Rallying Cries

Story Van Ness of Knox Pride speaks at a rally in Krutch Park Extension

Rallying Cries

Hundreds gather as Knox Pride pushes the LGBTQ community and its allies to action over proposed state legislation.

by jesse fox mayshark • February 14, 2023

Story Van Ness of Knox Pride speaks at a rally in Krutch Park Extension

Story Van Ness, right, of Knox Pride addresses the crowd at a rally Monday in downtown Knoxville.

In recent years, Knoxville’s annual Pride Parade and PrideFest have been largely jubilant events, bringing together the local LGBTQ community and its friends and families for warm celebrations.

The rally came the same day the state Senate passed a bill criminalizing gender-affirming care for minors.

For now, Nathan Higdon said Monday, those days are over.

“We’re not going to celebrate while far too many members of the LGBTQIA+ community are under constant and thinly veiled attacks of hate and myths and disinformation,” Higdon, speaking through a megaphone, told a crowd of hundreds gathered for a rally Monday evening in the Krutch Park Extension on Gay Street in downtown Knoxville.

“And this disinformation,” he continued, “is coming from Nashville, from people elected to represent every one of us here.”

Higdon is chief financial officer of Knox Pride, the local LGBTQ advocacy group that sponsors the annual Pride events and also organized Monday’s rally in response to several bills advancing in the state Legislature.

Chief among them are proposals to make it a crime to hold some drag shows on public property or anywhere that a minor could view them, and to ban gender-affirming surgery or hormone treatment for transgender people under the age of 18. 

The state Senate passed the drag bill last week and the gender-affirming care bill yesterday — it was actually debating and voting on the latter while Knox Pride was holding its rally. Both passed the Senate on party-line votes, with 26 Republicans in favor and all six Democrats voting no.

Both are still moving through the House. The rally Monday was aimed at urging people to contact legislators about the bills and urge their friends to do likewise, and more broadly at building an ongoing political force.

Upwards of 300 people of all ages gathered for the event (mostly respecting the “Keep off the lawn” signs protecting newly seeded grass in the extension), showering speakers with loud applause and loudly chanting along to slogans like “Existence is resistance!”

Story Van Ness, assistant director of Knox Pride’s Community and Resource Center and program director for transgender and nonbinary support, told the crowd that as a trans woman she sees the prohibition of gender-affirming care as an attack on young trans people.

“I am angry that they do this despite the fact that every major medical association agrees that this care saves lives,” she said. “Gender affirmation is suicide prevention. I am angry that the trans youth that I speak to are scared, that they feel hopeless, that they don't see a future. I am angry, and I need all of you to be angry with me.”

Supporters of the bills have described them as necessary to protect children from exposure to sexual content (in the case of drag shows) and from life-altering medical treatment that could cause future physical or psychological harm.

But LGBTQ advocates respond that drag shows are not inherently sexual, and that gender-affirming care is already highly regulated by professional medical associations.

Knox Pride announced last week that it would cancel this fall’s planned Pride events if the drag bill passes, because the bill could threaten drag performers with criminal charges and fines. Molly Gormley, press secretary for the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus, responded in an email that the bill would apply only to “overtly sexual performances.”

If the bill passes, Knox Pride has no reason to cancel their parade or festivities, unless they plan on the entire event being made up of overtly sexual performances,” Gormley said.

But given that both Tennessee and Knoxville already have obscenity laws, and that no drag shows have been found to violate them even as they have spread to more and more public venues, it remains unclear what exact activities the bill aims to restrict. 

In a statement opposing the drag bill, the ACLU of Tennessee said, “Dance, fashion, and music — essential components of a drag performance — are all protected by the First Amendment. Yet, these laws are written so broadly and vaguely that they would allow government officials to censor performers based on their own subjective viewpoints of what they deem appropriate on any given day.”

Kim Spoon leads protesters in a march on Gay Street sidewalks.

Activist Kim Spoon, right, leads protesters on a march along Gay Street on Monday evening

The overall tone of Monday’s rally was assertive and even confrontational. Kim Spoon, an organizer with the progressive group Indivisible Tennessee, made the case for LGBTQ allies to get involved, in colorful terms. “I’m not gay and I’m not trans, I’m just a mean white bitch,” she said, to laughter and cheers. “And I’m talking to the rest of you white bitches. We’re here, and we listen, and we believe.”

After the speakers concluded, Spoon led the crowd in an impromptu march up the Gay Street sidewalk. The procession stretched for blocks.

In an interview afterward, Higdon said the combination of the proposed bills and a local progressive base that was energized by racial justice protests in 2020 is stirring a new era of LGBTQ activism — which had lapsed somewhat after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision in 2015 established a right to same-sex marriage.

“You know, Pride started as a protest,” Higdon said, referring to the Stonewall riots of 1969 in New York’s Greenwich Village. “And I think that activism and the social justice (movement) kind of calmed for a long time, especially after the Supreme Court ruling. I started to notice people pay more attention after the murder of George Floyd, and see more activists. This undercurrent of queer activism has always been there.”

Higdon, who is white, also said the LGBTQ rights movement has begun to come to terms with a history of marginalizing racial minorities and trans people within its own ranks. Speaking to the crowd, he said, “White cisgender gay men, I’m looking at you. As we got more rights carved out, we left members of our community behind.” He added, “As a community, we will do better. We have to do better.”

Van Ness, meanwhile, warned everyone present that they should get engaged even if they don’t feel immediately threatened by the current bills.

“If you’re not trans, do not think for one moment that you are safe,” she said. “They will not stop with trans people. They will not stop with drag queens. They will come for every single one of us.”