Tia Rikki performs at Arlington’s first-ever Pride celebration on Saturday, June 4, 2022. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Tia Rikki performs at Arlington’s first-ever Pride celebration on Saturday, June 4, 2022. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Pride celebration stirs more controversy in Arlington

Council heard nearly an hour of public comment regarding the town’s pride event.

ARLINGTON — Right-wing activists, including some from a local online Moms For Liberty group, used an Arlington City Council meeting to rail against drag performers and contest the town’s Pride event.

Arlington Pride will be held on July 22. Earlier this month, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights watchdog, added Moms For Liberty to a list of “anti-government extremist groups.”

The organization’s emergence from a locked Facebook group to commenting at public meetings comes as tensions surrounding LGBTQ+ issues in Arlington continue to simmer. Last month, city staff asked Pride Organizers to consider not hosting a drag story time at the event.

Members of the Arlington Pride group, along with others in the community, have been closely watching Snohomish County Moms For Liberty members posts for months. In response, the group — along with other LGBTQ+ allies and Arlington community members — began to routinely attend city council meetings.

In public comment at one council meeting, Pride organizers cited a new law they say gives the city the right to declare a gun-free zone.

“There is a new law, ESSB 5038 or RCW 9.41.300(2), that would allow the city to restrict open carrying of firearms within 250 feet of a permitted event in a public park if notice is given to the public about this no carry zone,” a May letter from Arlington Pride to city officials.

The city disagreed. In a blunt letter, city administrator Paul Ellis responded to the group, arguing that while state law does authorize cities to restrict open carry at “permitted demonstrations,” the statute is narrow. The law defines a permitted demonstration as a type of “gathering.”

And the law defines a gathering as “a demonstration, march, rally, vigil, sit-in, protest, picketing, or similar public assembly.”

Ellis then wrote: “You have the right to minimize the risk of backlash and problems that might occur by regulating the content of your entertainment. While the City has concluded your entertainment, based on the limited information you have provided, is protected by the First Amendment, it is clearly entertainment that certain segments of the community do not support … you should consider how your message is being received by the community.”

On Tuesday evening, Pride members said they knew Moms For Liberty was going to show up, so 50 people packed in the tiny city council chamber to listen to Kenzie Killebrew, one of the Pride group members. Extra chairs had to be brought in before the meeting.

“Last city council meeting, I told you that I was queer, but that is only part of my identity. I’m also a daughter, a sister, a mentor, a student, an animal lover and an artist,” Killebrew said. “The difference between those parts of my identity is being queer is the only one I’ve had to hide.”

A principle and fundamental reason for the founding of Arlington Pride was to provide a safety net for the local queer community, organizers say. LGBTQ+ children kill themselves at a disproportionately high rate. Groups like Arlington Pride can connect youth — and adults — to services or an introduction into the community, they say.

Advocates say events like Arlington Pride serve as recognition of a visible queer community. In fact, studies show supportive events like Pride can make a positive impact on LGBTQ+ youth.

The National LGBT Health Education Center lists living as a stigmatized minority as a factor leading to increased risk of suicide. Studies have shown hate crime laws reduce suicides as well.

Moms for Liberty groups across the country have pushed to cast drag performers as sexually deviant and pressed politicians to cancel drag performances and ban LGBTQ+-themed books.

Sue Ward, a member of the Moms group, was first to the podium Tuesday evening. She criticized drag performances and threatened legal action, mentioning laws against minors attending “erotic” performances.

“If violations occur and the City of Arlington does not pursue violations of these codes, the community shop owners and pastors likely will,” Ward said.

Two people who spoke in support of the event declined to publicly state their addresses saying they feared Ward. Ward waved off those concerns after the meeting.

“There’s been no threats. The threats have come at me, the threats have come at Tom (Hughes),” said Ward. Hughes is a right-wing agitator who attended the Arlington City Council meeting on June 5.

Supporters of LGBTQ+ rights, drag performances and the Arlington Pride event outnumbered those in opposition. Keegan Smith said his family had been in the Arlington area for three generations.

“I’m not part of the LGBT community, but they’re part of ours,” Smith said. “This is Arlington Washington Pride that is trying to hold an event. This isn’t Seattle Pride, this isn’t anybody else trying to come here and change our community. These are people here, the people that live here. They’re your neighbors.”

Ward said after the meeting she was a member of the Facebook group, but not a member of the Moms For Liberty organization. She also said she was a member of another conservative group, Conservative Ladies of Washington. She also has nearly 20,000 followers on Twitter.

Ward also sent a letter to council that featured much of what she said in her public comment.

In the letter, she also said a family member is transitioning and that she has friends who are gay. She ended her letter with a message to city council.

“Please consider making a change to having this event OR at the very very least know exactly what is going to transpire,” she wrote in the letter. “There is no guarantee for that.”

Arlington Pride has already pushed back after the city requested the group pay for security and insurance. The city relented on the requirement last month. Arlington Pride will provide security through its own members.

Several members of the Arlington Pride group are former law enforcement and military with training in crowd control.

Mayor Barb Tolbert thought the meeting Tuesday went well. 

“It was a very civil discussion of people with opposing viewpoints,” Tolbert said. “I thought they followed the rules, talked respectively and had their voices heard.”

Jordan Hansen: 425-339-3046; jordan.hansen@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @jordyhansen.

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