Sylva Pride Pageant event elicits threats, controversy
The 2023 Mx. Sylva Pride Pageant wasn’t all glitz, glamour, pomp and pageantry, as social media threats and agitated protesters warranted the involvement of law enforcement.
The event — held Sunday, Aug. 13, at the Jackson County Public Library — honored Miss Sylva Pride 2022, Vivica DuPree, who stepped down from the role and celebrated the new Miss Sylva Pride 2023, Josie Glamoure.
The issues surrounding the pageant instigated conversation within Jackson County about the right of the LGBTQ+ community to host events on county property and the role law enforcement plays in protecting that right, as well as the rights of LGBTQ+ people to exist safely in the community.
The pageant, a 21 and older event, took place within rented space at the Jackson County Public Library after the library was closed to patrons. In the days leading up to the event, organizers saw chatter on social media from community members who didn’t want the event to take place. That chatter included multiple threats on Sylva Pride social media pages and other social media pages where individuals within the Sylva Pride organization and queer community were mentioned by name along with their places of employment.
Because some of those threats mentioned protesting the pageant, organizers contacted law enforcement prior to the event to ensure the safety of those in attendance. According to a statement from the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Doug Farmer received a call from Sylva Police Chief Chris Hatten on Sunday morning, Aug. 13, the day of the pageant.
Farmer said Hatten shared information that organizers had seen chatter on social media concerning the statue on the library steps.
“After receiving this information, I decided to block access to the top and bottom of the library/ courthouse steps as a precaution,” said Farmer in the statement. “I also called in three deputies on their day off to provide assistance if needed for this event.”
Taking part in some of that internet chatter was Jackson County Commissioner John Smith. In comments on the Jackson County Unity Coalition Facebook page regarding the pageant, Smith said “as a Commissioner I want to say I am not happy this was scheduled on County property. Sheriff Farmer has been made aware of the event, the stairs to the court house will be cordoned off and Deputies present to make sure everyone minds their manners. Seems there is little I can do about this at this point, without naming names, I’ve spoken to some of the other commissioners and they are also not happy about this being put together on County property.”
In another comment Smith said “sadly we continue to let the perverted 1% dictate what is ‘normal’ in this country, and it’s not just in NC or Jackson County. We seem to have lost our moral compass, everyone will have their day to answer. Make no mistake, I have plenty to answer for, but this perversion is not one of them!”
The statement from the sheriff’s office details the actions of law enforcement, saying deputies arrived at the scene around 5:30 p.m. to take positions at the barricades.
“Shortly after arriving at our positions (two deputies at the top and a deputy and myself at the bottom of the steps) a verbal dispute was overheard near the entrance to the library,” Farmer’s statement reads. “Deputies near the entrance requested I respond to their location. When I arrived near the front entrance there were two men and a female standing talking to two of my deputies. Also on the sidewalk were individuals attending the event. The dispute was the refusal to sell one of the protesters a ticket to the show.”
“After gathering this information, I explained to the protesters that the show can refuse to sell them tickets. Protesters were not happy about this and words were exchanged with some participants of the event. We were able to get the event organizer to get the individuals wanting to see the show inside and the protesters moved across the street and left about 30 minutes later,” said Farmer.
“At no time was anyone’s safety at risk that evening,” Farmer added.
This is where accounts of the evening diverge. At the Aug. 15 meeting of the Jackson County Commission, three Sylva residents who attended the pageant spoke during public comment to voice their concerns about what they saw as a lack of support from the sheriff’s office throughout the events of Aug. 13.
“I’m here to demand accountability from the public institutions of this county,” said Claire Clark, a queer trans woman living in Jackson County. “Despite the presence of JCSO on the scene and obvious hostility and menace from the people seeking to disrupt the event, it was left to community members to prevent their intrusion into the event space.”
In a recording of the events from Aug. 13, protesters can be heard asking Sheriff Farmer why they aren’t being permitted into the event. The library was closed at the time of the pageant and Sylva Pride had paid for and rented library space for the pageant. After the three protesters made it clear they were there to protest the event, Sylva Pride would not sell them tickets to enter the event space. Sheriff Farmer can be heard on tape backing up that position, informing protesters that the event organizers were not required to sell them tickets.
“I understand, I’m not happy about this either. But we don’t want no problems,” said Sheriff Farmer. “I have to be a neutral party and that’s neutral for your guys, and neutral for them.”
“Now, Doug Farmer is entitled to his opinion just as the next person is,” said Clark. “But public safety is only possible when it rests on a foundation of public trust. That trust must extend to the whole of the public, not just the parts that benefit from the exploitation and oppression of others. For members of the queer community, Sheriff Farmer’s words cannot help but call that trust into question, especially in light of the long history of homophobic and transphobic violence that have been inflicted on queer people by law enforcement in this country.”
Another speaker at the Aug. 15 meeting described the fear felt by attendees about the possibility of protesters entering the building, even after the sheriff’s office had intervened and moved protesters across the street.
“That period before the sheriff’s department came over and got involved was tense and potentially dangerous,” said Nathan Mann. “I don’t know what would have happened if that man had entered the building.”
“Neutrality was implemented, but poorly,” said Mann. “Sheriff Farmer clearly said at the beginning that he did not like or support what was going on at the library and that he agreed with the aggressive individuals coming to disrupt the event. He said he was required to remain neutral. That was clearly not neutral, and it showed an imbalance of power as well as a sympathy towards bigoted and threatening behavior.”
Ultimately, the speakers at last week’s commission meeting expressed their concern that the sheriff’s office was on scene and helping abate tensions only because the pageant was taking place on county property and that if a similar event were to occur elsewhere and organizers or attendees were in danger, help might have been more difficult to find.
“It was clear that the sheriff’s department was providing the minimum amount of protection because the space was rented. So my question is, what happens at other times when space isn’t rented or owned?” said Mann. “It was made abundantly clear that the sheriff’s department was providing a minimal level of protection at a time and a place because that space was rented. Not because the attendees are human beings and members of our community who deserve safety, protection and respect and dignity.”
The events of Aug. 13 come on heels of increased threats and actual violence against the LGBTQ+ community, as well as a slew of legislation from the North Carolina General Assembly that would restrict the rights of the queer and trans people.
In Western North Carolina, issues have arisen around the placement of LGBTQ+ literature in the Macon County Library which has prompted county commissions in Macon, Jackson and Swain counties to take a hard look at the Fontana Regional Library system as a whole. While the Macon County Commission debated pulling out of the three-county library system, it ultimately decided to stay. Now, county managers are recommending a slight change to the governance structure of the system.
In Waynesville, debate has erupted around trans people and the use of public restrooms after claims of indecent behavior involving a transgender person at the Waynesville Recreation Center proved to be false.
In the North Carolina General Assembly this year, bills have been introduced that would make it unlawful to perform drag entertainment on public property. The General Assembly has passed legislation that inhibits gender-affirming medical treatments, LGBTQ+ instruction in the classroom and requires middle and high school athletes to compete on the team of their sex assignment at birth, rather than the gender they have transitioned to or identify as.
The Town of Sylva has a particularly active and connected LGBTQ+ community relative to other small towns in Western North Carolina. In 2021, Sylva Pride held its inaugural pride parade to celebrate the queer community. The community is supported and held together by several grassroots groups like Sylva Pride, Sylva Queer Support and Education, Sylva Belles Drag, the nonprofit Cornbread and Roses, as well as a multitude of supportive local businesses. These groups not only foster community for LGBTQ+ folks in Western North Carolina today, but also work alongside Blue Ridge Pride and the Western Carolina University LGBTQ archive to uncover and record stories and histories through its oral history project and archival collection.
Left to right: Danielle Eclipse, Josie Glamoure, Rubella Werk and Marigold Showers at the Mx. Sylva Pride Pageant. Sylva Pride photo
“American drag pageantry has held a special place within the LGBTQ+ community since its beginnings in the 1880s around Washington, D.C. with a former slave, known simply as ‘the Queen,’ hosting the first drag balls,” said pageant host Beulah Land. “Ballroom culture flourished underground in large cities and in the 1960s, national pageant systems were established by Flawless Sarbina, an LGBTQ+ activist from New York City.”
“Today, drag pageants occur all over the world and Sylva Pride is so excited to celebrate this history with our community right here in the mountains,” Land said.
This year’s pageant winner, Josie Glamoure, was born in Sylva and settled in Asheville after graduating from Smoky Mountain High School and Western Carolina University.
“The events that took place outside of our private event Sunday came as no shock to me, a Sylva native and Smoky Mountain High alumna,” said Glamoure. “Unfortunately, some people cannot begin to understand that queer people are a part of Southern Appalachian history, stretching all the way back to before our forefathers set foot on this land when it was wild and overgrown and being taken care of by our Cherokee brethren. We have been here. We have always been here. We will always be here. We’re just no longer choosing to be silent, to be invisible, or to be complacent. We are queer and we are Southern Appalachian — those two things go hand in hand for us. We are proud to be both and we don’t back down.”
Speakers at the Aug. 15 commissioner meeting called on both the county commission and the sheriff’s office to voice their support for the queer community in Sylva and opposition to hate and bigotry.
“Queer people have every right to exist in this community and to be treated with respect and dignity by other community members and especially by town officials and law enforcement,” said Sarah D’Armen. “I shouldn’t have to come up here and state obvious truths that we are human beings like everyone else — that should be a given. Tonight, I ask for our law enforcement to be held accountable for their responsibility to protect every member of this community and to apologize to the LGBTQ community for their blatant disregard of our safety and dignity. I call on the county commissioners to make a statement in support of the LGBTQ community and against hatred.”