Small town Pride organizer forced to flee state after “groomer” group targeted him

The downtown area of Connersville, Indiana Photo: YouTube screenshot

Alex Keen, a 38-year-old gay man who grew up in the conservative rural Indiana town of Connersville (population 13,310), wanted to show support for his local LGBTQ+ community. So, last December, he founded a group called “Whitewater Pride” and organized three events for this Pride Month.

Soon after announcing the events, two residents — Melissa Rose and her husband Andrew Rose — set up a now-defunct Facebook group called “Whitewater Groomer Removers,” which insinuated that Keen is a child sex abuser. Its members harassed his events’ sponsors. Keen has since been followed in public by the group’s supporters and has gone into hiding. He now plans on moving out of the state, worried that someone will target him for violence.

“I spent most of my life in the closet. I didn’t come out until I was 36. And so living in this community, surrounded by right-wing Christian conservatives, it’s hard to be gay, it’s hard to come out of the closet,” Keen told LGBTQ Nation. “I just wanted there to be some kind of organization, some kind of support for the LGBT community… Having that support system around us is very important.”

Keen’s group, which mostly consists of him and three board members, purchased a table at the May 15 Celebration in the Ville community fair. For Pride Month, his group planned two all-ages games nights at the local Fayette County Public Library, a drag night at a local bar named Ozzie’s on June 15, and an all-ages pool party at the Roberts Park Family Aquatic Center on June 30.

But on April 29, Ozzie’s bar canceled the event after people complained, Keen said. LGBTQ Nation contacted the bar for comment. The adults-only event didn’t have any drag queens booked. Instead, it offered a $50 award to the attendee wearing the best drag.

Around the same time, Keen became aware of a Facebook group named “Whitewater Groomer Removers.” One of its members linked to Keen’s personal Facebook page, and another wrote, “Sick… Let’s make him famous for trying to groom children.”

Andrew Rose posted an image of Pantera’s album Vulgar Display of Power that showed a man being punched in the face.

Rose wrote, “The vibe of this song is the vibe I’m going for with this group…. I refuse to allow these freaks [to] impose their will in my community…. I plan to protest every event put on by the suspected child grooming operation known as ‘whitewater pride’ (as well as any other group promoting the same degeneracy) & I’m going to need A LOT of good people behind me. I created this group to organize & discuss such matters.”

Facebook screenshot An image from “Whitewater Groomer Removers” co-founder Andrew Rose

Melissa Rose posted an image of an article from the late March edition of the local newspaper, the Connersville News Examiner, specifically mentioning Whitewater Pride’s efforts. She told her group’s members to call the paper and complain, stating, “We don’t want this group sexualizing and grooming our children in Fayette County.”

LGBTQ Nation contacted the Roses for comment.

One of their group’s members reposted an image from Whitewater Pride’s Facebook group announcing its three Pride Month events. Commenters wrote, “Pride is a sin in the eyes of God! And everything associated with it,” “Our kids are targeted by the left,” “Yes they are! Bas**rds are everywhere,” “Shame on all of them.”

When Keen looked through the group’s members, he recognized about a third of them from round town, including a person who regularly cut his lawn. A week after discovering the group, he stopped staying at his home. Ever since, he has stayed at a friend’s place about 10 minutes away.

“It’s got to the point it’s affecting me physically,” he said. “I usually wake up and throw up in the morning, not really eating anything.”

By May 5, “Whitewater Groomer Removers” changed its name to “Protecting Our Children.” Its banner image showed a white man rolling up his sleeves.

As the May 15 Celebration in the Ville community fair approached, Melissa Rose sent messages to Sassy Peacock Events, the fair’s organizer, discouraging them from allowing Whitewater Pride to host a table at the event. She claimed that the group wants to allow pornography in schools, let “men be able to use girls’ locker rooms and restrooms,” and legalize the “mutilation of children under the age of 18” (even though gender-affirming genital surgeries aren’t conducted on minors).

At this point, Whitewater Pride’s Facebook page only contained posts about respecting people’s pronouns, Indiana’s anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, suicide and bullying statistics for queer youth, a bio of Stonewall veteran Marsha P. Johnson, announcements of upcoming game nights, a call for volunteers, and posts recognizing International Women’s Day and the International Transgender Day of Visibility.

“They are most certainly trying to set up a stronghold of far left sexually inappropriate ideologies for children,” Melissa Rose wrote to Sassy Peacock Events. “These are all of the issues that they are fighting for, on the side of evil, and that is ver much going to be devisive in a Conservative, Christian family oriented community. They should not even be trying to do all of this political activism while also trying to embed themselves in our community, under the guise of ‘helping kids to feel accepted.’… [They are] doing all of this work to indoctrinate confused kids.”

She demanded that Sassy Peacock Events allow her group to have a booth as well and suggested that she might stage a possible protest.

Though that protest never materialized, Sassy Peacock Events contacted the mayor’s office and local police anyway. In a public May 2 Facebook post, the organizer wrote, “There will be an extensive multi-departmental security presence Friday evening for set-up, through the night and all day Saturday till the end of the event. The whole downtown area has security cameras, there will be multiple drones capturing footage for us throughout the event as well.”

“We expect everyone to behave in a professional, respectful manner,” the organizer added. “Sassy Peacock Events has no tolerance for hate speech, disruptive displays, harassment, or protests.”

Facebook screenshot An image advertising Whitewater Pride’s Pride Month events

In early May, Whitewater Pride announced that it had received a grant from the Fayette Community Foundation, a local organization that funds local non-profit efforts, as well as small donations from a few other local businesses. The Roses’ followers called the foundation and those businesses to complain, Keen said.

During one of Whitewater Pride’s game nights at the Fayette County Public Library in early May, three older men from a “second amendment club” showed up to try and disrupt the event, the library staff told LGBTQ Nation. The men complained about the hour-long event, even though they’re poorly attended and held in a private room separate from the main library.

“It was all awful and I wish it hadn’t happened,” library staff said of the men’s appearance.

On May 15, Andrew and Melissa Rose confronted Keen at one of his library game nights. In a video of their conversation in the library’s lobby, Andrew Rose said it wasn’t right to “indoctrinate” children. He claimed that Keen’s group and game nights “encourage children.”

“They’re sitting there,” he said. “They’re watching, they’re observing.” At this time, however, no minors had ever attended the game night.

“God doesn’t think it’s right either,” Andrew Rose told Keen. When Keen told him that he was free to have his own religious beliefs, Andrew Rose said, “Well, LGBT is a religion.” Andrew Rose also told Keen that he would oppose Whitewater Pride even if its events didn’t welcome minors.

Melissa Rose told Keen that she and her husband are “super nice and calm and wouldn’t harm anyone” and that her online comments had no “context of anger, violence, or hatred behind them.” She claimed that Facebook commenters had called her group’s members’ employers to get them fired and that her son’s girlfriend had also been “targeted.”

“We’ve had people from all over the globe, LGBT, coming and then saying we are literally causing harm and violence and trying to eradicate their community,” she said.

Melissa Rose then expressed disappointment that Keen and his group didn’t publicly defend her group when a nearby Pride organization, Rainbow Richmond, made an April 28 Facebook post referring to the Roses’ group as an “active hate group.” Keen has no affiliation with Rainbow Richmond.

“You could have certainly approached [Rainbow Richmond] and said ‘Look, this really is just escalating the situation, All this is doing is just fueling the fire of hatred and ignorance,'” she told Keen. “We didn’t want to contribute to any sort of disruption in the community or make you guys feel threatened in any way.”

She also admitted that she took down her group’s page when she “realized it was getting so much attention.” She then asked if Keen would make a statement against her group being called a hate group.

Facebook screenshot The Whitewater Groomer Removers’ Facebook banner image

“I started hysterically laughing,” said Jama Sullivan, a local straight ally who was present during the discussion. “I was like, ‘First of all, we’re not doing that. Second of all, you are bigots…. I told her, ‘You started a fire and you’re getting burned a little from the flames, and you want us to put it out? Like, no, it doesn’t work that way.'”

Sullivan said she too has been publicly identified and targeted by Roses’ followers because of her support for Whitewater Pride.

“I put cameras all around my property because now we’re worried because you’ve targeted us,” Sullivan said she told the Roses. “It takes one person you’ve triggered, one person to come to my home and shoot at my house. I have a child there. So no, we will not put out a public statement on your behalf. You’re an idiot.”

When another person asked Melissa Rose why their respective groups can’t just co-exist, Rose said, “You can exist. No one’s trying to stop you.”

Melissa Rose then said that she doesn’t think that it’s appropriate for Keen to say he supports children because his personal Facebook page contained a photo, taken years ago at the Coachella Music Festival, of something that said, “Everyone should get laid once.”

“I think you should delete that,” Rose told Keen. He told her that he had already deleted that post.

During the conversation, Sullivan said she pointed out to the Roses that the U.S. Catholic Church has been accused of hundreds of thousands of child sex abuse cases.

“You’re not at our local Catholic school saying, ‘Get these kids out of here. They’re not safe,'” Sullivan told the couple. “You’re the library attacking adults. I mean, there’s not even children here. It’s just adults in a room playing games.”

“In Connersville,” Sullivan said, “we have one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the state of Indiana, one of the highest unemployment rates in the state of Indiana. We have one of the highest drug uses in the state of Indiana. Connersville is ranked like 92 out of 100 in the healthiest cities in Indiana. The education system is suffering dramatically. The rate of high school dropouts is astronomical.”

She recently advised a lesbian friend against moving to the town because she’d likely be targeted with hate if she and her same-sex spouse walked into a Walmart store holding hands.

“So what can we do, as a community, to make people feel welcome to get them to stay here?” Sullivan asked rhetorically.

The Roses showed up again at June 5 Pride Month game night with three fellow protesters. Keen said they “got incredibly worked up” when four older teenagers showed up to play games.

“I heard one of them call me a coward when I walked away from them,” Keen said. He said that the protesters followed him to his car after the game night ended. Though he hasn’t personally received any death threats, Keen hasn’t returned to his home since early May. He plans on selling his house and moving out of state because he no longer feels safe.

Facebook screenshot An image advertising Whitewater Pride’s Pride march

He contacted several LGBTQ+ and Pride organizations around the state for advice on how to safely hold his events. Volunteers from other local Pride groups have said they’ll help with their security. That may come in handy, since the Roses have reportedly pledged to protest his June 30 pool party.

Despite the intimidation, Keen has added one extra event to his Pride Month plans: a June 28 march through Connersville on the 54th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.

“I just want a combined show of strength that the LGBTQ community in the area has come together and is going to stand up to the people who want to bully us back into the closet,” Keen said.

Sullivan praised Keen when he first told her about his plans to start Whitewater Pride because she felt their community really needed it. But when Keen told her of his plans to leave the state, she said, “You can’t Alex, because they win. You’re letting them win.”

“I’m angry. I’m so angry,” she said. Keen told her that he doubted anyone would want to continue leading Whitewater Pride after he leaves because of all the hatred he’s endured.

“I think I’m going to tell him, I’ll [run his group] in the interim and take applications for a new director,” Sullivan said, “because I don’t want this to go away.”

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