Arlington WA Pride had to fight like hell to get four hours in a public park this weekend.

Since April, organizers have contended with homophobic community churches, antigovernment groups, and a city government that’s done little to stop the harassment.

What’s more, city leaders won't enforce a state law that would prohibit anyone from knowingly openly carrying a firearm or other weapon within 250 feet of a permitted demonstration.

Last Friday, Assistant Washington State Attorney General Chalia Stallings-Ala’ilima sent a letter to Arlington Mayor Barb Tolbert asking her to clarify the City’s position on the buffer zone around the event, which organizers are calling Camp Pride.

Even officials in neighboring cities have gotten involved. Everett City Council noticed Arlington’s inaction, and during a rare special meeting Monday, they passed a resolution imploring Arlington’s city leaders to enforce that law and protect its queer citizens from “hate crimes and intimidation.” 

Mayor Tolbert did not respond to The Stranger’s multiple requests for comment, but City Administrator Paul Ellis confirmed the meeting took place.

“Yes, representatives of the city did meet with two members of the Attorney General’s Office on Wednesday this week,” he wrote in an email to The Stranger Friday morning. “We shared our views of the event.”

Arlington WA Pride’s acting president Caera Gramore feels like the City doesn’t have their back. They revisited their will ahead of Saturday's event, just in case.

“We have gone over some safety plans and I have had to ask myself like, am I willing to die for this?” Gramore said. 

How’d this all start?

With misinformation on Facebook and local pastors.

Arlington officially recognized Pride Month in June 2021. Like so many nascent Prides in American small towns, religious conservatives objected to the first Arlington WA Pride celebration in 2022, but organizers faced no big problems from the City or Arlington locals until this April when a Facebook user named “Papagaio Hernandez” commented on several City accounts, asking if Arlington would be vetting performers because last year “2 of the 3 drag queens turned out to be registered sex offenders.”

There’s no evidence to support that claim and drag performers are a common target of the right-wing—for the past three years, conservative activists have resurrected the moral panic-inducing “groomer” myth, a conspiracy theory that LGBTQ education, civil rights, and art performances are a daylight cover for pedophilia and the systematic grooming of children. This lie is at the core of hundreds of bills targeting LGBTQ people in states across the US.

Still, the questionable posts spooked City officials.

During an April 24 meeting with event organizers, Mayor Tolbert asked Gramore about Arlington WA Pride’s vetting practices, and if they’d consider canceling the drag story time—where performers do nothing more than read children’s stories to kids—because of “community concerns.”

Tolbert also spoke with local pastors about Camp Pride. It’s unclear who she spoke with, or what they talked about, but several local churches and preachers are openly anti-LGBTQ. One of them, Rev. Chad Blood, preaches at Lifeway Church, which is directly across the street from Camp Pride’s stage. (In a May email to The Stranger, Mayor Tolbert wrote that the City passed along questions and concerns from the community to Arlington Wa Pride, as it would for any public event, and demanded no changes to any part of Camp Pride.)

During that same meeting, Tolbert also told Gramore that Arlington WA Pride would owe the City $3,500 dollars in security and insurance fees to cover the estimated number of people and the potential threat of violence, as required by their insurance. The unexpected cost led Gramore to postpone Pride from June to July. Arlington WA Pride resubmitted its permit application for a later date and announced the change in a post that called out the City.

Arlington dropped the fees in mid-May, following news coverage from the Everett Herald, King 5, and other outlets. The City re-classified Camp Pride as a “First Amendment” event. 

In the same May email to The Stranger, Tolbert wrote that Arlington Pride withdrew its application not only because of cost, but for “unrelated issues” such as a lack of volunteers. 

“The City of Arlington remains committed to supporting Pride’s request to sponsor this community event,” Tolbert wrote.

Gramore confirmed with The Stranger that fees were the only issue preventing them from planning the event.

Members of Arlington's city council—and Mayor Tolbert in the fifth seat chair from the left—at the city council meeting on July 17. SCREENSHOT FROM THE CITY OF ARLINGTON YOUTUBE PAGE

Extremism in Arlington

Public comment at Arlington’s June 5 City Council meeting began with the history of a local stop sign and complaints about a stagnant golf course retention pond.

Then, Kenzie Killebrew took the mic. 

She was nervous—it was her first time speaking at a City Council meeting. Voice wavering, Killebrew said she grew up queer in Arlington and didn’t feel like a member of the community. Her neighbors' views were “detrimental, to say it mildly as possible.” Last year’s Pride welcomed her. “I see a really, really positive change happening,” she said with confidence.

Don Miller spoke next. He read in the Everett Herald that Arlington Pride would have to pay for its security, and thanked the council for reconsidering. Facebook comments are not reliable, and Arlington Pride is valuable, he said. Three more Pride supporters, including Gramore, spoke after him.

Then Thomas Hughes, a right-wing blogger and agitator, spoke next. The Snohomish County resident told the audience that Arlington is now famous for debauchery and insanity because of a Mother’s Day drag brunch at a bar and restaurant called ReMyx’d that’d caught the ire of right-wing media. (ReMyx’d is now closed after sustaining heavy fire damage in May, and though owner Brenton Holland told the Everett Herald he’d never received so many death threats in his life, investigators say there’s no evidence that the fire was set intentionally.)

“It’s shameful, it’s nothing to be proud of,” Hughes said during the June 5 meeting. “It’s not unsubstantiated that anybody should have some qualms with [Arlington WA Pride] being paid for by the taxpayers dollar.”

Empty chairs lined the front row that night. But the next meeting on June 20 was packed.

Arlington resident Sue Ward spoke first. She identified herself as a member of the Conservative Ladies of Washington to a reporter from the Everett Herald. The group has organized against trans legislation in Washington this year. Ward said she’d been called a hater, “a transphobic,” and a bigot online. “And plenty more,” she said with a small laugh. 

“The concerns of the community, and throughout our country, is the story time with a queen,” she said with the stuttering rhythm of a beat poet. “Drag shows. Performers who have become more sexual in dress and provocative dancing and sexual gyrations. Not for children. The last year has exponentially increased in the outrageousness and confusing gender i-de-ology at Pride events.”

Most who spoke supported Pride, like the Marine Corps veteran Keegan Smith. He's not queer. He didn’t prepare a statement. He didn’t want to have to be there, he said.

“These are your neighbors,” he said. “Yeah, you don’t like all your neighbors. If you don’t like them, don’t talk to them. If you’re worried about what your kids are going to see–be a parent.”

Members of the Snohomish County chapter of Moms for Liberty also spoke at the meeting, as first reported by the Everett Herald. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently added the national antigovernment nonprofit to its list of extremist groups.

Moms for Liberty says it campaigns for parental rights and fights “woke” indoctrination, but promotes the groomer conspiracy and wants books about queerness and race banned in schools. The group seethed online about the Arlington event for weeks before anyone showed up.

At Lakewood’s SummerFest last weekend, M4L members collected signatures to get a referendum on the ballot to repeal SB559. The law, distorted by online misinformation, expands youth shelter protections for minors seeking reproductive and trans care.

In early July, hate fliers appeared in Arlington’s Gleneagle neighborhood. The flier, aimed at parents, warned that drag queens would sexually groom their kids on July 22. It’s unclear who distributed them.

“Is this what you want?” the flier reads above a photo of a drag performer bent in a low squat, wearing high silvery heeled boots and a matte black bunny mask similar to the one on the cover of Arianna Grande’s Dangerous Woman. Below it asks, “Drag Queens [sic] grooming your young children?” and the back reads, “Are these drag shows even legal?” (They are.)

The City posted a response from Mayor Tolbert on its Facebook page on July 12.

“I am disheartened to learn that members of our LGBTQ+ communities feel they have been the victims of hateful speech, harassment and intimidation. These types of disgraceful actions do not belong in Arlington,” she wrote. “... I call on every individual on both sides of this issue to demonstrate tolerance in our community.”

Why won’t Arlington enforce the open-carry law?

A week after Arlington dismissed the $3,500 fees, Arlington WA Pride asked the City to enforce a new-ish Washington state law prohibiting people from openly carrying a weapon within 250 feet of a permitted demonstration. After all, Arlington had said Camp Pride was a “First Amendment” event. But public documents show City Administrator Paul Ellis saw it differently.

In a terse May 30 letter to organizers, Ellis wrote the law doesn’t apply to Camp Pride, because it is not a “demonstration.” 

Ellis also wrote the City doesn’t have the staff to enforce the buffer zone and it is “extremely difficult” to prove if someone knew they had a weapon near the Pride demonstration, or provide individual warnings about the zone, especially because “you have decided to combine your event with that of the previously scheduled farmer’s market” next door. The event takes up only a quarter of the park.

Ellis wrote that ultimately Arlington Pride, and not political extremists, have “the most control over what happens” and suggested relocating away from the farmer’s market or “regulating the content” of their “entertainment,” or the drag performances.

“... it is clearly entertainment which certain segments of the community do not support,” he wrote. “The City has no right to control what you say (except in very limited circumstances), but you should consider how your message is being received within the community.”

He ended his letter by writing that the Arlington Police Department is prepared to enforce the law (well, except one) and would consider renewing their request if organizers provided more specific threats.

Last Friday, Assistant State Attorney General Stallings-Alailima wrote to Tolbert and Arlington City Attorney Steven J. Peiffle that under the law, a “gathering” means a public assembly is permitted if a City issues a permit, and that, as she understands it,  Arlington issued a permit to an event that organizers described as “protesting cisheterosexism and the multiple harms it causes on our community.”

“As such it would be helpful for me to understand the City’s rationale in determining the event is not covered by the open-carry restriction under the plain terms of RCW 9.41.300,” she wrote, before suggesting the meeting.

Arlington is not unique

The conflict in Arlington is a great example of nothing new.

Kate Bitz, a program manager with the civil rights organization Western States Center, said opportunistic political extremists target the first-time Prides blossoming in small towns across the Northwest with the intention of pushing local leaders toward policy decisions that can be, in some cases, unconstitutional.

In Arlington, the Facebook protest and homophobic tweets from outside groups turned into political action. In the worst cases, small Prides attract national attention from white supremacist groups like Patriot Front, who conspired to riot in Coeur d'ALene, Idaho last June. On Thursday, a jury convicted five of them.

Like a high school football team running the same play over and over, antigovernment groups deploy the same strategies in community after community. They spread hateful messages online, in city council chambers, and school board meetings. They shove homophobic and racist pamphlets in mailboxes and on windshields. They threaten queer events that have operated peacefully for years, like a holiday toy drive in Grays Harbor County, Washington last December. 

This political dynamic is unfamiliar to many elected officials, who are unprepared to handle a passionate, antidemocratic minority. When local leaders try to treat both sides the same, they can reach compromises that suppress the free speech of targeted groups.

In fairness, what person enters local public office ready to field bizarre calls about an anti-trans conspiracy theory, or handle a campaign of organized bigotry? Elected leaders expect the option of a more or less constructive discussion as a community, Bitz said. But their well-meaning strategy doesn’t work with extremist groups.

“I think what's really unfortunate about this, is that at any point, local elected officials can pick up the phone and they can set up a meeting with Pride organizers,” she said. “In many cases, when disinformation is circulating in a community, that is a complicated situation. This is not a complicated situation.”