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Will the Small Michigan Town of Ortonville Allow a Gen Z-Founded Abigail's Pride to Continue?

Village council denies event permit for grassroots Michigan fest started by 14-year-old

Sarah Bricker Hunt

Ortonville, a politically conservative enclave of around 1,300 people in northern Oakland County, isn’t the first place that springs to mind when thinking about LGBTQ+ Pride events in Michigan. Thanks to a conversation between 14-year-old Abigail Rowe and her mom in 2020, however, Ortonville has become an annual must-do Pride fest destination for hundreds of local Pridegoers and a haven for people living in conservative pockets of Michigan that sometimes feel hostile to the queer community.  

Rowe launched the Abigail’s Pride non-profit organization and an annual Pride event in downtown Ortonville in 2022, and the inaugural event was a smash, drawing hundreds of people to the town for the colorful, high-spirited celebration of joy and queer affirmation. The 2023 event was even bigger, and Rowe is anticipating continued success in 2024 — that is, if the Ortonville Village Council reverses a recent decision to deny the group’s event permit. 

At the Feb. 26 council meeting, Abigail’s Pride organizers expected an easy approval when they submitted their annual event permit application for a June 1 festival in downtown Ortonville, but the council rejected the paperwork in a 5-1 vote, citing concerns about safety and the potential impact of road closures on local businesses and residents during special events. Abigail’s Pride issued a statement expressing skepticism about the council’s true intentions — after all, the event has been held successfully (and safely) for the past two years, and the council has recently approved permits for similarly sized events that will shut down local roads. “The whole situation just doesn’t make sense,” said a statement from Abigail’s Pride following the council decision. “Why did the council deny a permit only for the LGBTQ+ event? We vow to pursue the event in a similar format to the others held in the village. Continual denial would reek of homophobia.”

Pride Source reached out to Ortonville Village Manager Ryan Madis and asked for the council’s response to the insinuation that the decision could be rooted in homophobia. Madis said via email that the council is “eager to review” a new special event permit from Abigail’s Pride and emphasized the concerns councilmembers mentioned at the February meeting, which included safety and road closures and the impact to local businesses and residents because of street closures for special events. 

“The village’s process provides different levels of review for taxing entities and non-profit or for-profit entities,” he added. “Still, the village council will consider further information and review it prior to the next meeting. We look forward to working with Abigail’s Pride and to finding a beneficial outcome for all parties.” 

Rowe told Pride Source she is skeptical about the council’s reasoning for the permit denial. “Their main reason for denying the permit — that businesses don’t make as much money when the roads are closed — doesn’t make much sense. Most, if not all, of these businesses have come to us and said they make just as much, if not significantly more, on the day of the Pride festival than they would any other Saturday. A lot of them this year have actually written in letters after our permit got denied, saying they support the event and are OK with the road closure.” Rowe said the organization plans to include those letters of support in their new application. Ultimately, Abigail’s Pride is not willing to budge on road closures. “It’s a safety concern,” she added. “I can’t hold the event in good conscience without having the roads close for the safety of our vendors, volunteers and everyone attending the event.” 

Abigail's Pride, 2022, in downtown Ortonville, Michigan. Photo: Facebook
Abigail's Pride, 2022, in downtown Ortonville, Michigan. Photo: Facebook

Ensuring safety and comfort for all has always been a critical goal for Rowe’s grassroots Pride festival. “It’s one day where people can come and celebrate themselves and their families and their relationships without being judged,” she said. In her “very conservative town,” Rowe said she was encountering bullying and harassment, as were other students. “So I just wanted to give this to them, and to me — one day where we can live freely and have joy and love.” 

Rowe is facing the unexpected roadblock with the same vigor and passion she had when she launched the first Abigail’s Pride event in 2022, spurred by a conversation with her mom in 2020. “We were driving home from my grandma’s house, and I had only recently come out,” she remembers. “I looked at my mom and said, ‘I want to go to the Pride Festival, but I can’t drive and there’s none around here. Someone needs to get one started here.’ My mom said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ And I said, ‘OK, I will.’” From that moment, Rowe was laser-focused on launching the event, pulling together a team and planning for more than a year.

“It was a huge success, and I can’t even describe the joy I saw,” she said. 

The 2023 event was equally successful, and while Rowe feels as motivated as ever to organize bigger and better fests each year, she does feel a little discouraged at times, especially when encountering negative feedback from community members and people outside Ortonville. “When I feel that way, that maybe I should just stop, it’s like the universe will send me a vibe,” she said. “We might get an email from a parent that says they are so glad we do this because their daughter just came out and said she doesn’t feel safe in Ortonville. But she can at this event.”

The next regular council meeting is set for March 25. A special meeting was announced to address the permit application issue on March 13 and then quickly canceled. Ortonville resident Carol Ulman questions what might be going on behind the scenes. “I have a feeling they might be trying to delay until it’s past the 60-day requirement for permits, or they are speaking with legal counsel,” she said. “The next meeting would be 68 days before the event.” 

Rowe said that should the council ultimately deny the permit, she’s working on a backup plan and a “backup plan for the backup plan.” Ulman plans to support Rowe and Abigail’s Pride no matter how it all shakes out. “She is such an inspiration to myself and to others,” she told Pride Source. “She has been an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community and has done it with grace and compassion while hate has been aimed towards her and her supporters.” 

Some of that hate has been evident in the Facebook group Whining in Ortonville, where a user named Ra Sun commented under a post about Abigail’s Pride, “...it’s weird that people want to have an event that revolves around s**ual orientation…for kids.” User Andru Standle replied, “no one wants to see that shit. Find a park for your party. Keep it off our streets and away from our kids. Go groom somewhere else.” 

From the Whining in Ortonville Facebook page.
From the Whining in Ortonville Facebook page.

Comments like this only strengthen the belief held by Ulman and Abigail’s Pride organizers that holding a Pride fest in this conservative town is critical for the LGBTQ+ and ally community there. “Being a 58-year-old lesbian,” Ulman said, “it is quite an honor to know the younger generation has such courage to carry on the cause of inclusion and equality for the LGBTQ+ community. Abigail deserves every bit of support we can give her because we are in a battle with the town council and all the hate and misinformation propaganda being put out there.”  

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