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Sylva designates June as LGBTQ Pride Month as group vows to hold non-sanctioned Pride march

Lilly Knoepp
Sylva Pride hosted a community "Chalk about it" meeting in Sylva to talk about next steps in April.

The Town of Sylva will recognize June as LGBTQ Pride Month, with commissioners unanimously approving a proclamation on Thursday.

Commissioners also voted in a new member to fill a seat left vacant when a former official left after town officials did not support a street closure for the annual Pride parade.

Six people signed up for public comment at the Sylva Town Council’s 9 a.m. meeting on Thursday.

Five spoke in support of the declaration to designate June as LGBTQ Pride month. The proclamation was sent in by a local and recently formed group called We Will March. The group was founded after town commissioners voted in March not to sponsor a road closure permit on Main Street for the annual Pride parade.

Members who spoke at the meeting said the proclamation was a good step but won’t change their demand for a march. None of the commissioners addressed the proclamation or ongoing street closure debate after the vote.

“This board wildly underestimated the importance of the Pride parade. Given the current political landscape, this is not the time to take away something as big and important as visibility. Either you didn’t take the time to consider it or you did and you didn’t care. Your actions today, in regards to this proclamation, can tell us which one it was,” Jessie Roberts, part of We Will March, said. “There are no 'buts' or 'insteads' here. Support, inclusion and allyship is both the proclamation and the parade.”

We Will March led protests outside monthly town council meetings in April and May. The Sylva Pride board has said that they will not reapply for the parade permit while We Will March says that they will follow the meaning of their name and march during Pride weekend in September.

Roberts and others who spoke also highlighted the recent issues in town after the Jackson County Public Schools seniors were not allowed to close Main Street for a graduation walk.

Sylva Police shared a statement after the event explaining that the Jackson County Public School System (JCPS) submitted an application for a planned senior walk parade in November 2023.

But the application was not approved due to a road closure being necessary.

“The graduates would be bussed to the Jackson County Library, then they would walk down the stairs to the fountain posing for several photos along the way. Upon arrival at the fountain, the graduates would use the crosswalk and sidewalks to make their way to Bridge Park,” police shared in a statement on Facebook.

“The seniors would be welcomed in Bridge Park by their parents and spectators for a celebration and a meal. This plan did not include a road closure or a parade on Main Street.”

However, Sylva Herald reported that about 100 people turned out to watch the walk. The police said that community members in the road were part of two “vehicular situations.”

Police said that it was not an “unapproved parade” and that traffic was stopped to let the seniors and community members – a total of about 400 people – get to Bridge Park.

Tracy Mann with We Will March said during public comment said that the senior walk highlighted that "people will spontaneously take up space."

"You can can be proactive in working with the LGBTQ community on logistics to ensure that this is a safe event," Mann said.

The new proclamation aligns Sylva with the national designation of June as LGBTQ Pride Month.

The first Pride march in New York City was held on June 28, 1970, on the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, according to the Library of Congress.

“Pride Month” was officially recognized by the U.S. government in 1999 when President Bill Clinton declared June “Gay and Lesbian Pride Month.” In 2016, President Barack Obama updated the celebration to “LGBT Pride Month,” and President Joe Biden further expanded the observance to “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ+) Pride Month” in 2023.

The proclamation reads:

“WHEREAS, Our nation was founded on the principle of equal rights for all people, but the fulfillment of this promise has been long in coming for many Americans; and

WHEREAS, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) Pride Month is celebrated nationwide each year in the month of June; and

WHEREAS, June was selected as Pride month to commemorate the events that occurred 50+ years ago, known as the Stonewall Riots—demonstrations that protested the targeting of LGBTQ patrons of The Stonewall Inn and Greenwich Village; and

WHEREAS, Everyone should be able to live without fear of prejudice, discrimination, violence, and hatred based on race, religion, gender identity, or sexual orientation; and

WHEREAS, The Town of Sylva strives to ensure that our town is a place where all people— regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression—are treated with dignity and respect; and

WHEREAS, The Town of Sylva has a diverse community that includes people of all ethnicities, religions, and professions and we welcome the rich diversity of our population; and

NOW, THEREFORE, IT IS PROCLAIMED by the Town of Sylva Board of Commissioners, that the month of June is recognized as Pride Month, joining in national recognition to celebrate the LGBTQ community.”

A new commissioner

On April 14, Town Commissioner Natalie Newman announced that she was stepping down from the council. Newman told BPR that her decision was impacted by the Pride parade street closure permit vote.

“We've got to look our neighbors in the eye and address these issues and the elephant in the room,” Newman said. “Because we can say it's not here- that the hatred for the queer community, our brown people, our unhoused people. We can say that we are accepting of all these people, and we love all these people, but our actions are not reflecting that right now.”

During Thursday’s meeting, the town council vacancy was also addressed.

Three applications were considered for the position from Sylva residents Sarah Hirsch, Jonathan Brown and Luther Jones. Town commissioners were given ballots and then each commissioner’s vote was read aloud. Brown was appointed in a 3-1 vote.

Jones, who previously ran for Sylva Town Council in 2023, received zero votes from the council. His council application states that he has lived in town for about 20 years. Jones recently wrote an opinion piece in the Sylva Herald that outlined his position on the Pride parade.

Hirsch received one vote from Commissioner Brad Waldrop. Hirsch campaigned during public comment explaining that she hoped to be elected “as an advocate for those who are often underrepresented.”

“As a candidate, I am pro-business, pro-law enforcement and pro-alternative energy…” Hirsch said, pointing out that her home has solar panels. “I am pro-civil rights and dedicated to equal justice for all.”

Hirsch also explained that she is bi-cultural and volunteers with local Spanish-speaking organizations.

Brown received the votes of Mayor Pro-Tem Mary Gelbaugh and commissioners Mark Jones and Blitz Estridge. His application states that he works at Cherokee Indian Hospital as a physical therapist.

“I love God, love my family, and love my town. I see leadership as service, and I will bring to the table a heart to serve the people of Sylva to make Sylva an even more wonderful place to live and visit,” Brown wrote in his application. He states that he has been a Sylva voter for one year but has been a permanent resident on and off for around 20 years. Brown attended the meeting but did not comment.

Brown will be sworn in at the next council meeting on May 30.

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.
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