'You have a place here': Rural Oklahoma town hosts first Pride event
Most of Oklahoma's Pride events happen in the cities. This summer, that’s changing. A growing number of small towns are hosting their own LGBTQ Pride gatherings to support communities where they are.
The sun is still hot on Saturday evening at Prague Park. About 30 people have set up chairs under a big shade tree. They visit, voices intermittently interrupted by a loud car cruising past on West Main Street.
From the road, the gathering looks typical. But, up close, there’s a different story: People are wearing colorful shirts and holding little rainbow flags. Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” blares from a speaker.
Prague – a town of about 2,500, an hour east of OKC – is hosting its first ever Pride in late July. The celebration is part of a growing movement to build community for LGBTQ people in rural Oklahoma, outside of big cities.
Organizer Rebecca LaFollette has never seen this many rainbows or LGBTQ people in one place here.
“Oh, no, not in Prague,” LaFollette said. “No, not in Prague, Not at all.”
LGBTQ community, close to home
Last summer, LaFollette became interested in hosting Pride in Prague, where she lives.
“After I went to the Pride events in the city, I really wanted there to be something closer to home,” LaFollette said.
This year, LaFollette decided to go for it. She started planning and connected withRural Oklahoma Pride. For the last two years, the organization has helped host LGBTQ-focused events throughout the state — in Duncan, Ada, Chickasha and more.
“I think that for these events being hosted in smaller communities, it allows people to feel proud of where they live and be a part of their community,” said Bryan Paddack, Rural Oklahoma Pride co-founder. “It shows that we're not going anywhere.”
Paddack and co-founder Jacob Jeffery follow a standard planning process for hosting Pride events in rural communities: connect with interested people in town, reach out to government leadership, obtain a permit to have the event in a public park and spread the word through Facebook.
In Prague, LaFollette said the mayor was “on board” with the plan for Pride and the city council donated the park space, so she did not have to pay to use it.
But, not all of the town’s residents supported the Pride gathering. That mirrors rising statewide hostility toward LGBTQ people. Last legislative session, lawmakers filed at least 40 anti-LGBTQ bills, according to anOklahoma Watchreview.
“We’ve gotten a lot of backlash, some death threats, some people saying that if we hosted a Pride here, we wouldn't be leaving alive,” LaFollette said.
Across the street, under a picnic shelter, a religious group gathered in response to Prague’s Pride event. The two groups didn’t interact much.
“I really want our community to accept us more,” LaFollette said.
Hope for the future
In Prague Park, Pride-goers chatted, learned about Mental Health First Aid and got free mom hugs. They participated in a storytelling of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and heard a performance from OKC-based Xantheartist.
Among the conversations, lawn chairs and folding tables, LGBTQ people are making their presence in Prague visible.
“We see you, we love you, and know you're never alone,” Jeffery said.
Jeffery grew up in a small town in Oklahoma without resources or acceptance for LGBTQ people.
“It made me really hate myself,” Jeffery said. “I really didn't want to look at the person in the mirror because it's like they were telling me I have to be something that I know for a fact I'm not.”
LGBTQ people in rural areas face stigma, discrimination and feelings of isolation, which leads to poor mental and physical health outcomes.
But, it'snot a solutionless struggle. Events like Pride offer belonging and acceptance. And when they are hosted in rural areas, LGBTQ people are able to feel supported where they live.
LaFollette said she organized Prague’s first Pride “so that everyone in our community knows that no matter how you identify, you have a place here in our community — you belong, and you're loved no matter what.”
Before the event wrapped up around 7 p.m., attendees posed for a picture in the park to document their participation in the town’s first Pride event.
“One, two, three, PRIDE,” they shouted, open mouths turning into smiles.
LaFollette posed next to her wife. She knows this year’s Pride celebration won’t be Prague’s last. She plans to do it all again next year.
OPMX's Isabelle Nissley prepared this report for StateImpact Oklahoma
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