Organized in the wake of the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the Harrison Pride Fest was an opportunity for the LGBTQ community and its allies to come together in the city of around 13,000 people.
"Our part of the country has been well known for bigotry and backwardness for so long," resident Cynn Parton told local news station KFSM. "They’re a whole of us who live here who don’t believe that and we don’t want to be labeled like that anymore."
Residents of the city, located in Arkansas' Boone County, have long struggled to get out from under the shadow cast by a number of hate-groups which have settled in the area—most notably, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, whose national director, Thomas Robb reportedly lives nearby, maintaining a Harrison address for business purposes.
"Harrison is a really nice place to live,” Robb told Vice in a 2014 profile of the city. “I suspect that's because it's majority white." In 2013, local ABC affiliate KATV reported that only 34 of the city's nearly residents are black, according to the 2010 census. In 2014, the KKK sponsored a billboard for White Pride Radio in Harrison. The ad read "It's not racist to love your people."
Given the region's reputation as a mecca for hate-groups, Harrison's first-ever pride festival—which featured music, face-painting, and even an LGBTQ friendly sermon—took on a particular air of significance, actively demonstrating that love can thrive and be celebrated, even in the Klan's backyard.
"I see people finally feeling, especially in this community, like they have a place to be," participant Mickie Allen told NBC affiliate KY3. "See people holding hands that maybe wouldn't feel comfortable doing it in other places, and I've seen those people be embraced by other people. So I think it's a feeling of belonging maybe in a place where you never felt you did."
Across the street from the pride event, protesters waved Confederate flags, shouted obscene slogans, and held offensive signs. Organized by the secessionist Arkansas League of the South, the group claimed to be standing "in defense of Christian Marriage," writing on Facebook that:
We were protesting a LGBTQ "Pride Fest" and their parade of degeneracy and immorality on our city streets. As long as our people are under the boot of Washington D.C., we will continue to see our Christian society eroded and the faith of our fathers attacked.
God Save the South!
"It doesn't matter if 5 men in black robes in Washington D.C. say homosexuality is acceptable; the word of God says it's not," league chairman R.G. Miller explained to KY3. "To be quite simple," Miller added, "the vast majority of people here in Harrison believe it's not."
On an event page for the group's protest, the League expressed a similar sentiment, writing: "We will make sure that anyone attending the "Pride March" understands that this is Harrison, Arkansas. We will not allow such degeneracy to go on in our town without it being decried. Don't expect to have a pro-homosexual event here without an outcry."
Hateful outcry notwithstanding, organizers of the Pride event reportedly plan to donate all money raised at the event to the One Orlando fund, set up to support victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting.
Vena Lance, who performed at Harrison's Pride event put it simply to KFSM:
"Our community wants to be a voice of love, a voice of acceptance of every individual no matter what."