There’s a sense of relief among Utah County’s LGBTQ groups after they were quietly accepted in this year’s Grand Parade as part of America’s Freedom Festival in Provo.

Though five LGBTQ-serving groups marched in last year’s parade, it was only following a last-minute press conference and a threat of pulled funding.

In 2017, Encircle, a nonprofit which provides support services for LGBTQ youth, was initially approved to walk in the parade, but a last-minute rejection by parade staff made headlines across the state. In 2018, Encircle and four other groups marched in the parade, after an initial rejection by parade staff was reversed. That reversal followed a press conference to draw attention to the issue and Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie, who came out as gay last month, threatening to pull public funding from the parade if the groups weren’t included.

This year, all four of those groups who applied were accepted to march in either the parade or pre-parade. Encircle, Provo Pride, Provo PFLAG and Mormons Building Bridges will all be in the pre-parade or grand parade. Queer Meals decided not to apply for the parade this year, but will be making sure there is a safe space along the route for LGBTQ spectators.

“We did have a good response to that last year,” said Queer Meals founder Jerilyn Hassell Pool. The group was able to hand out thousands of rainbow items, and hopes to do so again this year.

“Whether or not you’re LGBTQA, there are still people marching who deserve support we can give from the sidelines,” Hassell Pool said.

Freedom Festival Executive Director Paul Warner said that this year, the Freedom Festival revised the rules to make it clear that, regardless of the group applying, the purpose of the parade is to celebrate the Fourth of July.

“That’s why we have it, that’s why people come,” Warner said.

Warner said a few items with the applications needed clarification, but said the groups were all very cordial and willing to make adjustments.

“It’s been a really smooth process,” Warner said.

The biggest concern with the parade this year, Warner said, are typical issues like figuring out the logistics of getting all the floats down the parade route with the new bus stations splitting University Avenue down the middle, and finding volunteers to help with tasks like holding banners.

Brianna Cluck, president of Provo Pride, said she went to the parade planning meeting as soon as it was announced. She wanted to be able to ask lots of questions and get a good idea of what to do to get in this year and make it a smooth experience. After submitting the entry, Cluck said she was asked to specify exactly what people would be wearing, which she attributed to the fact they had someone in drag march in the parade last year.

She says she took great care in planning, making sure the entry would comply with the parade’s guidelines in every possible way, because she didn’t want there to be any reason it could be viewed as unpatriotic or be denied.

“I still have a fear in the back of my mind that somehow it will all fall apart,” Cluck said. “At least it’s been a lot more straightforward than last year, that’s really appreciated.”

Stephenie Larsen, the founder and CEO of Encircle, said last year required difficult conversations — conversations that ultimately she’s glad were had, though she joked that she was still recovering from last year’s experience.

“It was nice this year that we applied and just got in like any other group would,” Larsen said. “That’s progress.”

Erika Munson, co-founder of Mormons Building Bridges, said the organization’s float will, like last year, feature military veterans from the LGBTQ community. Munson described last year’s experience in the parade as being “delightful,” and hopes that the float will become something people look for every year at the parade.

Coming into this year’s application process, however, Munson said there was some worry that there could still be some discomfort on the part of parade organizers with LGBTQ entries. When everything was approved without a hitch this year, all she felt was relief.

“I don’t want last-minute press conferences and tense meetings,” Munson said. I can do without that, thank you very much.”

At the end of the day, though, Munson said Provo is acting as a “shining example.” MBB has once again been turned down to march in the Days of 47 parade in Salt Lake City for being an advocacy group. While recognizing that the Days of 47 is a private parade not receiving public money like the Freedom Festival does, Munson said she believes that an event celebrating a state holiday on public thoroughfares should still be inclusive of everyone.

“For all the snootiness Salt Lake has about Provo sometimes, Provo is being an example to Salt Lake here,” Munson said.

Munson said last year, she heard an older man from the crowd ask, “What does LGBT mean,” as the MBB float was passing. That underscores the importance of the groups being in the parade, she said.

“That’s great to just have that conversation, learn what LGBTQ means,” Munson said.

Larsen credits the change to having hard conversations — discussions that haven’t been had before between conservative people and the LGBTQ community.

“It’s great to see all the people who were really brave and vulnerable in those conversations, and also people from the parade who were willing to sit down and listen and make the changes necessary to be inclusive,” Larsen said. “I think change is hard, and there is a lot of fear in it. And they did what it took and it got changed. It leaves the next generation of youth in a better place. They are going to grow up with things easier than this generation thanks to those changes.”

Groups say there is still progress to be made in the community as far as being inclusive.

For instance, well-known martial arts artist Chuck Norris was chosen to be one of the parade grand marshals for his work with veterans, along with Jennie Taylor, whose husband Maj. Brent Taylor was killed while deployed to Afghanistan with the Utah Army National Guard. Norris has previously expressed support for California’s Proposition 8, a ban on same-sex marriage.

Warner said Norris’ stance on gay marriage “was not on the radar” when he was selected as a parade marshal, but that he was chosen because of his commitment to help veterans and “be an advocate for those that are down and out.”

Cluck said she believes most people aren’t aware of the remarks Norris has made before about the LGBTQ community.

“He’s not super high-profile for that,” Cluck said. “Everyone just knows him as Walker Texas Ranger.”

Munson called it an opportunity for conversation.

“I would love for him to be able to meet everybody that’s on our float,” Munson said.

Katie England covers local government, the environment and southern Utah County for the Daily Herald. She can be reached at 801-344-2599 or kengland@heraldextra.com.

Katie England covers politics, county government and southern Utah County for the Daily Herald. She can be reached at 801-344-2599 or kengland@heraldextra.com.

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