Cedric Sturdevant, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Community Health PIER (Prevention. Intervention Education & Research), a non-profit health organization based in Greenville, MS, proved naysayers wrong when the inaugural River City Black Gay Pride successfully launched on July 20 at Maggie’s Event Center followed by a jam-packed two-day schedule at Harlow’s Casino Resort & Spa in the socially conservative Mississippi town.
“They said it couldn’t be done in rural Mississippi,” Sturdevant said. “They said folks weren’t ready. And my thought was, who’s to say they’re not [ready] if you don’t present it? How will you know if they’re not ready for it?”
With fiscal support from Gilead Sciences, ViiV Pharmaceuticals, and Aaron E. Henry Community Health Services Center, nearly 150 Black LGBTQ people and their allies gathered in the Mississippi Delta to celebrate on the heels of a recently failed proposal for a Pride Parade in downtown Greenville that, according to Sturdevant, earned support from Mayor Eric Simmons but encountered fierce opposition from Greenville residents. Simmons, an LGBTQ ally and supporter of Greenville’s queer community, addressed attendees on day two before the start of several panel discussions ranging from LGBTQ health, faith, parenting, and the trans experience, among others, during the Health Summit.
“This is going to be a community of love, not hate,” Simmons said. “We declared an Equality Day. And we declared Equality Day because we wanted everyone to know not only are we open for business, but we wanted to make sure that everyone was respected. Discrimination in no form will be tolerated during the Simmons Administration.”
A 30-second television ad promoting the inaugural event aired on Greenville’s local ABC affiliate during daytime programming, another first in the Delta.
“It was important for me to show people that their way of thinking about the LGBTQ community is common, but it’s just not real,” Sturdevant says. “Get to know us before you start judging.”
Gloria Sturdevant, Principal Consultant and Co-Founder of Community Health PIER, also Sturdevant’s sister, tells GLAAD her brother’s courage to be vocal about his identity as an out gay man living with HIV in rural Mississippi has been a driving force in shifting attitudes about LGBTQ people and tackling HIV stigma in the Delta, even in their immediate family.
“Ced[ric] has been a staple, not just in the Mississippi Delta, but in the United States. He is an advocate,” Gloria says. “We come from a small town–Metcalfe, Mississippi. We had uncles and people in our community that frowned on the gay community and then came Ced. And I have uncles who said, ‘We didn’t know any better until we talked to Ced.’ And they’ve apologized.”
“There’s a lot of issues around, not just racism here, but homophobia, issues with gender, sexism, all of those things because of where…and I hate using this term, but it is what it is—the Bible Belt,” says Jackson, MS, resident Christopher U. Lane, Community Liasion at Gilead Sciences and a Health Summit moderator.
Lane tells GLAAD that River City Black Gay Pride will be a signature event in the Delta where the Black LGBTQ community can occupy space where respect for their identity and safety are non-negotiables.
We’re On The Move
For Sturdevant, who entered the Harlow’s Casino Resort & Spa ballroom to the 1979 disco hit “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” by soul duo McFadden & Whitehead, River City Black Gay Pride was not only historic but triumphant.
“If you felt we’ve been held down before, I know you’ll refuse to be held down any more,” crooned the classic duo over the ballroom loudspeakers—the Black liberation anthem now taking on a new and deeply personal meaning for Sturdevant and those existing at the intersection of Blackness and queerness.
“We are making history right now,” Sturdevant said, overcome with emotion and no longer holding back tears. “We’re still here and ain’t no stopping us because we’re on the move. This has been a dream,” he shared with the audience.
“Cedric has wanted to plan this since August 2018, said Corey Burnside, a former Greenville resident now residing in Dallas, TX, and mentee of Sturdevant who returned for River City Black Gay Pride.
“City Council told him no so many times. Cedric scheduled meetings with the Mayor. He did not give up until there wasn’t a single no on the board about Pride.”
“You can do whatever you want to do,” Sturdevant said, reiterating a message he often shares during public talks. “Don’t let people put you in a box. That’s my whole thing.”
“The Mississippi Delta belongs to all of us,” said Gloria.
“Events like [Pride] and other events that we’ve been having across the Delta, it is the first, but it won’t be the last,” she said to thunderous applause.
Should enthusiasm and turnout be metrics for the continuation of River City Black Gay Pride—2024 is poised to be another historic year for the Black LGBTQ community in the Mississippi Delta.