amount of LGBTQ support and educational resources in the state, falling behind the University of Alabama. Splitting resources and funds with the 20 other minority groups housed in the Cross-Cultural Center, Walker said that Spectrum is not given enough funding to execute all of its goals and achieve the visibility on campus that it aims to.

The most visible pride group in Auburn is Pride on the Plains. Founded in 2017, Pride on the Plains has had floats included in both the Auburn Christmas Parade, Opelika Christmas Parade, the Mardi Gras Parade and is has successfully planned the first Pride Parade in Lee County in one year.

Peacock, one half of the first gay couple to be married in Auburn, cannot wait for the community to see what Pride on the Plains has planned.

“I think the city will be shocked to see how it turns out,” Peacock said. “It’s going to be put-together and tasteful. We’re not looking to make anybody uncomfortable. We just want to celebrate who we are with the people who love us.”

Initially, Peacock was concerned with how the city of Auburn would react to having a pride festival, but he said he has been pleasantly surprised. “I’ve had dinner with the mayor. I’ve met with some of the council people, and I think that they really do have our best interest at heart,” Peacock said.

“They’ve been very accepting to hearing us out, which is my big mission. I want to work with the city. So far, I haven’t had any issues with any officials. They’ve really been great.”

Auburn’s Pride Parade is spreading visibility and awareness for the LGBTQ community, which is vital when making members of a minority group feel accepted and welcome.

While social progress is being made, there is still a need for change at the legislative level. “We need better legislation, and we need our officials to listen to the research,” Thompson said. “We need anti-discrimination policies enacted, and we need to be demanding better from our politicians. I believe that our country’s current political situation is a reckoning from people just not paying enough attention, and it’s got to stop.”

Prioritizing educational advances, specifically regarding LGBTQ acceptance and sexual education, must be enacted in order for the area’s youth to reform social stigmas and create a more accepting future society.

Becoming the Beloved Community, a philosophy popularized by Martin Luther King Jr., is a vision in which all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.

Transforming “The Loveliest Village on the Plains” into the Beloved Community will not be an easy task, but the leaders of Auburn’s LGBTQ organizations seem to agree on what it will take to get there.

“Becoming the Beloved Community is not about all becoming the same type of individual as one cohesive group, but about celebrating the differences that we have while still being able to exist together,” Walker said.

“When a minority student walks into a space, they feel celebrated and accepted instead of rejected, oppressed or, at best, tolerated.”

“The more intentionally you bring in people who are not like you and the more uncomfortable conversations that you have, the better you become,” Griffin said. “It builds you.”

Thompson added, “The way that I see it is making sure that we are showing up as a community as a whole for anyone whose equality is threatened.”

With the assistance of its activist groups, Auburn is moving forward in protecting and supporting its LGBTQ community. Peacock said that he hopes that the Pride on the Plains events show that Auburn has a loving, accepting community regardless of the statistics. He wants to show anyone from any minority group that there will always be a community with open arms for them in Auburn, and that the city is moving forward with them.

“Auburn is a great place to be yourself, and there’s a great community with open arms waiting for anyone who needs or wants it,” Peacock said. “That’s my mission…to show everyone that.”

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