Pride festivals in Ottawa County this year will take place under an umbrella of concern — but also in defiance of an openly hostile message emanating from county officials.
When the newly elected Ottawa County Board of Commissioners met for the first time on Jan. 3 of this year, one of their first orders of business was to change the county’s vision statement from “Where you belong” to “Where freedom rings” and to dissolve their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Office.
The moves were a clarion call from the board’s right-wing extremist majority that not everyone, and certainly not those from the queer community, were welcome.
The board’s anti-LGBTQ+ agenda was in plain sight for anyone willing to see it. After all, eight out of the 11 commissioners were endorsed by the group Ottawa Impact, the same group that backed so-called “parent-approved” candidates for seats on the Patmos Library board. That’s the same library defunded by voters after officials refused to remove their small LGBTQ+ collection of material.
Further, Ottawa Impact’s website claims public schools have become “indoctrination centers for sexual pleasure, sexual violence, and child sexuality” and takes broad swipes against LGBTQ+ material being made available to students. The site also attacks the trans community, targeting gender-affirming care.
So in that climate, Pride festival organizers say this year has been especially difficult to navigate.
“It’s hard to quantify, which makes it tough to give a statement on it,” she told Pride Source. “I will say that what's happening at the county level is challenging. It's created a culture of fear and mistrust and distrust, especially for folks in marginalized communities, which include LGBTQ+ folks.”
But the actions of the board have extended beyond just the atmosphere of anxiety it has created. It has translated into dollars and cents — or more specifically, a lack thereof.
Leighton-Colburn said that while Ottawa County has in the past provided financial assistance to the festival through sponsorships, this year, under this new board, that has been withdrawn.
“They did not say why, so I can't speak to that, but there is a difference that’s noticeable,” she said. “There's been some delays in fund disbursement for grants that we were awarded, and again, they have not said why. But those kind of delays, plus the lack of financial sponsorship for the festival, are concerning.”
Leighton-Colburn said she can’t say what impact that loss of financial support will have, as they are still in the process of solidifying all of their sponsorships for the festival, but the timing isn’t helpful.
“I'm still working on that, but it sucks to lose any money, especially with the look of the economy right now,” she said. “And also just the national rhetoric surrounding LGBTQ+ identity. We need the support, and it sucks to not get it.”
The lone vote of opposition to the board’s decision to change its vision statement was Commissioner Doug Zylstra, whose district represents the City of Holland.
“That was completely out of the blue,” Zylstra said. “Many people in Ottawa County had really come to appreciate our vision statement of ‘Where you belong,’ and the fact that it was changed within a 10-minute period was pretty shocking. They [the board] were very intentional about certain messages that they want to talk about and wanted to indicate to the community that they were supportive of, and also I think that they wanted to indicate to the community what they weren't supportive of.”
Zylstra said that while he is disappointed in the changes the board’s majority has made, he still wants to find a path forward to try and work together. However, he can’t help but recognize the difference.
“I think before we had a very strong relationship with a lot of groups, including Out On The Lakeshore, that were pursuing equity work that we don't anymore,” he said. “In fact, just the word equity has become a very difficult word around the board.”
When asked if he thought the board’s decision not to provide funding would have a negative effect on the festival, Zylstra said he couldn’t be sure. However, he planned to participate as he has in the past.
“I'll be there,” he said. “I have a booth, I've had a booth for the last three or four years, just an informational booth... what's going on in the county, what's going on the board? So I'll definitely be there and I’m looking forward to seeing the crowds that are there.”
The mere fact that the event will take place stands as evidence that while the commissioners with anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments hold a majority on the board, they don’t necessarily represent a majority of local residents' points of view.
Sponsored by St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, organizers told MLive that it grew out of a Pride worship service two years ago when they expected several dozen attendees and, instead, almost 200 turned out.
“We realized it needed to be something bigger than just something my church does,” MLive reported Cramer telling the city council.
As for Holland’s Pride Festival, Leighton-Colburn says one silver lining of the commission’s actions has been the noticeable support from others in the county.
“I've been very impressed actually with the collaborative spirit of the area,” she said. “Folks have been quite supportive in whatever way they can. Folks want to know if there are ways that they can support us. The vendors we have attracted over the last couple of years have stayed pretty steady, so that's pretty great, honestly. And no matter what's happening with governance at the county level, folks are still on the ground doing the good, hard work.”
But ultimately, Leighton-Colburn says while they can’t ignore what's happening at the county level, it is important to not lose sight of the fact of what the Pride festival is really about.
“It’s a celebration of identity, but it's also a celebration specific to our community here in west Michigan and on the Lakeshore,” she said. “It's a blast. It's family-friendly. There's a lot of really cool stuff to do: activities, food, music and you get to meet a lot of really neat people. So I just hope people come.”