LGBTQ advocates are demanding officials in Gaston County reverse their decision to remove a photo showing two men recently engaged, kissing, from a museum exhibit. The photograph, taken by Charlotte freelance photojournalist Grant Baldwin, shows Justin Colasacco and his husband Bren Hipp kissing after Colasacco dropped to one knee and proposed in front of the crowd at the 2019 Charlotte Pride Festival & Parade. They married Oct. 4, 2020.

 “As a gay man living in a state that celebrates diversity, it is truly disheartening to learn that there are still organizations that continue to deny us the same liberties as the heterosexual community,” Justin Colasacco said in a text to The Charlotte Observer.

“To remove a moment in history that gave us visibility and celebrated same-sex marriage that has been legal in North Carolina since 2014, is unjustified,” Colasacco said. Hipp was walking with the Atrium Health group when they approached the parade judges in the center of uptown and Colasacco proposed to him, Spectrum News 1 reported at the time.

“Congratulations to one of our nurses who was proposed to during the Charlotte Pride Parade!” Atrium Health posted on Facebook in 2019. “He said “yes!” 

According to a Gaston County government statement first reported by the Gaston Gazette Tuesday night, County Manager Kim Eagle told Gaston County Museum staff to have the photographer submit a replacement picture “that would be more considerate of differing viewpoints in the community. The idea behind the exhibit is to document a historical event, and there are other options from the photographer’s work that more fully capture the context of the parade that was documented. 

Eagle, a former Charlotte assistant city manager, didn’t return a phone message from The Charlotte Observer. County spokesman Adam Gaub provided the same statement to the Observer Wednesday and said the county had no further comment.

In the county statement, Eagle said: “The museum is government-funded, and as such, it is important for the items it shares to be informational without championing political issues. As a public administrator, there is a delicate balance between the effort to foster an inclusive workplace and community, while avoiding political advocacy.” 

In a phone interview Wednesday, Baldwin said his role as a photojournalist who has freelanced for The Charlotte Observer and other media outlets is “to tell a narrative I’m not a part of,” and not to be an advocate through his lens. He was under contract with Charlotte Pride to take images at the festival, he said. “There was no advocacy on my part and no request that I present any advocacy images,” he said. 

Baldwin said he and several other photographers in the region were asked to submit three or four photographs that represented their work for consideration in the museum’s Into the Darkroom: Photography as History and Artform exhibit. The exhibit opened May 31 and continues through July 29, 2023, according to the museum website.

Baldwin said he’s happy his photograph has drawn attention. “When a photograph takes on a life of its own and has its own narrative from the perspective of the people who view it, that’s a job well done,” he said. “I’m not happy that it does appear that issue is being taken because it’s an LGBTQ image,” he said.

The county manager’s remarks drew a swift rebuke from Charlotte Pride, which said in a statement released June 15 it “condemned” Eagle’s decision as “abhorrent” and a violation of First Amendment rights.

“Here we go again,” Charlotte Pride board president Clark Simon said in the statement. “Gaston County’s decision … seeks to silence and erase the existence of LGBTQ and minority people in Gaston County and the wider region.” 

Simon, who lives in Gastonia, said he found it “especially astonishing” that Gaston County also censored a second photograph by Baldwin, one that documented protests against a Confederate monument on Gaston County government property in downtown Gastonia.

In the statement released by its communications director, Matt Comer, Charlotte Pride said it finds it “especially offensive that a local government body would seek to censor photographs of LGBTQ and Black life during June, a month in which LGBTQ people commemorate their rights and when Black people celebrate Juneteenth, the official end of slavery in the United States.”

Hipp said his first reaction to Gaston County pulling the photo was “surprise.” He and Colasacco weren’t aware the photo was in the exhibit, although they gave Baldwin permission to use the picture, he said. He said he agrees with Simon’s thoughts on the matter. 

Baldwin said he learned his photographs had been removed only when a Gazette reporter contacted him Tuesday. “I haven’t had any dialogue with the county manager, so I’m pretty far out of the loop” as to her reasoning, he said. He said he called Gaston County Museum Director Jason Luker, who apologized to him for not having yet notified him of the county’s actions.

When the Observer reached Luker by phone Wednesday, he declined comment and referred a reporter to Gaston County spokesman Gaub.

This article appears courtesy of our media partner The Charlotte Observer. It has been edited for space limitations.

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