UPDATE: Clergy, LGBTQ+ Advocates React to Klan Comparisons at Niceville Council

Several citizens, including a Catholic Deacon, called for the city not to rent out the Niceville Community Center to a nonprofit that advocates for the LGBTQ+ community at Tuesday's City Council meeting. Now, the Catholic Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee and members of the LGBTQ+ community weigh in on the incident and what it means for Niceville.

Tuesday night’s Niceville City Council meeting turned some heads in the community. 

A long story short – some 25-30 residents came to the city council meeting to make their voices heard – they do not want the City of Niceville to rent out its community center, where everything from Easter Egg Hunts to Chamber of Commerce Breakfasts, are held – to be used for a Pride Day event by Niceville PFLAG, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group, on June 1 of this year. 

Those present accused the event organizers of promoting the sexualization of children or other lurid activities. 

The Catholic Church’s Response to Holy Name Parish Deacon’s Comments. 

At the meeting, Holy Name of Jesus Parish Deacon Tom Elsesser compared the holding of a Gay Pride Day event at the community center with the hosting of a Ku Klux Klan rally. 

“Yes, you’re right. [Children] don’t have to go [to the show],” Deacon Elsesser said, “but they shouldn’t be forced not to go because it’s something that shouldn’t be done at all.”

Mid Bay News reached out to Deacon Elsesser for further comments on the situation. Should he choose to respond, we will update the story. 

In a statement to Mid Bay News, Catholic Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee Bishop William Wack said, “Tom Elsesser gave his opinions as a private citizen at a public meeting of the Niceville City Council. He was not speaking as a deacon, and thus his views are not those of the diocese or his parish.”

Leader of the Catholic Church, His Holiness Pope Francis, has weighed in many times – to some of the faithful’s joy and other’s chagrin. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, a traditionally conservative body, quoted The Holy Father’s Doctrinal Office in a recent post on their website: “A Catholic priest can bless a gay or other unmarried couple as long as it is not a formal liturgical blessing and does not give the impression that the Catholic Church is blessing the union as if it were a marriage, the Vatican doctrinal office said.”

Response from the LGBTQ+ Community

Dr. Misti Schneidewind serves as the treasurer of the local LGBTQ+ group PFLAG Niceville, Which is the only LGBTQ+ group in Okaloosa County and one of three groups west of the Apalachicola River in Florida. 

She also happens to have a daughter who is gay. 

So, I was surprised when I got on the phone with her and asked about her initial thoughts—and she told me she wasn’t at all surprised. In fact, it was a little bit of an old tune to her. “It normally is about this far out from our event every year that something of this level occurs. It’s never easy, but it’s right on time,” she said. 

But the group has taken an entrepreneurial tack with this latest attack – PFLAG Niceville turned the comments at the council meeting into a fundraising opportunity. As of Wednesday night, they’ve raised more than $1,100 to cover the expenses of Pride Day. 

The 2024 Pride Day is the sixth PFLAG Pride rally in Niceville. The first one – in 2017, was organized by a separate group. PFLAG took over in 2018. Except for one year in 2020 because of COVID-19 – it’s been an annual event. 

PFLAG President Dr. David Simmons has lived in the Niceville area for 19 years – and helped to start the organization back in 2018. The mother organization began in a church basement in New York City 50 years ago. He says that the support of the organization and Pride Day gives the community hope in a place where they may often not feel accepted. “We’re trying to create safe spaces where the 23% of Generation Z who identifies as queer [can feel safe],” Simmons said, “It’s absolutely to be expected that there are going to be people who rise up and fight against this. And it’s very sad because they’re just fighting against a vulnerable, marginalized community, and they are fighting against love.”

Schneidewind agrees and sees the opposition as a tiny group. “This is a small percentage of the population that feels this way. We can’t let their loud, hate-filled voices take over.”  

What About The Rental Of The Community Center?

At Tuesday night’s meeting of the City Council, City Manager David Deitch  told the crowd PFLAG Niceville had not yet rented the space to be used for their event. 

“As of right now, this organization does not have a valid contract with the city of Niceville,” Deitch told the crowd. The City Manager also noted that he has control over the renting out of the community center to various parties in his role, not the council, because it’s an operational duty. 

I asked Dr. Simmons directly if he disagreed with that assessment. He paused for a beat and then told me he disagreed. “I’m trying to think if I should comment on this because we’re kind of in the midst of securing a contract, and I don’t want to jeopardize anything,” Simmons said, “We did sign a contract back in the early part of February, and gave them a check for that space, which they cashed. There is an implied consent when that happens, but nevertheless, we’re hopeful [City Manager Deitch’s] concerns can be resolved. We’re a non-profit, just like any other. We’re working to help the LGBTQ+ people who live in Niceville, pay taxes, and are good citizens.”

We reached back out to City Manager Deitch to verify with him whether or not money has changed hands between the city and PFLAG. Should he respond with more information, we will update the story here. 

Long-Term Consequences For the Local Economy. Is It Easier to Be Gay In Northwest Florida Than It Was In the Past?

In short, maybe just a little bit. But PFLAG Niceville argues that the longer the moral arc of the universe in this situation, the greater the opportunity cost for the City of Niceville. 

While high housing costs tend to be the major driving factor for young people to leavethis issue has driven local members of the LGBTQ+ community away from coming back to the area after college or workforce training. 

“I don’t want to say yes [life has gotten easier for LGBTQ+ people] because that takes away from all of the terrible things that are still happening,” Dr. Schneidewind said, “But I also think that part of the reason why these very loud, angry voices are digging in so very hard, is because they know that it is actually getting better. So, they are clawing at whatever they can to make it terrible.”

But some of the economic damage from prejudice may have already occurred in humanity’s oldest form of protest—voting with one’s feet. A report by Miles Davis-Matthews in Data For Progress titled “Fading Rainbows: A Case for Bolstering Social Infrastructure in the Rural Queer South” reveals that Queer people in the American South are more likely to say they would change some things in their lives. 

Drs. Schneidewind and Simmons both say they’ve seen ample cases of this in the Northwest Florida LGBTQ+ Community. “I know that to be true,” Dr. Simmons said. 

Dr. Schneidewind points to her own daughter as proof positive. Her daughter, the valedictorian of the class of 2018, has left for Orlando and won’t return. “She doesn’t feel safe here, she doesn’t feel comfortable here,” Schneidewind explained, “She was very involved at Niceville High School. She still has her name on the Niceville High School track and holds records. Her photos hang on the wall, and she’s in the Hall of Fame. Students, teachers, and faculty liked her. [NHS Principal Charles] Marello wrote her glowing letters of recommendation, and even with that, she doesn’t feel safe or comfortable here.”

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