STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY DEE MOORE
Pride came to the small city of Keizer on Saturday. So did its opposition.
The town of about 36,000, part of the Greater Salem Metropolitan Area, was host to its first public Pride gathering, in Chalmer Jones Park, next door to the city’s community center and library. The Keizer Pride Fair was one of Oregon’s first in-person Pride events this year, and the first large in-person event in Keizer since the pandemic began.
What started off as a family-friendly afternoon filled with babies, bubbles, drag performances, dancing teens, small kids running about the plaza, folks playing games, eating snacks, painting, listening to music and visiting with friends soon turned ugly – all the more so because there were so many children in the park.
To Pride celebrators, the ugly turn didn’t come as a surprise. While Portland is the haven of all things liberal in Oregon, much of the rest of the state is rural and conservative. Keizer has a large and politically active conservative base.
Soon after things got going on Saturday, several members of what appeared to be the controversial Southern Oregon religious group RV SaltShakers showed up, provoking the crowd and handing out cards condemning Pride. They were asked to leave. When they refused, Pride folks gathered, formed a circle around them, and walked them to the parking lot.
The message was emphatic and clear: Please leave.
They did not. Instead, the protesters returned to their van and pulled out large signs covered with hate-filled messages denouncing the Queer community. “LGBTQ, Abortion, and All Other Sin Earn Death and Hell,” one read. “We Are Not Here About Your Homosexuality. We Are Here About Your Eternity,” proclaimed another. For a large number of people attending the Pride celebration, this was traumatizing. Many LGBTQIA people have experienced spiritual abuse at the hands of members of various religious faiths.
Many people outside of the LGBTQIA community think a Pride is a big Gay party, and it often is exactly that. There are costumes, parades, singing, dancing, food, flags flying, and fun activities.
And most folks, even straight individuals, know that Pride began as a riot, sparked by a police raid at the New York City gay club Stonewall Inn in 1969. For so long Queer folks – in particular BIPOC Trans folk, Dyke Lesbians and Sex Workers – had been forced into a corner, pushed further and further outside of mainstream society. Pushed into and out of spaces no one could or would occupy, not only socially and culturally, but out of neighborhood businesses, restaurants and bars. They were not allowed to have gathering places, not allowed to congregate; their existence was denied and unwanted.
So the first Pride was their way, OUR way, of pushing back, of stepping out of the dark and declaring loudly, and yes, Proudly, We are here! It was in many ways the first Coming Out story, and it led the way for all the rest of us.
When Pride is celebrated today it isn’t only a party. It’s a reminder of where we came from; an affirmation of our humanity and a proclamation that we will never go back to the darkness.
In the parking lot on Saturday, people gathered again, creating a human chain to block the protesters from entering the Pride Fair. Many came to meet the proselytizers’ message with outright rejections, or replied with affirmations – oftentimes shouting “Love is Love,” “God is Love,” “We are Loved,” “God does not hate” – while others engaged the religious protesters personally, debating the meaning of Bible scriptures or demanding to know why they felt the need to share their hateful rhetoric.
The church members started shouting their message in return. Someone among the Fair celebrants began singing. A Bluetooth speaker was lugged out to the parking lot, and music began. Folks danced and chanted.
Then violence erupted. One of the protesters hit someone. The crowd responded. Soon more than a hundred people were crowding the parking lot. Leaders among the fairgoers stepped up, putting themselves between the protesters – three adult men and a fourth who appeared to be an adolescent boy – and everyone else. The crowd began encircling the church members. Using their bodies, fair participants backed the protesters through the parking lot to their van and began to “help” the protesters take their signs apart.
Keizer police arrived and began to take charge, emphatically asking the church members to take their signs and go home. Slowly, folks returned to the fair and the celebration.
Though the day was marked by violence, it began and ended with acceptance and love. The Queer community should not be met with violence, or protests, or hate, or rejection. We should be allowed to live just as the straight, cis-gendered community is allowed to live. So long as our lives are politicized, as long as we are rejected, as long as we are pushed into the dark corners, as long as we are unwanted and dismissed, we will stand up, we will speak up and we will be heard. We will have Pride.