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America’s Freedom Festival

Freedom Festival, LGBTQ groups reach compromise on July 4 parade

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One day after rejecting the applications of all five LGBTQ-serving groups seeking to participate in the July 4 parade, the Freedom Festival has reached a compromise that will allow the groups to participate.

On Thursday afternoon, Freedom Festival Executive Director Paul Warner announced via email that the festival has been “able to join with the LGBTQ groups for an addition to the parade on July 4th.”

The brief email stated that the festival would work with the groups to provide “a float and an individual entry and have all 5 groups sustain the decision made today.”

Warner concluded the email by saying it was “a win win.”

The move arose from a Thursday afternoon meeting that followed a day including a morning press conference at the Provo City Offices, where the five LGTBQ organizations that had their parade applications denied spoke out about the need for more inclusion by the Freedom Festival.

Just prior to that conference, Warner released a written statement from the Freedom Festival that gave the denied organizations until 5 p.m. Friday to tweak their parade applications to meet parade standards. The statement also invited any groups “interested in modifying their applications for reconsideration” to meet with the committee Thursday afternoon.

Kendall Wilcox, executive director of Mormons Building Bridges, one of the groups initially denied entry to the parade, said the Thursday afternoon meeting was very intense and emotional, but he was pleased with the final result.

Members of the Freedom Festival board are paying for a float for groups’ use, Wilcox said, explaining that Steven Shallenberger, Freedom Festival board of trustees member, offered that as a gesture for “the hurt feelings from the rejection of these groups in recent years.” Provo PFLAG and Provo Pride will also carry a large community-made quilt as their entry in the parade, he said.

The float will say “Utah’s LGBT community celebrates America,” in addition to the festival’s theme of “United We Stand.”

“The float itself will represent a good-faith effort on all parts to stand unified,” Wilcox said.

Stephenie Larsen, founder of Encircle, a LGBTQ youth resource center based in Provo, and one of the groups initially denied, said Thursday night she plans to re-work Encircle’s entry to make it more patriotic, and then re-apply for the pre-parade. The parade has both pre-parade entries and parade entries. She is unsure if Encircle will participate with the float or just focus on the pre-parade.

“We’d rather see as many of our youth walk in the pre-parade as possible,” Larsen said Thursday evening. “It’s a big part of our mission to get a community place where these kids feel loved and accepted.”

Provo city and Utah County officials who expressed concerns about the festival rejecting the groups’ applications were pleased with the compromise.

“I’m thrilled that the Freedom Festival and LGBT groups have been able to come to a compromise on parade entries,” Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi said in a statement Thursday night.

Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie said the decision alleviated some county concerns about pulling funding from the festival.

“I was pretty critical of them (the festival’s organizers) this morning. And they proved me wrong,” he said Thursday night. “They came to the table, and they allowed the groups in. The groups met the standards, which I personally feel they met initially. They did the right thing. I am glad they did. And, I think it’s just fantastic. Some days it’s nice to be wrong.”

Ivie said the compromise represented the best of America’s values.

“I also think it’s a reflection of what can happen when two opposing sides are willing to sit down and work out differences. To me, that’s the bigger story here. We can come from opposing viewpoints, but when we sit down together and can find common ground, there’s nothing more American than that,” he said.

The discussion about including LGBTQ groups in the Freedom Festival started last year, after Encircle was denied a pre-parade entry at the last minute after having previously been approved.

Larsen said last year’s rejection was very difficult and initially being rejected again this year was even more so. She’s able to see the behind-the-scenes happenings — including Thursday’s meeting and others where the festival organizers listened and “tried to learn about what these youth face in Utah County.” She’s also seen the multiple people in recent days reaching out to Encircle to offer donations and support for the group’s effort to be included in the parade, she said. But the youth she works with don’t see that, only seeing the rejection.

“It’s about helping these kids thrive. These youth are so talented and they just want to be OK with themselves,” Larsen said, explaining that she’s in awe of their strength. She hopes to see them as the next generation of leaders. “I hope we can get to a place where more people get to a place where they can see these kids for who they are. If they do thrive, they will accomplish so much and give so much more back to this world.”

LGBTQ response to being denied parade entry

The five groups whose applications were initially rejected — Mormons Building Bridges, PFLAG, Queer Meals, Provo Pride and Encircle — each gave statements at Thursday’s press conference, as did other LGBTQ groups, allies and elected officials.

Erika Munson, representing Mormons Building Bridges, said the rejection of the parade entries sent the message that LGBTQ people were not welcome in the parade or Provo.

Munson said the rejection insinuated that being accepting of LGBTQ people is somehow in conflict with the theme and principles of the parade.

“We reject this insinuation,” Munson said. “We have much to learn about God, about family, about freedom and country from our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.”

Warner’s statement said the reasons for initially denying the groups had nothing to do with prejudice or discrimination. He wrote that all parade entries were evaluated the same. Of the 120 parade applications, 22 were denied — including the LGBTQ groups — for not meeting specific entry requirements.

“However, the parade is a Fourth of July celebration of America, not a special interest-oriented parade,” Warner’s statement said. “We again invite all these groups to adjust their entries to meet parade requirements and to reapply for this year’s event. All people, regardless of race, faith or sexual orientation, are welcome to join us in celebrating America’s independence this July 4th.”

Warner further told the Daily Herald: “We don’t want this to be an issues parade. We don’t mind them being in the parade, but sexual preference is a private matter.”

Multiple advocates and speakers have since questioned why, if the parade is not a special-interest parade, the Mormon missionaries have been marching for the past two decades.

Staff at the Provo Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints told the Daily Herald on Thursday that they have never applied to be in the parade, but rather the festival contacts them every year. Warner confirmed this.

“LDS Missionaries have been a tradition in the parade,” Warner said. “We’ve invited a lot of people to be in the parade. We recruit bands, floats and others that people want to see. They get a standing ovation.”

Wilcox, of Mormons Building Bridges, said the groups were not given direction on what needed to be fixed in their applications, but said the groups are not trying to promote their own agendas over the purpose of the parade, as the Freedom Festival insinuates.

“We are here to celebrate freedom, patriotism, love of God, country and family as LGBT people,” Wilcox said.

Chelsea Peahl, the advocacy chair for Spectrum: Queer Student Alliance at UVU, said as a queer person, the news that all five groups had been denied was devastating.

“Let me be clear,” Peahl said. “I am not devastated that I can’t march in a parade. I’m devastated for the youth that need to see us queer folks living our lives and I’m devastated for the families who need to see that these organizations exist and they are not alone.”

A written statement was read from Provo Councilman George Handley at the press conference. He said he had been blessed with a gay sibling.

“I fail to see how the Freedom Festival’s decision to exclude these groups from the parade is consistent with the agreed-upon non discrimination clause and with Provo’s commitment to inclusion,” Handley’s statement said.

Will the festival continue to receive public funding from Provo and Utah County?

The previous denials raised questions about whether the city of Provo and Utah County would continue providing funding and support to the nonprofit Freedom Festival organization. The city and county both added nondiscrimination clauses to their funding agreements with the festival this year. Utah County provides about $113,000 to the festival yearly in cash and in-kind contributions and Provo’s donations total about $150,000.

Before the compromise was announced, Ivie said he considered the denial of all five groups a breach of the contract Utah County has with the Freedom Festival. Had the issue not been resolved, he said he would look to pull county funding from the parade this year.

Ivie was the last speaker to address the crowd at the press conference, and did so wearing a hat that read, “No sides, only love.”

Ivie spoke of his disappointment and bafflement when he heard all the groups had been denied from marching in the parade.

“After we went through the effort of incorporating the nondiscrimination clause, to be quite blunt, I didn’t think somebody would be stupid enough to do what they did,” Ivie said.

“The reality is, you guys belong in this community,” he said. “You are part of this. We love you.”

Kaufusi was invited to press conference, Wilcox said, but did not attend. Kaufusi gave a statement on Facebook Live at 1 p.m. with Deputy Mayor Isaac Paxman and Wayne Parker, Provo’s chief administrative officer.

Kaufusi said during the video that she was surprised to hear that all the groups had been denied parade entry. The city had been working on the nondiscrimination language in the contract for months, Kaufusi said.

“I felt like we’ve worked so hard to take two steps forward, and I felt like this was a little bit of a step back,” Kaufusi said, adding that she plans to have “hard conversations” with both sides of the issue.

Parker said during the Facebook Live video that the decision of whether to continue funding the festival is a policy decision that will be made at the mayor and council level, but said that for the current year, the city is still under contractual obligation to continue providing the funding.

Paxman said deciding which entries are allowed in the parade is not a role Provo is prepared to take, as the city does not want to be the parade organizer.

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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