America, You Great Unfinished Symphony: Provo’s Freedom Festival Proves We Have More Work to Do

“Legacy. What is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see
I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me
America, you great unfinished symphony,
you sent for me
You let me make a difference
A place where even orphan immigrants
Can leave their fingerprints and rise up”
— Hamilton the Musical

Two days ago on my way home from a packed and picked-over grocery store I drove past dozens of families sprawled on the lawns of downtown businesses here in Provo. They camped out in tents and folding chairs, taped off corners of grass all up and down University Avenue to stake out their spots for the Provo Freedom Festival parade. It’s Provo’s most popular July 4th tradition, and it draws upwards of 300,000 residents and visitors every year.

Personally, I’ve never seen a parade float that would inspire me to sleep on a busy downtown street in the middle of a 100-degrees heat wave, but I’ve got to admire their dedication.

As I drove past the tents and picnic blankets I reflected on my own feelings about July 4th. On the one hand, I have a deep appreciation for the sacrifices made by my ancestors, those who came to this country, those who helped build it. I think of the men and women who wrote treatises, fought in wars, and marched in the streets to bring freedom and representation to their brothers and sisters. I know many of their victories remain unsung — unrecognized by history or even by their descendants.

Freedom riders, 1964

But also unsung are the many wrongs done in the name of American freedom. Americans have been heroic and compassionate, but we’ve also been cruel and small-minded, brutal and bigoted, petty and dishonest. We share a freckled past, and sometimes our patriotism allows us to drown out the voices of those who have suffered by our actions or our inaction.

In some ways it was unsurprising to learn, on the morning of July 4th, that the committee in charge of Provo’s Freedom Festival parade had, overnight, revoked their approval for an LGBTQ youth resource center to participate in their parade. As an excuse for why they reversed their approval, the Freedom Festival committee cited their code of conduct, which prohibits any advocacy group from participating in the parade.

The youth center in question — called Encircle — stands in an old pioneer house near the LDS temple. They offer free activities, lectures, counseling, and learning materials for families who want to love and support their gay teens. For the parade they had planned to march wearing their Encircle T-shirts, handing out candy to kids and tossing beach balls to the crowd.

Encircle House in downtown Provo

They are apolitical (they’re registered as a nonprofit, a classification that hinges on their political neutrality) and their mission and message are family friendly. They want to build bridges between our vulnerable gay youth and their largely conservative community, hopefully stemming the swollen tide of teen suicide in our state.

What disturbs me most about the behavior of the parade committee is how they executed their decision. They chose to notify Encircle at the final moment, giving the community no time to rally or respond. They knew this would hurt people — young people and their families — but they did it anyway, hoping that no one would notice or care. It was a midnight decision rooted in prejudice, exclusion, and fear.

When something like this happens in my own town, I begin to resent the unfettered patriotism that the 4th of July represents. Because while we like the feel-good message of our constitution, we fail to live up to its promises. Populism prevents us from protecting our most vulnerable — be they gay youth or refugees or immigrants or people of color. We cater to the most powerful, the most influential, and we neglect our huddled masses.

By its nature, American freedom draws greater diversity, and diversity is difficult to navigate in large groups. It requires compassion and discomfort, empathy and radical love. On the 4th of July we’re quick to tout our freedoms, but clumsy when it comes to exercising the necessary feelings and actions to knit our communities together. This needs to change.

We live a block away from the parade route, so on the morning of the 4th my husband walked my oldest son out to watch the floats and bands go by. As they stood on the corner, the LDS missionaries passed, carrying their Utah Provo Mission sign and waving to the crowd. They were greeted with the loudest cheers of any group marching in the parade. Many of them are still teenagers — like the gay youth that would have marched in Encircle’s group.

LDS missionaries marching in a previous Freedom Festival parade

It would have been such a small act to cheer on those with Encircle, to include them in the celebration of our American heritage. They are part of our nation’s crooked path away from bigotry and silence, and they deserve to be heard and seen. Sadly we were not big enough to see it through. We have much work to do, and America — this great unfinished symphony — will remain unfinished until everyone has a seat in the orchestra.