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Even the rural towns of Southern Oregon cannot escape the growing panic surrounding drag queens and “groomers.” In July, conspiratorial preachers and Ammon Bundy’s “People’s Rights” network flung baseless allegations and threatened violence against local pride organizers. While the bigots readied themselves to counterprotest against Klamath Pride, queer community members used small town organizing tactics to thwart the far-right mobilization, and out organize the far-right.
Klamath Pride 2022, which took place on July 16, was reportedly the second ever Pride celebration in Klamath Falls. In an area of Southern Oregon surrounded by agriculture and national forest, Klamath Falls is a town of 22,000 with a long history of far-right organizing.
In the weeks leading up to the Pride, Klamath Falls preacher Mike Voight of New Horizon Christian Fellowship circulated QAnon-tinged rumors that the celebration was actually a “child grooming and exploitation” event.
The conspiracy theories targeted Citizens for Safe Schools, one of the co-sponsors of Pride along with the Klamath Falls DSA and other groups. Citizens for Safe Schools is a Klamath county nonprofit with an emphasis on mentoring, suicide prevention, and creating safer spaces for youth. In addition to the adult drag show planned for Klamath Pride, a local Citizens for Safe Schools teenager wanted to organize a drag show led by and for youth. In an attempt to “save the children,” the bigots doxxed the youth organizer and made repeated harassing phone calls to Klamath Pride organizers.
“People were threatening to drive trucks through the Citizens building,” says Klamath Falls organizer Courtney Neubauer, who provided LCRW with much of the material referenced here. Neubauer has experience monitoring far-right groups as part of their day job, and volunteered to support Klamath Pride 2022 organizers amidst the frenzy of conspiracy theories and threats.
On July 9, Voight was invited to give the invocation prayer at the Benefit for the Basin, an annual fundraiser for local nonprofits. Voight attempted to co-opt the large, public fundraiser by spewing homophobia from the podium and distributing bigoted flyers to the crowd. The vitriol continued to spread online, and within days Oregon House Representative E. Werner Reschke was promoting a far-right counterprotest of Pride, which they called “Prayer in the Park.”
The Prayer in the Park was scheduled to start on July 16 at 11:45am in Veteran’s Park in Klamath Falls – the exact same date and location as Klamath Pride, which was scheduled to start at noon. Prominently displayed on the Prayer in the Park flyer was a gruesome Bible quote from the Book of Matthew: “Whoever causes one of these littles ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”
The Prayer in the Park was advertised by the local People’s Rights chapter through their internal email lists, urging their members “to cast out all demonic spirits working in our community.” Although the People’s Rights claimed they did not want a violent confrontation, their email also promoted a “Training for Safety and Self Defense,” event set to occur just two days before Pride.
It appeared likely that Klamath county militias would mobilize in a fashion similar to May 2020, when hundreds of armed individuals descended upon the town to stand guard against “antifa.” At that time, conspiracies theories on Facebook and Nextdoor claimed that there were “two buses heading this way from Portland, full of ANTIFA members and loaded with bricks. Their intentions are to come to Klamath Falls, destroy it, and murder police officers. There have been rumors of the antifa going into residential areas to ‘fuck up the white hoods.’”
While the right-wingers readied their Kyle Rittenhouse-themed brand of “self-defense,” local LGBTQ+ community members and allies were also organizing.
“At first the fear was so intense,” says Neubauer. “Even news organizations were trying to get us to respond to the fears as if they were legitimate, and it’s like no, these are conspiracy theories recycled from the early 2000s that are designed to get people to violently attack us. They are trying to isolate us and we have to refuse to be isolated.”
In between reassuring phone calls to each other, sharing resources on digital defense, and trips the lake to take a break from the stress, Pride organizers reached out to the wider Klamath Falls community for support.
“We were reaching into personal networks, professional networks, parents,” says Neubauer. “We just reached out to everyone and got everyone talking about how the conspiracy theories were damaging to our community.”
While Pastor Voight and People’s Rights warned of “outside groups” coming after local children, the Pride organizers like Neubauer and Jeff Press worked to personalize the issues.
“In small towns, we are all pretty interconnected,” says Neubauer. “We couldn’t ever be the nameless faceless boogeyman that they needed to make these things happen. We decided instead to fully put ourselves out there, and then they’re like, ‘Oh, Jeff is involved in this? Jeff runs my kid’s theatre camp!’”
As the tides turned, community Facebook groups and the Benefit for the Basin page were inundated with posts and comments standing up to the bigots and bullies.
“A lot of people were like, my support and ally-ship as a queer person is really important and I’m going to wear my gayest shit everywhere I go this week,” says Neubauer.
A joint statement from local service agencies including Citizens for Safe Schools, Road is the Road to Wellness, and the Oregon Department of Human Services highlighted that LGBTQ+ individuals are at higher risk of experiencing sexual assault, human trafficking, and suicide:
“As an isolated, rural, underserved community [Klamath Pride] helps ensure our agencies have the capacity to insert critical supports into the lives of our at-risk LGBTQ+ and Two-Spirit community and youth.”
The Klamath Tribes Tribal Council also issued a statement in support of Pride:
“Some of our most respected and spiritually powerful ancestors would in today’s world be called: ‘LGBTQ+’… Here, in mbosoksawas (Chiloquin), the seat of our tribal government, we have streets named in their honor.” The letter denounced “shameful bigotry” and sent a clear message to LGBTQ+ community members. “You and your families make our homeland a better, culturally richer place.”
Herald and News, the Klamath Falls newspaper, began referring to “outside anti-LGBTQ groups” fanning the flames of hatred – a likely reference to the People’s Rights – as opposed to the local queer youth who were being targeted. Klamath Pride supporters were sending a message to the bigots – they were the actual outsiders, because the wider community stood behind LGBTQ+ rights. Although a very different tactic than militant street confrontations, such coalition building is often critical to organizing in small towns and rural communities.
By July 13, State Representative E. Werner Reschke starting calling off the bigots. The Prayer in the Park location was moved from Pride to the Government Center a few blocks away, and the violent Matthew 18:6 quote was removed from the flyer. Reschke said the move was “to avoid any appearance of confrontation,” an obvious way of saving face.
Two days later, at least one evangelical church announced publicly that they would no longer be participating in the bigoted prayer event. On Facebook, Thrive Church said that God wanted them to back out of the counterprotest, according to “a word that the Lord gave to one of our long time members.” When the prayer event finally arrived on Saturday, July 16, it was an obvious dud. Only a few organizers showed up, looking bored and awkward while wondering why no one came to their party.
At Veteran’s Park, the only significant counterprotestors were the Rogue Valley Salt Shakers. A knockoff version of the Westboro Baptist Church, the Salt Shakers are a staple at LGBTQ+ events, abortion clinics, and even farmer’s markets in Southern Oregon. The Salt Shaker’s harassment of Keizer Pride contributed to that event’s cancellation in 2022, but as vile and obnoxious as they are, in Southern Oregon the group is somewhat of a known entity.
While hundreds of Pride attendees watched performances, including the famed youth drag show, a couple dozen individuals kept the Salt Shakers occupied at the far end of the park. Local youth spent hours engaging the bigots, blocking their signs with pride flags while local police officers stood by doing nothing. When the Salt Shakers attempted to preach hatred through their megaphones, queers dressed in Renaissance garb overpowered them by singing “The Wellerman,” the sea shanty made famous by a TikTok meme.
“The work we did ensured that those kids – and their parents – felt safe enough to live up their dancing dreams and get up on that stage and celebrate as their own form of protest,” wrote Neubauer in a statement shared with LCRW. “I kept hearing over and over that beyond the first booth, you couldn’t even tell that there were protesters.”
Since the event, multiple people have remarked to Neubauer, “This was one of only a handful of times they felt truly safe and seen in Klamath.”
For the bigots, the day was a total flop – even the Salt Shakers packed up and left early. Contrary to their typical showboating style, People’s Rights have sought to distance themselves from the Prayer in the Park failure. In response to an inquiry from LCRW, Klamath county leader Kristen Clark emphasized that “the park event and flier were not created by People’s Rights.”
She also claimed the self-defense training had “absolutely nothing to do with the Pride event.”
Said training, as stated above, was set to take place two days before Klamath Pride.