Clayton is a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northeast Georgia. Just over 2000 people live in this bucolic mountain town, famed for beautiful scenery, kayaking, rafting, and hiking. It is the county seat of Rabun County, where the classic film Deliverance was set and filmed. 2019 is the Bicentennial year of Rabun County and this past weekend Clayton hosted the First Annual Rural Pride Fest, north Georgia’s first Pride event ever.
Organized by Anton Stewart, an out-of-the-closet 23 year old candidate for Georgia’s 9th Congressional District, Rural Pride was designed to be the first in many regular events celebrating Georgia’s LGBT community. Rabun County is not only a top tourist destination in the state but it is fast becoming the most friendly place in the Peach State for that community. Stewart says their goal is “to hold events year round to highlight the rural LGBT community.” There was no room in their budget this year for a parade but he hopes to add one to future Rural Pride events.
Rural Pride is a three day event and I visited early in the afternoon of the second day, a sporadically overcast but typically hot August Saturday in Georgia. Centered around the town pavilion, next to where the farmer’s market is held every Saturday – a conspicuously vacant space today and, although no reason for their absence was given, multiple Pride attendees expressed disappointment (but not surprise) that the farmer’s market decided not to share the space with them.
The event was sparse on Saturday and even more so on Friday I was told. Three tents were set up outside, and seven booths underneath the pavilion canopy. Food, snacks, jewelry, trinkets, handmade goods, and LGBTQ advocacy literature available for all. The atmosphere was friendly, quiet, if not subdued. The three tents were occupied by a woman offering face-painting, the Georgia Libertarian Party (the only political party with any presence at Rural Pride, as I understand it), and PFLAG Blairsville, the local chapter of a national LGBTQ advocacy nonprofit. Most of the people I spoke to around town were not actually aware that Rural Pride was even happening this weekend but Stewart said that some attendees came from as far away as California.
One of the PFLAG members lamented the poor attendance but was quick to point out that their local chapter is only nine years old and that it can take time for LGBTQ groups and individuals to build lasting connections in rural communities. LGBTQ persons in rural America face special challenges they said. Unlike in the city, gay teens in the country have almost no social support and no way to embrace their identities in the relative safety that the anonymity of an urban setting offers. Change is much slower to happen among the elder generation, suicide much more common among the younger. Communities suffer when gay teens flee their small towns for a big city, a brain drain punctuated by their probable homelessness upon reaching the city.
The town of Clayton has been very welcoming to Rural Pride said Stewart. What appeared to be a discriminatory setback, when one motel manager canceled all reservations for the event, turned into a tolerant blessing as “community support came out after that incident.” There were a few instances of ‘drive-by bigotry’ (people yelling slurs from their cars) and one local man tried to setup a protest Bible booth but without a permit so he was quickly escorted away by police without incident. “We’ve been offered lots of financial and emotional support from the people of Clayton.” Says Stewart, “This community is one of the top-serving LGBTQ communities in the state and they don’t want to endanger that.”
A sentiment I found echoed among most people I spoke with in town. I interviewed a dozen shopkeepers, the same amount of store employees, and some two dozen residents of and visitors to Clayton and the most common attitude towards Rural Pride by far was “Who cares?” The only universal response I received was a reluctance to speak on the record but nobody was outright hostile to the event. The closest to antagonism was one store owner who said they “Wanted nothing to do with it. I don’t care what they do but I believe in the Bible. As long as they stay where they’re supposed to [the pavilion] I’m fine with it.”
At the pharmacy and soda fountain, one employee said they have no opinion at all about it and another said they don’t understand all the fuss, after all “It’s a small town and nobody around here is boycotting gay-owned or friendly businesses.” Another shopkeep said that he won’t have an opinion until next week, “Did it bring the town any new business or tourists? Was there any trouble? The event seems harmless and we have many gay people and businesses in town but I’ll wait and see.”
The most strenuously favorable reply was actually from two Jehovah’s Witnesses standing at the corner of Main and Savannah. Life-long Southerners, one of them born and raised there in Clayton, and both of them firmly of the opinion that “People are people and all people are loved.”
Fireworks were planned for this event but there turned out to be no local ordinance allowing them on town property so the organizers have rescheduled them for October. “This is a good example of how helpful the community has been.” Says Stewart. “The police and city leaders are coming out for us and in October we’re going to say Thank You to the people of Clayton.”
Thomas Brown is a history teacher and recovering political consultant hiding out in the American South. He is also managing editor of The Swamp and has been published in The Bipartisan Press, Alaska Native News, GEN, Human Events, Times of Israel, Dialogue & Discourse. Follow him at his Medium page and argue with him on Twitter: @reallythistoo.
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