Gay rights group claims longtime holiday parade is banning them

Updated: Nov. 29, 2017 at 12:31 PM EST
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ROWAN COUNTY, N.C. (Joe Marusak and Tim Funk | The Charlotte Observer) - The leader of a Rowan County gay rights group is accusing organizers of the 58-year-old Holiday Caravan Parade of discrimination after a float she and supporters were to ride on last week was banned from participating.

The parade organizers said they had to act because the float's sponsor, Avita Pharmacy, violated the rules by letting a separate group advertise its message with "signage, apparel, fliers" that were not approved beforehand.

The separate group was PFLAG, which includes parents of LGBTQ children. Donna Brown Odrosky, president of the group's Salisbury-Rowan chapter, said the parade's organizers objected to her members' attire: rainbow-colored Mardi Gras beads, rainbow designs on their hats and black PFLAG shirts.

Besides the PFLAG members, some of the nine Avita riders on the float also had small rainbow-colored flags. Rainbow colors have become a symbol of the LGBTQ community.

Avita, whose customers include HIV patients and which has sponsored PFLAG and Salisbury Pride events, invited Odrosky and three other PFLAG members to join its float after some planned Avita riders indicated they couldn't make the parade.

"We were just trying to support Velerie (Levy, the local Avita pharmacy manager) and her work at the pharmacy," said Odrosky. "We feel like we were discriminated against (by parade organizers) because of our shirts and our rainbow jewelry."

PFLAG's ejection from the 140-unit parade, which goes through Spencer and Salisbury, isn't Odrosky's only complaint against organizers of the privately run Holiday Caravan Parade.

She said last Wednesday's confrontation follows three years of failed attempts by Salisbury-Rowan PFLAG to get its own float in the parade.

Each year, she said, her group has mailed a check to the parade committee to cover the $200-plus entry fee. All the checks and applications were sent back without explanation, she said.

Odrosky, whose 21-year-old daughter is gay, said she and other members of PFLAG plan to take their case against parade organizers to the Salisbury City Council on Dec. 5 and to the town council in Spencer sometime after that.

The municipalities do not sponsor the parade, but they do issue permits for road use and provide police for traffic control.

"I have a speech prepared. And we will be there with our (PFLAG) T-shirts on," Odrosky said about the upcoming council meetings. "I've lived here since 1980. I raised my child (now a student at Appalachian State University) in Rowan County. ... And she will not come back to Salisbury because of the way (LGBTQ) people are treated. "

Wesley Perry, a Rowan businessman who is the main parade organizer, did not return phone calls from the Observer. But an emailed statement from someone at the Holiday Caravan Parade website said the pharmacy failed to mention that another group would be advertised on its float.

In its statement, the parade group said an Avita Pharmacy representative had emailed last Tuesday, saying that half its riders couldn't participate and that they wanted PFLAG members to take their place.

In response, the statement said, the parade committee agreed that the pharmacy could invite other participants. But since the entry was approved for Avita "no other business, signage, apparel, fliers, etc., could be displayed without prior approval," according to the parade committee's statement.

The parade committee also said in its statement that it had barred other participants in the past for showing up with different names that weren't submitted as part of the entry.

As for PFLAG's claim that it has been continually rebuffed in its bid to sponsor its own float, the parade committee's only comment in a statement was: "You have received incorrect information."

Perry apparently emailed the Salisbury Post to more fully explain the parade committee's action. In its story about the controversy, the Post quoted Perry saying in his email that "we also have the same 'rights' to decline participation at our events from any group or organization which does not reflect the mission, vision and values of our organization."

Avita Pharmacy also sent the Observer a statement: The Louisiana-based corporation said its float was banned "because of our company's rainbow items and decorations that showcase our deeply held values of diversity and inclusion."

The pharmacy also reaffirmed its support for the LGBTQ community and said it would boycott the Holiday Caravan Parade and end its financial support "until the organizers can guarantee a safe and respectful environment for all who wish to attend."

Last week, just before the parade started, parade committee members called in Spencer police to make sure the Avita float did not join the caravan, Odrosky told the Observer.

Reached this week for comment, Spencer Police Chief Mike James said he understood that the rules had been violated.

"I'm told these people (on the Avita float) tried to pull a fast one," he said. "It's to a tee what can be on a float. (Parade organizers) are very strict with their rules."

James said he recalled a time when the sponsor of a float tried at the last minute to add a rider dressed as Santa Claus. But the rules called for only one Santa in the parade, he said, so the second Santa was not allowed.

Asked about allegations that the parade organizers were anti-gay, James said: "I can tell you that our town doesn't discriminate against anybody for race, gender, ethnicity ... or origin."

But Odrosky said her group talked with people on other floats last week, and none said they had to have their attire approved by parade organizers.

By the end of last week, others were denouncing the parade organizers for kicking PFLAG members and the Avita float out of the parade.

"It's a shame that this kind of bigotry has reared its ugly head in a wonderful annual celebration that so many in Salisbury really value," Matt Hirschy of the Raleigh-based Equality NC, an LGBTQ rights group, said in a statement.

And Bob Johnsen, a teacher at Jesse Carson High School in China Grove and a faculty adviser to the Gay-Straight Alliance group, wrote a letter that appeared in Saturday's Salisbury Post.

"PFLAG does a tremendous amount of good in our county for people in the LGBTQ community, who are often marginalized," he wrote. "As a lifelong Rowan County resident, I have attended numerous Holiday Caravan parades with my wife and child, but bigotry can no longer be accepted as a 'tradition' in our county. Until this prejudice is rectified, this will certainly be an event that I will miss."