Politicians and LGBTQ advocates attended a vigil in Edmonds Tuesday night after hateful, anti-trans fliers were placed on cars at two local churches known to welcome queer people.

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers, State Senator Manka Dhingra, Edmonds Mayor Mike Nelson, and other Snohomish and King County officials spoke at Edmonds United Methodist Church (EUMC) last night. Courtney Wooten, who chairs the Snohomish County Human Rights Commission, and Mitch Hunter from Gen Pride were also scheduled to speak.

The fliers are a garish collection of far-right, anti-LGBTQ memes. They include gay pride flags arranged into the shape of a Swastika, “groomer” language, a call for armed violence against Democrats, and a mention of a far-right scare campaign that claims a new Washington bill allows the state to kidnap and transgenderify children (shocker, it does not).

Edmonds United Methodist Church found the first of them during a Sunday morning service on April 16. A staff member discovered a couple dozen tucked under the wiper blades of congregants and then called UMC Pastor Donna Pritchard.

“We agreed that she should call the non-emergency police number and report this,” she said. “And that was where this notion of a vigil to stand with love was born basically.”

But before this planned vigil took place, Holy Spirit Lutheran Church in Kirkland discovered similar but altered fliers on their car windshields on April 23. 

Authorities in Kirkland and Edmonds are investigating both incidents. It is still unclear who placed the fliers or why, but both churches have a long history of supporting trans and queer people.

Rev. Katy McCallum Sachse at Holy Spirit says her church has been publicly pro-gay since 1997. It has received hateful emails and Neo-nazi fliers for its stance, but never during a service.

“It felt in some ways just very generic and anonymous, like, somebody with too much time on their hands and a lot of hateful things in their head,” she said. “But also in some ways very personal and targeted to real people in our congregation, and, of course, in the wider community.”

Rev. Ann Jacob, the first openly queer pastor at Edmonds United Methodist Church, says her church sits on a major ferry traffic road. The church’s electronic sign routinely displays “unapologetic” messages of welcome, such as “Trans Rights are Human Rights” and “Black Lives Matter,” and people coming to and from western Washington may not like what they see.

“There’s just a kind of an ethos of saying we side with the side of justice and love,” Jacob said. “And so that means we are not afraid to say exactly what we believe.”

In 2015, EUMC voted to join the Reconciling Ministries Network, which seeks to include LGBTQ people in the practices and policies of the United Methodist Church. This move led to its most conservative members leaving the congregation, which has shrunk from its peak of more than 1,000 people to around 680 today. 

“The folks who remain have been kind of very strong in their conviction and commitment to say we are people of love and liberation and we do not restrict love,” Jacob said.

Jacob reported the fliers at her church to the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a hate crime, which are more commonly reported in Washington as compared to other states.

Per DOJ policy, the FBI office in Seattle did not confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation into the fliers outside either church.

Miri Cypers, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League for the Pacific Northwest, says Washington frequently ranks in the top five states for hate crimes, both per capita and total. It also consistently ranks high in reported incidents of propaganda like this.

“I also think sometimes there's these assumptions we make about certain progressive bubbles that we have in Washington,” she said. “But the truth is that a lot of the fliering that we have been hearing of in recent months has been happening in Newcastle, in Renton, and in the Puget Sound.”

In 2021, law enforcement agencies in Washington state reported 698 hate crimes to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (19 of these reported crimes targeted people for their gender identity, a sliver of the overall total). Nearby Oregon reported 315, while Idaho reported 62. Nationwide, hate crimes increased 11.6%. Most targeted Black people.

But don’t jump to big conclusions about hate crimes in Washington. While experts say hate is certainly a problem here, higher stats can also come from a more robust reporting system in one state versus another. There’s a lot of gray area, especially when hate crimes are one of the least reported crimes there are.

The Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism says the fliers placed outside the churches do not appear to be linked to any specific group, but they are definitely connected to general anti-LGBTQ hate and groomer narratives that the Center is tracking.

“In this particular climate, we're very concerned about anti-LGBTQ extremism and hate and how that unfolds and has an impact, not just in terms of creating a feeling of insecurity in the community, but the potential for real harm and violence,” Cypers said.