• LGBTQ pride events have existed in big cities for decades. But their presence in rural America has grown significantly.
  • Advocates view small-town pride events as critically important in communities that lack resources and support.
  • Some residents and experts say distrust and disdain are still a problem, and safety remains a concern.

PULASKI, Tenn. — When this rural town’s fledgling pride festival kicked off last week, organizers braced for protests. Critics had made their opposition known. Sheriff’s deputies were on hand to prevent trouble.

But by mid-afternoon, just one man stood outside the Agricultural Park near Pulaski, a town of 7,600 residents, holding a “REPENT” sign, as several hundred cars – including a jeep sporting the phrase “Rednecks 4 Rainbows” – arrived for the pride 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.

While LGBTQ pride events have long been mainstay celebrations in big cities, their presence in rural and small-town America has continued to grow significantly in recent years, experts said, claiming once-rare space and 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 2019 report by the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit think tank that works to advance equality. Some experts say that’s likely higher.

While 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, for example, 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.

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