Protestors threatened to ruin this Idaho county’s first Pride, but the community came together

Progress pride flag (new design of rainbow flag) waving in the air with blue sky, LGBTQ community in Netherlands
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When Tom Wheeler set out to help organize Canyon County, Idaho’s first Pride event, he envisioned a small picnic in a park in Nampa, where he volunteers at an LGBTQ+ drop-in center. It would be a small event open to everyone.

But Canyon County’s first Pride was not small and had 700 feet of six-foot-tall metal fencing and a police barricade. The event drew a crowd of thousands of people and featured food trucks, drag entertainers, and a stage.

It was also highly controversial, the mayor of Nampa said that Pride events conflicted with her beliefs, and residents of Nampa said it should be protested.

Though it was never completely safe to be a gay person in the United States, the Obama-era optimism of marriage equality and Pride Celebrations as parties are gone. Thanks to rising homophobia and transphobia, Pride events are now commonly threatened and protested. There have been 1,800 anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced nationwide, and the State Department recently issued a warning about terrorist attacks during Pride celebrations.

Wheeler and fellow volunteer, Van Knapp, who lives in Nampa, decided to plan a Pride celebration together for the community. But what they originally intended to be a small picnic in the park for about 50 people grew into a gathering for 2,000, with the pair receiving $18,000 in donations.

The Washington Post reports that “there were no explicit threats of violence” against the event, but before the event, Wheeler said that he received a call in which someone told him, “My family’s been here since 1901. This is God’s country. You’re not welcome here.”

His uncle told him he should wear a bulletproof vest. Instead, he opted for a cowboy hat and a pink T-shirt.

Even the mayor of Nampa spoke out, releasing a statement in May that reminded people that, while the First Amendment protects the right for the group to assemble in public, she personally doesn’t agree with Pride.

“While this event does not reflect the personal beliefs and convictions of myself, the Nampa City Council, and many living in Nampa who have already reached out to us requesting it be canceled, the advice of our legal counsel was that the City of Nampa must recognize the protected first amendment rights of those scheduling and involved in this event,” Nampa Mayor Debbie Kling said.

For their safety, Wheeler waited until the day before to announce the drag performers and offered them the option to drop out of the event, which they declined.

“I’m just excited to show a little brown kid what I would have loved to see,” a queen named Percephone Bias said.

The day of saw protests: some people stood outside and held signs that read “Appeal to Heaven” or stood near the entrance wearing Make America Great Again hats. About ten Liberty Dogs, a far-right group, stood at the barricades around the event with guns.

But by 1:45 p.m., the event was at occupancy, and even more so, a 1,000-foot line of people was waiting to get in. While Wheeler was initially worried about getting shut down for having too many people, the fire chief told him that “the crowd is a good thing! It’s good to see this here in Nampa.”

By the time the drag performers started, the Liberty Dogs were gone. The nine queens who lived in Canyon County, who had never gotten to perform in their hometowns, were cheered for and celebrated by a massive crowd. The celebration ended with a proposal: a man from Nampa went on stage and asked his boyfriend to marry him, who said yes.

Wheeler told Inman that he “would totally categorize the event as peaceful and a step in the right direction for civil liberties for LGBTQ folks in Idaho.”

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