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A Texas culture clash: Dueling parades over the meaning of Christmas

Drag queens Felicia Enspire, Alexandria Van Cartier and Sedonya Face in the city-sponsored parade. (Sergio Flores for The Washington Post)

TAYLOR, Tex. — The trouble started at last year’s Christmas parade, when students from St. Mary’s Catholic School watched as two drag queens aboard the first Taylor Pride float danced and lip synced to Christmas carols beneath a glittering rainbow arch.

Afterward, a St. Mary’s priest complained to the Rev. Jeff Ripple, an evangelical pastor on the ministers’ alliance that ran the annual parade with the city. Ahead of this year’s parade, Ripple’s group changed the parade’s entry rules, requiring that floats must “not conflict with traditional and biblical family values.”

Now city officials were in a bind.

In Texas and other red states, Republican legislators who hold majority control have increasingly targeted the gay community, particularly drag performances. Last month, a Texas lawmaker introduced legislation to criminally charge those who host drag shows that allow minors, part of a slate of proposed laws targeting LGBTQ Texans ahead of the legislative session in January.

Yet Taylor, a suburb of 16,800 and a Texas barbecue trail fixture about 35 miles northeast of Austin, has supported a variety of events as it has grown more diverse: a Martin Luther King Jr. Day march, Juneteenth and Taylor Pride Day, alongside traditional holiday celebrations. The Christmas parade, as officials saw it, was a time to come together in the historic downtown square for a Hallmark-style float competition and Christmas tree lighting.

“We couldn’t co-sponsor an event that wasn’t open to everybody in the city,” said Stacey Osborne, a city spokeswoman. “Not only did we not want to open up the city to any type of legal action, but more importantly we have worked hard to make the city a welcoming place.”

But when it came to the ministers, she said, “We didn’t want to necessarily leave them in the lurch.”

City officials settled on a compromise: Pastors could still have their Christmas Parade of Lights on Saturday, but instead of co-sponsoring it, the city would hold a second parade immediately afterward along the same Main Street route, the Very Merry Holiday Parade. It would be open to all.

Instead of quelling debate, the dueling parades divided Taylor, sparking a war on words online that grew even more pointed in the aftermath of the November attack on an LGBTQ club in Colorado Springs. As Saturday’s parade day approached, pressure grew to choose sides over how to define inclusivity, Christianity and the spirit of Christmas.

“Very sad that you bring shame on the Christian community in this way. I’ve seen their float and there is nothing raunchy about it, my kids loved it,” Loren Williams Gasaway wrote on the ministers group’s Facebook page. “You don’t get to decide who celebrates Christmas. You are creating an environment of hate and fear, that is what leads men to commit mass murders.”

A pastor organizing the first parade, the Rev. Shane Allen, responded that he was “glad to see a group of Christians actually stand for what the Bible says instead of bowing down to culture.”

“It’s voices like yours that gets churches firebombed and shot up,” he wrote.

Critics applied to join the city-sponsored second parade out of spite. One said he planned to decorate his float with Confederate flags, which he insisted met the city’s criteria of being holiday-themed because they represented “a Southern Christmas.” In the spirit of inclusivity, Osborne said, he was approved to participate.

City Council member Robert Garcia — a U.S. Army veteran who attends Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and volunteers with the Knights of Columbus — met Ripple and Allen for dinner in town at Mariachis De Jalisco. He figured Ripple, who volunteers as a police chaplain and had prayed with him in the past, would listen and unify the parades “for the spirit of Christmas.”

“Christmas is a time for all of us to put our differences aside and to come closer together as a country and a community,” Garcia said.

The ministers vented about seeing drag queens in last year’s parade and, Garcia said, “told me I was ‘misinterpreting’ the scriptures and I was not taught the Bible correctly.”

“The conversation got heated.”

Garcia said the pastors agreed to help him “calm the frustrations and division in the Taylor community.” Instead, Ripple wrote an editorial last month about the parades at the request of the Taylor Press, restating his objection to including Taylor Pride.

Ripple said in an interview that he supported Taylor Pride’s right to exist. But, he added, “We do not feel like drag queens dancing in the Christmas parade, that these are the values we want to communicate to our children.”

“I don’t hate LGBTQ individuals. I don’t hate adulterers. There’s lots of sin out there. I believe the most loving thing I can do is tell people the truth,” he said. “That if they don’t repent of their sin — and that’s any sinner — they will spend an eternity separated from God.”

Taylor’s chamber of commerce and school district chose not to join either parade. The school district also barred student groups from participating. Few local businesses posted signs for either parade. But the controversy spurred others to take a stand, Ripple said.

“People have thanked me for just standing up for my beliefs. I’m sure the people in Taylor Pride have received the same support on their end,” he said.

Denise Rodgers, president of Taylor Pride, said that while the group has received local support, she wished the city had pulled the ministers’ parade permit.

“Just the fact that they are allowed to have this exclusive parade on public property is already breaking the rules,” Rodgers said of the ministers’ group. “They have to choose a side. Because this has become a hate group. And we saw what happened with that … in Colorado.”

Protesters have frequented Taylor Pride events since the group formed two years ago, Rodgers said, usually about a dozen people from local churches.

Taylor’s City Council was scheduled to address the parade controversy at its meeting Nov. 10, until it was removed from the agenda. Regina Baker, 37, whose son identifies as LGBTQ, nonetheless spoke about it during the public comment period, calling on the city to pull the pastors’ parade permit.

“This group has shown up to harass people any time LGBTQIA celebrations are being held, and they do so in a way that has a potential to traumatize our youth and vulnerable populations,” Baker said.

About half the gallery applauded. The other half grimaced or looked distressed.

“That’s a testament to how it’s changing,” Baker said afterward of the city. “Five years ago, it would have been all arms crossed, blank-faced.”

Baker said that after the meeting, “it was people coming out of the woodwork to say I was right or I was wrong. There was no common ground.”

Accusations flew on Facebook among neighbors: of grooming, homophobia and ignorance. Some praised the city’s inclusivity, while others condemned its “anti-Christmas parade” as “intended to steal the joy away from Christmas.”

A delivery driver, Baker had moved to Taylor from Austin a few years ago with her now 18-year-old son for the same reason many have: lower housing costs and the promise of bucolic small-town life. As vitriol spread online, she became afraid to accompany the Taylor Pride float.

She contacted Rodgers, the pride group’s president, who reassured her there would be a police presence and armed allies marching with their float — a group called Veterans for Equality.

Baker also started receiving private messages of support from residents who had never discussed LGBTQ issues with her before — “quiet allies” — and decided to take part.

The two drag queens at last year’s parade, Sedonya Face and Felicia Enspire, made plans to return with a third, Alexandria Van Cartier.

Felicia Enspire would lip-sync to Christmas carols in the same outfit she wore last year: a modest Mrs. Claus-meets-Mariah-Carey dress with three-quarter-length sleeves and black leggings, which she considered “very family-friendly.” Her husband worried about her safety, but she had confidence local police would keep the peace.

By Saturday, 33 floats, trucks and other parade entries had registered with the ministers, 27 with the city. Most critics of the city parade withdrew, including the Confederate flag float.

As floats for the first parade assembled for judging behind the city football stadium at 6 p.m., the mood was festive. No protesters appeared. St. Mary’s won best individual float and led the first parade with football players and a walking bell choir from the private school.

Carolers sang “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” On Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana Church’s float, Ociel Carrillo, 65, straightened the blue striped robe he wore to play the role of Joseph while his wife stood next to him portraying Mary.

The couple said they joined the ministers’ parade to “stick to God’s truth.”

“I worry more about the children,” said Diane Carrillo, 65. “As it is, some of them come from homes that are not stable, and then they see all of these things, and they’re even more confused.”

Hundreds of revelers lined the one-mile parade route, many bundled in jackets, hats and scarves, cheering and exchanging Christmas wishes.

About 20 minutes after the first parade began, the last of its floats turned off Main Street, followed by Santa in a tractor-drawn sleigh and people carrying signs reading “Jesus Is Lord” and “Merry Christmas thank you for coming.”

Then the second parade started, led by the police chief in a patrol car and the mayor aboard a firetruck. Most people who had watched the first parade stayed for the second, cheering and applauding passing floats.

Felicia Enspire waved to the crowd, lip-syncing to her favorite holiday song, Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” under the lighted rainbow arch. A few protesters in “Prayer Works” shirts prayed and shouted “Jesus loves you, repent now!”

Among them was Christy Ballard, 54, who said she wasn’t sure drag queens belonged at an event that attracted children.

“I pray that they will find out the truth,” she said.

Others disagreed. Lidia Salvatierra, 44, watched passing floats with her wife, having traveled from a town about 20 miles away to support a niece in the city’s parade.

“I commend Taylor for standing up for equality and inclusiveness. It’s just the principle of the matter,” Salvatierra said.

From her perch atop Taylor Pride’s float, Felicia Enspire said, she couldn’t hear opponents’ prayers, just cheers.

“After all the rumors that have been spread and all the drama in the past month, it was really nice to see that the majority of the community was there to support us,” she said.

Baker marched alongside the float holding a “Taylor Pride” banner and saw protesters, but she wasn’t afraid. Instead, she thought: “There is a need for this.”

Rev. Ripple was pleased, too, noting the ministers’ parade “upheld the values that we sought to guard.”

Following the parades, St. Mary’s hosted a cookies and cocoa gathering in its gym, while Taylor Pride adjourned to a nearby antique store for an after-party. Spectators crowded Heritage Square, where Mayor Brandt Rydell — wearing a green sequined blazer, a Santa hat and a string of lights around his neck — led a countdown to light the tree.

Children squealed with joy. Adults cheered “Merry Christmas!” A honky-tonk band played Christmas tunes, and the mayor relaxed.

“I understand people have differences of opinions on things,” Rydell said, and “social media stokes a lot of division. But in the end, things worked out.”

Rydell said he hopes that next year, the parades can unite. In the meantime, city officials will be working on a policy for co-sponsoring future events.

Moravec reported from Taylor and Hennessy-Fiske from Houston.