Fernandina Beach rebuffs attempt to curtail annual Pride festivities

fernandina beach pride permit
The public comment period took well more than two hours.

A group of residents who organized to push an already red local government structure further to the right failed in an attempt to clamp down on Fernandina Beach’s annual Pride parade and festival in June.

There will be no changes imposed by the city government to the permit, said Mayor Bradley Bean at this week’s City Commission meeting

“Before we get to public comment, what I want to say is that this permit has already been approved,” Bean said.

“I will support staff’s decision to approve it. There is not going to be a ‘kid zone.’ Here in Fernandina Beach, we take our freedom of speech and our freedom of assembly very seriously, so tonight we invite you to go ahead, make your voice heard.”

As the more than 50 people had an allotted three minutes each, the process took well more than two hours.

“What we’re trying to do is maintain certain protected zones for children,” said Jack Knocke of Citizens Defending Freedom-Nassau.

“If you look at our City Commission charter, you’ll see that the charter says children should be protected in churches, schools and parks. That’s what we’re trying to do. As I looked at the Fernandina Beach Pride event from last year, I looked at the vendors, I looked at the tables and I looked at the participants as well. And yes, there was a drag queen there. Maybe there was not a drag queen show there, but there was a drag queen there. I have video.”

Local resident Susie Lawhorne said she went to the city’s Central Park and measured out the permitted area, saying it was around 220 feet from a playground and around the same length from the surrounding residential neighborhood.

People supporting the group against Pride activities expressed surprise that their efforts attracted the attention and amount of negative reaction they have, disputing accusations of bigotry.

“I know Jack — he’s in my Sunday School class and he does not deserve to be slandered and demonized like he has by simply questioning and voicing legitimate concerns about our community events,” said local resident Sherian Berteau.

“To be clear, this is way past a culture war, as some people like to call it. This is a war on the truth and on traditional family values.”

She referenced her letter to the editor of The News-Leader that stirred up activity in the community.

Berteau summed up the letter as addressing “the bizarre, upside-down world that we are living in now, concerning extreme ideologies, ‘woke mob’ mentality and the increasingly aggressive agenda of the gay community.”

“And yes I know I am a White woman, but I am not a White supremacist, or a transphobic homophobe. I’d like to know who had the authority to declare that being a patriotic, God-fearing Christian with traditional family values as being a right-wing extremist bent on destroying our democracy. More lies.”

Regardless, when Bean announced there would be no change to the permit, a cheer rose from those gathered.

Local resident Mary Negron recalled how after living in a number of places, Fernandina Beach felt most like home, a place where people could be free to be themselves. She touched on the fact that her mother, who came to the United States from Japan, had friends who were sent to the World War II internment camps.

“American citizens who could not help anything about their origin,” Negron said, referencing the detainees. “And I feel that about many of my brothers and sisters who are a part of the Pride community. I think they should be able to stand up with pride. I think we should all be able to, and we should all be able to welcome anyone who comes to this community.”

Libby Drury, another local resident, touched on how efforts like CDF’s brings shame upon a community of people that already has concerning suicide rates.

“If there was just one situation where there was one person dressed in drag at a parade, I mean, was there any harm done to any kids at the last gathering?” Drury said. “Was anybody hurt? It’s like any parade. It’s like the MLK parade. People need (others with whom they can identify).”

She said the recent anti-LGBT push is worrying because it appears to be an effort to bully a whole segment of the population.

“It used to be gay marriage,” Drury said. “Now it’s flipped over to drag shows. I really don’t understand why people can’t coexist in Central Park, have a nice time with each other.” 

During Commissioners’ comments at the end of the meeting, Commissioner Darron Ayscue characterized the public comment period as a good discussion.

“I do hope that those two sides will get together and discuss their issues and their differences,” Ayscue said.

“It’s wonderful to hear the comments and the feedback come to us as Commissioners, but I really think that the root issue could really be resolved if those two organizations got together and spoke, and everyone share ideas on how to make our city even better than it is.”

Wes Wolfe

Wes Wolfe is a reporter who's worked for newspapers across the South, winning press association awards for his work in Georgia and the Carolinas. He lives in Jacksonville and previously covered state politics, environmental issues and courts for the News-Leader in Fernandina Beach. You can reach Wes at [email protected] and @WesWolfeFP. Facebook: facebook.com/wes.wolfe


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