Anti-Mississippi Backlash Forces Central Park Picnic Cancellation

Mississippi’s Republican governor, Phil Bryant, greeting guests at the New York Mississippi Society’s annual Central Park picnic in 2014 as protesters drew attention to an earlier, more ambiguous “religious freedom” bill aimed at the LGBT community enacted that year. | CALEB-MICHAEL FILES

Mississippi’s Republican governor, Phil Bryant, greeting guests at the New York Mississippi Society’s annual Central Park picnic in 2014 as protesters drew attention to an earlier, more ambiguous “religious freedom” bill aimed at the LGBT community enacted that year. | CALEB-MICHAEL FILES

The New York Mississippi Society has canceled the 37th edition of an annual picnic in the heart of Central Park that promotes Mississippi culture and tourism due to the backlash against the passage of a virulently anti-LGBT law back home. The picnic was to have taken place on June 11 on Dead Road between the Naumburg Bandshell and the Sheep Meadow.

Queer Nation had promised a protest at the event.

“This fundraiser marks a heritage of racism and celebrates hatred and bigotry against LGBT people in Mississippi,” the group said in a statement several days before the cancellation on April 12. “It has no place in our city. We will attend this picnic to tell New Yorkers that this city honors diversity and inclusion.”

New York ex-pats back down, citing concerns over protests against that state’s targeting of LGBT community

A call and email to the Society from Gay City News on April 11 about the potential protest and the Society’s stance on the anti-LGBT law elicited no response. The story of the cancellation broke the next day in the Jackson Free Press, which noted that the Society had issued a press statement referring to the “unfortunate enactment” of the new law. An online petition calling on New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo to cancel the picnic was cited in the Free Press story, even though the change.org effort had garnered only three signatures as of April 12.

When Gay City News asked the mayor’s office last week if the city would lift the permit for the event, Rosemary Boeglin of the press office responded via email, “The Mayor’s non-essential City-funded travel ban [to Mississippi] does not have any implications for this event. Though we strongly object to recent discriminatory legislation in the state of Mississippi, to preclude the event on that basis could impinge on the constitutional rights of this organization.”

The picnic enjoyed a permit to cook (fried catfish) inside the park, a special exemption to a ban on cooking inside the park granted by Mayor Ed Koch in 1985 and never rescinded. De Blasio’s office had not responded to a question about whether that special permit would be lifted by the time the picnic was nixed.

The cancellation of the picnic by the New York organizers blindsided the Mississippi Development Authority that promotes business and tourism in the state and cooperates with the picnic.

“The New York Mississippi Society has made the decision to cancel the Mississippi Picnic in Central Park,” Jeff Rent of the Authority told the Jackson newspaper. “We are disappointed in not only their decision, but also their lack of discussion with Mississippi partners before cancelling the event.”

COVER IMAGE BY MICHAEL SHIREY.

COVER IMAGE BY MICHAEL SHIREY.

Mississippi has been hit by numerous protests over the new law from corporations, 95 prominent Mississippi-born writers, and Bryan Adams, the legendary rocker who canceled a concert there that had been set for April 14. Out lesbian ABC news reporter Robin Roberts, a native of Mississippi, is on the cover of the state tourism magazine this month and issued a statement saying, “What we all deserve to have in common is the right to be treated equally.” And the US Navy is moving the commissioning of the USS Portland from a Mississippi port to Portland itself after the Oregon city’s Mayor Charlie Hales refused to travel to the state.

The Central Park picnic has attracted a large number of Mississippi ex-pats and been attended by every governor but one over the years. The current governor, Phil Bryant, was at the 2014 picnic after a more ambiguous anti-gay law — also based in the so-called “religious freedom” of those wishing to discriminate — had been enacted and was protested by a small group led by gay activist Todd Allen, who had driven up from Mississippi to deliver a message to the governor. Gay City News reported on that confrontation exclusively. Some vendors and chefs at the picnic and surrounding events that year made efforts to express solidarity with the LGBT community.

Allen, now an equality coordinator at the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, wrote in an email, “Our response to HB1523 has been to broaden and to strengthen our coalition of community organizations who fight against the various forms of state-sanctioned discrimination that our Governor and our legislature are making into law. We have deemed this legislative session ‘the Confederate Spring’ when the latent racism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia have sprung up from the ground like bitter seeds we thought were dead and gone.”

Allen is part of the We Are Mississippi coalition fighting this law and other regressive legislation in the state and pushing for passage in 2017 of the Mississippi Civil Rights Act, a comprehensive anti-discrimination measure covering sexual orientation and gender identity as well as race, religion, and other categories typically included in such laws.

The theme of this year’s picnic was “Nothing but the Blues,” a “tribute to Mississippi’s own B.B. King.” Blues indeed.

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