Gillette grapples with anti-LGBTQ bigotry
GILLETTE – It was just supposed to be a magic show.
Months ago, trustees at the Campbell County Library, seeking performers for their summer programming, booked magician Mikayla Oz, a well-regarded entertainer who has built a career performing hundreds of shows for family audiences across the Midwest.
But there would be no magic in Gillette this week. The day before she was set to perform, Oz — who was slated for dozens of shows around the region this month, including four in Campbell County — was forced to cancel, citing numerous threats she’d received from members of the community.
“You ain’t f**king welcome in Gillette,” a community member wrote in one email Oz received. “If you come here there’s going to be issues,” another told her in a phone call, she said.
“With great regret, regret shared by [the] Campbell County Public Library System, Oz canceled her programs in Gillette and Wright due to safety concerns for herself and library patrons,” the library announced in a Tuesday release.
Oz is a transgender woman from Iowa, who found herself at the center of a local controversy between the Campbell County Library and a community group that opposed the library’s Pride Month book display.
The outrage — first at the books, and then at Oz’s magic show — caught many by surprise, particularly given what little promotion the show (which was funded without the use of any taxpayer dollars) received, and that it had nothing to do with sex, gender or LGBTQ topics. Library staff involved said they never gave Oz’s gender any thought prior to booking her.
“[Gender identity] is not something that we would ask about,” said Terri Leslie, executive director of the Campbell County Library System. “We can’t imagine having a questionnaire for somebody’s sexual orientation. So that’s just not something that we knew. What we did know was that she does a good job, that the kids love her, and that it sounded like a great family event.”
Others, however, felt the conflagration was a predictable development in this community where a vocal, socially conservative faction regularly challenges the role of government and where discrimination often makes headlines. However, the reaction has also inspired serious discussion in the community about its legacy of anti-LGBTQ activism, and how best to build from the latest headline-grabbing anti-LGBTQ incident in Wyoming.
“I think we have some decisions to make, and they’re yours to make,” Sara Burlingame, executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy organization, Wyoming Equality, told advocates in an impromptu speech Wednesday night in Gillette. “This is your town, this is your community. You get to decide what Gillette looks like.”
June — nationally designated as “Pride Month” in support of the LGBTQ community — was quiet in Campbell County.
That was, until the end of the month, when the Campbell County Library promoted a blog post on its Facebook page advertising a number of book titles celebrating the LGBTQ community.
One selection was a graphic novel covering issues of sexuality, gender identity and “navigating relationships.” Another tells the story of an asexual teen who has given up on finding love until she falls for a friend and has to decide “whether to risk their friendship for a love that might not be shared.” Another documents the struggle of a closeted lesbian as she sought to navigate the conservative upbringings of her church and her Christian school.
The Facebook post was little noticed at the time — and received just two comments. Yet it kicked-off a chain reaction of misinformation and conflict that dominated local discussions for weeks. When the Campbell County Commissioners met two weeks later, dozens showed up to protest and formally comment on what they described as a government supported attempt to “indoctrinate” children.
For more than an hour on the morning of Wednesday July 7, residents dominated the public comment period to express concerns about the promotion, often employing anti-LGBTQ rhetoric to do so, according to a recording of the meeting viewed by WyoFile.
One commenter wanted parents to be able to opt their children out of the library’s “queer agenda,” though the event was voluntary. Another asserted there are only two genders. Others insinuated that homosexuality correlates with pedophilia and that high rates of suicide among queer and transgender people demonstrate the inherent and natural dangers of not being a cisgendered heterosexual. Another community member said acknowledgement of the existence of an LGBTQ community was helping to “destroy our culture” and degrade the country’s moral and legal structure, both of which they said are “based on Judeo-Christian values.”
“What we’re looking at here is the ground game of an attempt to destroy our culture and our country,” resident Hugh Bennett said during the meeting. “This is an assault on our morals, our ethics, or heritage, our belief in God.”
Soon after the meeting, the activists’ attention turned to Oz.
While the library did little to promote her show and didn’t discuss her gender identity in marketing materials, the library noted in its cancellation of the show that Oz’s transgender identity was shared on a social media post made by a “Gillette citizen,” leading to a rash of activity online and planned protests of the event. Though the library did not explicitly state who initially raised the issue, many pointed to a Facebook post opposing the show by pastor, former state legislator and now Gillette College Board of Trustees candidate Scott Clem, in which he repeatedly compared LGBTQ people to animals.
“Guess what’s being marketed to your teenagers at Campbell County Public Library on July 15th? A transgender magic show,” Clem wrote in a July 8 Facebook post.
“Sex is a base, animal, biological instinct shared among almost all living organisms,” he wrote further down. “All animals have sex, but humans are more. Humans are the image of God, not mere animals. So why is it that our library is promoting the base things of life, and not the higher virtues? Why are we relegating the human race to that of animals?”
On Thursday evening, Clem’s church was vandalized. “God loves all” and a rainbow was painted on an exterior wall, according to social media posts viewed by WyoFile.
Local LGBTQ advocacy groups denounced the vandalism and offered to pay for new paint.
Messages obtained by WyoFile suggest that Clem and two county commissioners were aware of the backlash county officials were set to receive in advance.
The night before the July 7 meeting, county commissioners Colleen Faber and Del Shelstad were involved in a string of Facebook messages begun by local pastor and conservative activist Susan Sisti expressing concerns about the library and discussing ways to bring accountability to a library accused of promoting “unacceptable” material. The participants included local political activists who had protested a multitude of issues in Gillette, including COVID-19-related public health orders, actions by Gillette’s mayor, and the creation of an independent community college district, according to local news reports and several individuals interviewed by WyoFile.
“We need 30-50 people to attend the [County] Commissioners meeting tomorrow at 9:00 in the Court House,” Sisti wrote. “We will meet outside the Chambers at 8:50 in the hallway. If you do not want to speak, please just come to support us – we need you to stand up for the kids and push back on this blatant indoctrination that was unauthorized.”
The online discussion — which included Clem — was wide-ranging, lasting several dozen messages. It included suggestions to introduce a parental advisory board to vet library materials and debated the degree to which the government should be involved in library content decisions.
Faber and Shelstad, who have been popular among hardline conservatives, did not encourage plans to protest, offered alternatives to organizing and, in one instance, recommended that protesters not cause trouble with the library. At one point, Shelstad expressed a feeling it was not the government’s responsibility to dictate what is or is not displayed in the library, but that government did have a responsibility to remain as removed from the promotion of any ideology as much as possible.
“Do we want this garbage in a county library? No!” Shelstad wrote in one of the messages. “How do we handle it from here? The Commissioners tell the appointed library board to cease this kind of support for any group. Period. Not the Governments [sic] place.”
A torrent of messages ensued urging county commissioners to cancel the show and to apply greater scrutiny to the library. Some, in emails obtained by WyoFile, alleged “indoctrination” by the local government and the library, and accused the magic show of being “highly sexually explicit.” Some baselessly accused Oz of promoting pedophilia, despite numerous endorsements promoting her show as family friendly. Others accused the current members of the library’s board of trustees of having an “agenda,” and urged members of the county commission to remove them from office.
“I am very cautious about promoting censorship of books, once you start where do you end?” one email obtained by WyoFile read. “But the books I have seen tonight that influence under age children, teens, should be illegal!! Some of these books have penny power stamped on them! My tax dollars supporting trash to our kids???”
Oz told WyoFile she had no plans to address her transition in the show, nor did she plan to perform, or discuss anything other than magic.
However, as misinformation continued to spread, opposition to the event eventually reached a fever pitch. On Monday, an unidentified individual entered the library and informed staff they could be in danger if Oz was allowed to perform, Leslie said. Shortly after, Oz received several threats, she said. On Tuesday, Oz announced she would be pulling out of the performance out of concern for her and her audience’s safety.
Oz’s withdrawal following the threats did little to satisfy her opponents. Some, like Sisti, denied on social media that any threats were actually made. And despite Oz’s exit from the event, Tuesday and Wednesday were marked by protests at the library, where a small group held signs opposing the use of taxpayer funds for LGBTQ-inclusive content and slogans like “don’t trans our kids.”
The protest movement is not about censorship, Kevin Bennett — a spokesperson for the group — told WyoFile. They simply do not want taxpayer dollars going toward the “promotion” of materials they don’t agree with, he said. The library board’s decisions are an attempt to “subvert the will of the community,” he said. (Trustees are appointed by the county commissioners.) Others called for additional oversight of programming at the library beyond the library board of trustees, such as a parental advisory group. If the library board is not receptive, Bennett said, protesters “would seek the commissioner board, the county commissioners, to make a decision in that direction.”
Campbell County Commissioner Rusty Bell said the entire effort to rein in the library — and compel county government to pull the plug on Oz’s performance — would establish an unsustainable precedent of giving into outrage: one that would only deprive the community of the diversity it desperately needs.
“I think it’s an embarrassment that somebody should be intimidated or threatened to not come to our community,” Bell said. “Nobody should ever be intimidated or threatened to not come here. And that’s disappointing, especially when we don’t know what could have been. It was advertised as a magic show. And now we’ll never know.”
Officials with the Campbell County Library say that independence from government intervention is what makes libraries so vital, particularly for underrepresented populations such as people of color and the LGBTQ community.
One parent of a transgender teen who was a regular patron of the library admonished protestors on Wednesday. Theresa Miller drove by the library with her 17-year-old grandson and 7-year-old granddaughter who had planned to attend the magic show. When asked by the 17-year-old what the protestors were doing, Miller responded: “They don’t want anyone else to have any fun.”
While protestors objected to the promotion of material they deemed inappropriate, Terri Leslie, the Library’s director for the past nine years and an employee for the past 25, said their job as librarians is to not only provide access to a wide variety of materials, but to let people know they exist.
“What we do is we go through a multitude of steps to select materials that have been reviewed, and are authentic, and get them into our collection,” Leslie said. “We let people decide what they want to read, what they don’t want to read.”
Some members of the county commission, however, are debating the level of neutrality the library should have in promoting its material. Some, like Shelstad, said he believes the government should have no role in promoting anything that could be perceived as ideologically driven, whether they are books on religion or books on the LGBTQ community.
“When we have our next library board meeting, I will sit down and say, ‘Look, can we use common sense, please, and keep us from having these lightning rods?’” Shelstad said in an interview. “What if somebody had a Satan worshiper that came in? What if we had a Christian poet or something? Somebody is always going to complain.”
Others, like Campbell County Commissioner Rusty Bell, expressed a feeling that local government showing underrepresented communities they were valued was essential to how Gillette and all of Campbell County is perceived by outsiders.
“It’s really hard for Campbell County to continue to say we need to diversify our economy, but that we’re not okay with somebody coming into the community that doesn’t look like us or act like us,” he said.
That sensibility was what made Oz’s performance so symbolically important, Oz said. While she is a transgender woman, her gender is not central to her professional identity or her performance. The performance wasn’t to be “a transgender magic show,” as Clem alleged, but rather a magic show that happened to be performed by a transgender woman. Oz is simply a magician, she said, whose primary mission is to entertain. Just being able to do that, she said, is significant: a sign that who she is does not need to be trivialized or explained.
“You never know who you’re going to touch or who you are going to reach, who you are going to find yourself in,” Oz said. “That’s part of the reason why I really love my job. It’s because you have all of these different kinds of communities and people who might not feel like they’re often seen. To be able to maybe find yourself in somebody else and see them doing something they love and maybe have that inspire somebody else … That’s a really cool thing. That’s kind of why I do what I do.”
Shelstad said that the vitriol of a small group of individuals should not define Campbell County. “It doesn’t really show a heartbeat for our community,” he said in an interview.
Members of the LGBTQ community, however, have long had to deal with signs they were not welcome in their own community. Some scars are deeper than others. In 2016, Trevor O’Brien — a gay man living in Gillette — died by suicide after incessant bullying. Shortly after a lesbian couple opened a new restaurant in town, Pizza Carello, in 2016, a patron carved a slur into the bar denigrating them. (Patrons later pitched in money to fix the damage.)
When Miller and Karin Ebertz, the current director of Gillette’s chapter of the LGBTQ advocacy organization PFLAG, formed the organization more than six years ago, they did so with the understanding that advocacy was not always an explicit thing: that being an ally sometimes meant keeping a low profile.
“We have to take our lead from the people who reach out to us,” Miller said. “A lot of the time what happens is we just need to get together, let them know that they aren’t alone, that someone loves them.”
Late Wednesday night, more than 40 friends and allies of PFLAG Gillette — including former Wyoming State Sen. Michael Von Flatern — gathered at the outdoor patio of Pizza Carello, many expressing dismay over the rhetoric from some in the community and Oz’s cancellation. Some expressed concern over the future. Others expressed gratitude for the vocal “minority” of people speaking out against anti-LGBTQ protesters. A young student teared up when they saw a teacher of theirs in-attendance, appreciative that there was someone who identified so closely with what they had dealt with.
Attendees also discussed how best to build and evolve. Sara Burlingame, director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Wyoming Equality, suggested the community begin taking stock of their allies — local religious organizations, businesses, nonprofits — and begin to form a visible coalition to stand in solidarity with Gillette’s LGBTQ residents to show the strength of their support and resilience in the face of bigotry.
“I just would urge everyone to not let them own this narrative, because they don’t own this town,” Burlingame said. “They don’t own this state. Y’all live here because it’s the place that we love and call home. We have every right to claim that.”
Several hours before Burlingame’s speech, the protestors had cleared out, with Bennett saying they would return to the site of the protest if necessary to achieve their goals. By 5 p.m. Wednesday, the anti-LGBTQ protestors were replaced with people holding Pride signs.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.