Noelle Nolan-Rider and her wife Rachel Nolan-Rider started Vote Your Pride in 2016 after Gov. Phil Bryant signed a bill into law protecting businesses and other organizations that discriminate against LGBTQ+ customers if they cite a “sincerely held belief.”

The couple said they volunteered with the Mississippi Rising Coalition in 2016 at pride events to register voters but “were not having a lot of luck.”

“So, I was like, ‘We need to really revamp this and make it geared toward our community, the LGBTQ community. We need to educate them on how these laws affect them, and we need to call them to action,’” Noelle Nolan-Rider told the Crirec on May 30. “So we basically tried to make this as gay as possible and go around to pride events.”

Last year, the nation’s largest LGBTQ+ rights organization issued a state of emergency as states, including Mississippi, have adopted laws rolling back the rights of transgender people. Mississippi LGBTQ+ organizations have responded by redoubling efforts to serve the community—including by providing financial assistance, offering safe spaces and educating voters about the upcoming election.

‘Politics Is Going To Do You Regardless’

Vote Your Pride is a project of the Mississippi Rising Coalition. Noelle Nolan-Rider and Rachel Nolan-Rider began their organization by educating LGBTQ+ Mississippians about the implications of H.B. 1523 in 2016 and registering people to vote.

The couple continues voter-registration efforts, encouraging the LGBTQ+ community to vote in upcoming elections and teaching them about legislation that harms LGBTQ+ people.

“Well, if you don’t do politics, politics is going to do you regardless,” Noelle Nolan-Rider said, quoting Ohio Democratic politician and activist Nina Turner.

Mickie Stratos, president of Hattiesburg-based LGBTQ+ organization The Spectrum Center, said Mississippi lawmakers need to stop focusing on “issues that don’t exist” and instead focus on education, health care, the welfare scandal, and lowering the rates of sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancies.

“Most folks who have these strong prejudices have never actually interacted with queer people that they know of or intentionally,” they told the Crirec on June 21.

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Mickie Stratos said Mississippi lawmakers are “addressing issues that don’t really exist” by passing bills like the 2023 REAP Act and 2024 SAFER Act that Gov. Tate Reeves signed. Photo courtesy The Spectrum Center

Stratos mentioned the 2023 REAP Act and 2024 SAFER Act that Gov. Tate Reeves signed into law. The REAP Act bans minors from getting “gender transition procedures,” and the SAFER Act says that people must use the bathroom or changing facility that corresponds with their sex assigned at birth.

“They’re addressing issues that really don’t exist,” Stratos told the Crirec on June 21. “There are little to no instances of trans people or people pretending to be trans assaulting people or committing acts of violence in bathrooms. There are no instances of kids under the age of 18 undergoing body-modifying, gender-affirming surgeries. It’s primarily puberty blockers and hormone therapy, which is completely reversible.”

In separate interviews, Stratos and Noelle Nolan-Rider encouraged people to vote and research who they are voting for.

“It feels really heavy and sort of urgent at this point because under the Trump administration, there was a trans ban in the military, and he’s made several comments attacking the trans community, and it’s going to be very hard to protect them in this state without some national influence,” Nolan-Rider said.

Assessing Mississippi’s LGBTQ+ Community Needs

The LGBTQ Fund of Mississippi is a Jackson-based nonprofit organization that gives grants to smaller LGBTQ+ organizations around the state because, “In the Deep South, LGBTQ structure and infrastructure is not strong,” LGBTQ Fund Chair Robin Webb told the Crirec on Jan. 22. The fund has also given grants to universities to help with LGBTQ+ education.

Organizations can apply for a grant during the current grant cycle, which ends on Friday, June 28. The LGBTQ Fund will announce the grantees in August and award the grants in September. It dispersed $132,000 in grants among 13 organizations in 2023, founder Sammy Moon told the Crirec on Jan. 22.

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“In the Deep South, LGBTQ structure and infrastructure is not strong,” LGBTQ Fund Chair Robin Webb told the Crirec on Jan. 22, 2024. Photo courtesy Mississippi Alliance of Nonprofits and Philanthropy

The fund is doing a needs assessment to see how inclusive housing, health care, the workforce, education and religious groups are for the LGBTQ+ community around the state as well as what their family environment looks like and if they have had any “difficult or violent experiences” in the past year. The organization has been using data from a 2018 needs assessment to help LGBTQ+ people find safe spaces in Mississippi and determine where the LGBTQ Fund should allocate money.

“We felt like rather than us just making decisions based on putting money where we believe things to be needed, we felt like there was a need to be grounded in data,” Moon told the Crirec on January 22.

The Spectrum Center offers a community atmosphere to LGBTQ+ people through its programs, which include a book club, an “Adulting 101” class and “Queer Night Out,” among other events.

Mickie Stratos said the LGBTQ Fund gave The Spectrum Center general operations grants in 2022 and 2023 that funded its programs, housing and mutual-aid funds.

Stratos said TSC assists people with housing and health care on a case-by-case basis. It helps people who are unhoused, short on rent or who have unpaid utility bills get money as well as funding health care needs for the LGBTQ+ community, like hormone therapy and mental-health support. The president said the organization will help around two to four dozen people who are short on money this year.

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LGBTQ Fund of Mississippi founder Sammy Moon said the organization does a needs assessment to see how to best serve Mississippi’s LGBTQ+ community. Photo courtesy Mississippi Alliance of Nonprofits and Philanthropy

Vote Your Pride got a grant from the LGBTQ Fund in 2023 that paid for hotel rooms, pride events and promotional materials. Before the Nolan-Riders got the grant, Noelle Nolan-Rider said they had to use their own money to fund Vote Your Pride. She expressed her appreciation through tears.

“I’m just so grateful that we have (the LGBTQ Fund) because it was so much harder when we didn’t,” she said.

Reporter Heather Harrison graduated from Mississippi State University with a degree in Communication in 2023. She worked at The Reflector student newspaper for three years, starting as a staff writer, then the news editor before becoming the editor-in-chief. During her time at The Reflector, Heather won 13 awards for her multi-media journalism work.

In her free time, Heather likes to walk her dog, Finley, read books, and listen to Taylor Swift. Heather lives in Starkville, where she has spent the past four years. She is a Hazlehurst, Mississippi, native.