Plan to hold gay pride march stirs trouble on Eastern Shore Some in Millington are 'upset' but defend freedom of expression

November 29, 1998|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

MILLINGTON -- Who said everyone loves a parade?

Residents of this historic Kent County town are learning how wrong that old saying is, as they grapple with a dispute about whether to allow a gay pride march in their midst.

They also are chewing over the meaning of another chestnut, something about "the right of the people peaceably to assemble."

An openly gay 21-year-old resident has sparked another skirmish in the nation's culture wars by declaring that he wants to hold a parade celebrating homosexuality through these picturesque streets at the headwaters of the Chester River.

Prompted by the man's plans, town officials found they have no rules governing parades, which have been held occasionally in this community of 450. So the spare-time mayor and two council members drew up an ordinance, which they intend to adopt this week.

"It's not a gay parade ordinance; it's a parade ordinance, simple as that," said Mayor R. Dennis Hager, who noted that the town has had two processions in the past eight years. "The whole reason for doing this is protection of the people who live along the parade route."

The proposed law, which would require parade sponsors to give two weeks' notice, carry insurance and clean up after themselves, does not say that town officials will decide who can and who can't march through their town.

That does not go far enough to suit one local minister, who opposes allowing an activity he believes to be sinful.

"If God doesn't accept it, then we shouldn't either," said the Rev. Scott Kreh, pastor of the Evangelical Christian Church.

Kreh canceled worship services on two Wednesday nights so that he and members of his small congregation could attend the council's hearings on the ordinance.

In a recent interview, the 36-year-old minister and father of three recounted how the Millington congregation, which had shrunk to seven people when he arrived 2 1/2 years ago, has grown to more than 30.

"What kind of spiritual leader would I be if I just sat back and allowed things to take place that God has called 'sin' and an abomination?" he asked in a letter to the Kent County News, a local weekly.

Standing with Constitution

Hager and the council members say it is not legal for them to pick and choose who can parade through Millington, no matter whose sensibilities might be offended.

"Sometimes there ought to be a law, but there can't be," the mayor said between filling prescriptions at the drugstore he owns in town. In the case of screening parades, Hager said, "I happen to think there shouldn't be a law. I agree with the Constitution."

"It's freedom of speech. It's freedom of assembly," concurred Councilman John T. Piposzar, who handed out copies of the Bill of Rights at a public hearing.

"We're all human beings; we're all covered by the U.S. Constitution," said Piposzar, an environmental consultant and descendant of Slovak immigrants. "And most of us that came into this country, outside of the African-Americans and Native Americans, we came here for one thing, and that was the freedom there in the Bill of Rights. That's the thing we need to focus on, whether we agree with the gay lifestyle or anything else."

Few voices

Few residents other than Kreh seem all that exercised about the parade dispute. Several declined to speak their minds this week to a reporter, saying they did not want to anger others. Others questioned whether Ricky Everett, the 21-year-old who is planning the parade, will follow through.

Everett said he is serious.

"There's a lot of gay people here," he said while sitting in the local pizza parlor. "A bunch of us decided we wanted to have a pride parade in Millington. This town hasn't had a parade in years." He said several volunteer fire companies in Maryland and Delaware had agreed to participate.

Local officials and merchants said they fear publicity about the controversy could hurt the community's tourist trade and economic vitality. They prefer to talk about the town's annual chicken and dumpling dinner, its new park pavilion and an overpass being built to eliminate a dangerous intersection.

"I'm just disgusted with the whole thing," said Faye Everett, who runs the Hickory Lane Farm store with her husband, Robert. She is not related to Ricky Everett.

"They have a right to parade," she said as she and her husband prepared flowers, crafts and produce for holiday sales. But she questioned the wisdom of holding a gay rights march through a quiet, conservative town.

"I think all they're doing is incurring the wrath of everybody," she said. "Why flaunt being gay?"

At the Millington Deli's lunch counter, Eddie Hickman paused with a cigarette and a soft drink to speculate that a gay pride parade would prompt other groups to want to march through Millington.

"If they let them have a parade, the next thing you'll have the Klan here," he said. "The Klan stands for nothing but hatred. A small town like this doesn't need that."

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