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'We will march': Sylva community members support Pride Parade

A group with "We Will March" protested against the Sylva Town Board's vote against this year's Pride parade.
Lilly Knoepp
A group with "We Will March" protested against the Sylva Town Council's vote against this year's Pride parade.

On Thursday night, Sylva community members marched to the town council meeting to show their disappointment in a recent vote to not allow the annual Sylva Pride event to close part of Main Street for a parade.

A crowd of more than 50 people gathered on Main Street to show their support for a Pride parade in downtown Sylva.

“March for Love. March for Pride,” was one of the chants echoing down the street.

More than 50 people started at the fountain below the old Jackson County Courthouse to march in support of a Pride parade.
Lilly Knoepp

The group marched on sidewalks around town to the Sylva Town Hall. Sylva resident Jessie Roberts, one of the organizers of the event, explained that this was a community effort.

Roberts and many attendees wore shirts that said, “We Will March,” a group Roberts said it is a new organization that wants to be able to march for Pride.

A protester held a sign quoting Mayor Johnny from a recent interview after the March 21 vote against the Pride parade.
Lilly Knoepp
A protester held a sign quoting Mayor Johnny from a recent interview after the March 21 vote against the Pride parade.

“This is about visibility. This is about being seen. We deserve to be seen…” Roberts said, citing negative effects of state legislationlike SB49 on local children. “It’s about showing up and showing them that they have a future where they are allowed to sit at the table and eat with everybody else.”

Lauren Calvert, owner ofthe In Your Ear music store on Main Street, spoke outside of town hall. Calvert said she opened the store in 1994 with her girlfriend and faced stigma in the form of obscene phone calls and other insults.

“I never— I’m going on 30 years in July —thought that I would ever see Pride happen in Sylva,” Calvert said.

Last year, she was moved when she marched in the parade with her daughter last year.

“We got to walk arm in arm in the Pride parade last year. I cried. She cried. And she got to see what community was all about,” Calvert said. “It makes all the difference in the world. We don’t need permission. We should march.”

Calvert was one of 25 business owners to sign an open letter to the Town Council in support of Pride at last month’s meeting.

Just after the town meeting started at 5:30pm, the advocates walked into the hall. Sylva Police Chief Chris Hatton cautioned the group about protocol.

“You can’t disrupt the meeting,” he said.

The 20 people filed quietly into the meeting as Town Commissioner Brad Waldrop gave his report.

“….I believe the parade brought a spirit of inclusivity and positivity to our town that was special and it also represented an opportunity for members of the LGBTQ+ community from other places that aren’t as inclusive to feel part of our larger mountain community,” Waldrop said. He was not able to attend the previous meeting where the vote took place.

“I think we let our community down by changing our position. I believe that we have gone backwards.”

Waldrop advocated for the board to re-consider Sylva Pride’s application. He said he thought Sylva should have an official Pride Day coinciding with the event.

Commissioner Mark Jones made his report sharing a fundraiser for a premature baby born to a firefighter at the Savannah Fire Department. He said there will be an event to raise money for medical care next Friday.

Commissioner Blitz Estridge did not have a comment.

Commissioner Natalie Newman’s report was a critique of the board’s decision and of any attempts to stifle protests or criticism from the community.

“My observation is that the Sylva Pride board has remained gracious and calm throughout this disappointing decision, however, many individuals in our community are obviously upset,” Newman said.

The Sylva Town Council continued its meeting as those supporting the Pride parade filed into the meeting.
Lilly Knoepp
The Sylva Town Council continued its meeting as those supporting the Pride parade filed into the meeting.

Newman said she felt that the vote was taken too quickly, especially considering Waldroop’s absence. Newman noted how prior decisions were delayed when members were absent, citing a delay of a vote on streetlights at a previous meeting when two members were absent.

“It’s very sad that we could take the extra time to choose streetlights, but refused to give a moment more to the parade permit,” Newman said.

She highlighted the costs of other events which close Main Street for much longer than Pride.

After the vote at the March 21 meeting, Mayor Johnny Phillips told WLOS that the town has only approved five parades or events that closed the street: Christmas Parade, Greening Up, Western Carolina University Homecoming, Treat Street and the 4th of July.

Newman said the Halloween Trunk-or-Treat festivities shut down the entire length of Main Street for the evening event while Pride only closes two blocks for less than an hour.

“If anyone fears that me speaking out about this will result in retaliation from the powers that be and hinder any future Pride events, I urge you to see what is happening. What has already been taken and realize that if using your voice causes you to lose these liberties then realize that not using your voice, hiding in silence is the only thing allowing you to hold onto those few things,” Newman said.

The only item on the agenda was a report on plans about Pinnacle Park which both Mayor Pro-Tem Mary Gelbaugh and Commissioner Waldrop said looked good. No action was taken on the issue.

The meeting ended with a closed session which the agenda said was called to allow members to consult with their attorney.

More than 50 people marched to the Sylva Town Council meeting.
Lilly Knoepp
More than 50 people marched to the Sylva Town Council meeting.

The advocates headed back to the fountain for a few final speakers. Roberts said the gathering will not be the only protest.

“The idea that if we are just quiet and go with the flow that maybe we will get it next year is going to be exactly why we don’t get it next year and the year after that,” Roberts said.

The Pride event is scheduled in September at Bridge Park in Sylva.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.