The Old Steeple in Ferndale. | Photo by Andrew Goff.

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A planned drag show fundraiser in Ferndale has been canceled over concerns about an extremist backlash after a conservative church in town posted a warning message about the event on its public-facing sign.

Photo via Facebook

The all-ages “Roaring ‘20s Drag Event” was supposed to be a fundraiser for Lost Coast Pride, a nonprofit organization created two years ago in response to an anti-LGBTQ message posted on a sign outside St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. 

Kaelan Rivera, a disabled Navy vet, queer trans man and founder/executive director of Lost Coast Pride, has helped to organize the first two Pride marches held in Ferndale, and in a phone conversation today he said the drag show would have raised funds for the third installation of the event, which serves as both celebration and protest in the face of discrimination.

The show was being arranged with help from Paul Beatie and Cheri March, who own and operate Ferndale Music Company and The Old Steeple, a live music venue housed inside the former Methodist church beside the Ferndale Cemetery. 

“Paul and Cheri reached out and said, ‘Hey, you can use the Steeple as a venue,’” Rivera said. “Paul did the PA system for last Pride festival [in Ferndale], so they’re very supportive of the LGBTQ community.”

Together they decided to hold the event on the first weekend in February, and Rivera was in the process of planing the event — making fliers, gathering contributions from people in town, etc. — when things took a turn.

“Paul and Cheri got a hold of me and said, ‘Have you seen the sign?’” Rivera said.

Bramwell stands outside his church during the 2021 Pride march in Ferndale. | File photo.

St. Mark’s, led by controversial Pastor Tyrel Bramwell, had posted a new message on the illuminated sign standing at the corner of Fern Avenue and Berning Street. “BEWARE,” it read in all caps, “DRAG SHOW FOR KIDS COMING TO THE OLD STEEPLE.”

Photos of the sign were posted to social media, including the Ferndale Community Page on Facebook, and while the vast majority of responses condemned the sign’s message, calling it an example of hatred, bigotry and bullying, word about the event continued to spread. Some of the responses were worrisome.

In an emailed statement, Beatie and March told the Outpost that they made the painful decision to cancel the event “out of an abundance of caution” after being alerted to online blowback.

“Friends and customers reached out to us regarding threatening Facebook messages that pointed to the possibility of extremists attending the event to disrupt it,” the statement from Beatie and March reads. Asked for specifics or screenshots they said the post in question had been deleted.

In a follow up call, Beatie said he’d been alerted to a comment on Facebook asking for the names and addresses of organizers. “We flagged that post and it was removed,” he said, adding that Rivera and Lost Coast Pride still have his support.

Violence and disruptions at drag shows have become increasingly common across the country, especially after last year’s shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs, Colo., which left five people dead and at least 17 others injured. Right-wing media outlets and politicians stoke anti-LGBTQ hatred and violence with unfounded claims that drag shows serve as “grooming” events where sexual predators ensnare helpless children. 

Rivera thinks that’s ridiculous. 

“You know the show ‘To Catch a Predator’?” he asked. “You notice that you never saw a drag queen on there? There were men of the cloth, men of faith busted for going out and trying to have intercourse with minors [but] I’ve never seen a drag queen ever prosecuted.”

He said the Lost Coast Pride event was going to be an all-ages show, not a “drag show for kids.”

“Drag is performing,” Rivera said. “It is a performance; it is a show; it is an inspiration. … Those are the things that drag is about. It’s about freedom; it’s about being yourself [and] it’s about entertainment.”

He said there certainly are adult drag shows, where the content can be more overtly sexual, but that the event he was planning would have been appropriate for all ages.

Bramwell (whose contributions to local right-wing talk radio station KINS were canceled for being too incendiary) recently gave voice to some common fear-mongering messages in a video posted to YouTube. Speaking about the recent all-ages drag show held at the Jefferson Community Center, Bramwell claimed the event served to facilitate “grooming, indoctrination [and] desensitization to perversion and evil.”

“The devil was on the prowl at this event and he is devouring [children’s] souls,” Bramwell says in the video.

Reached by phone on Tuesday, Bramwell stood by those comments and said the message posted on his church sign was a justified warning.

“That kids should be invited to such a thing definitely goes against scripture,” he said. “We’re really wanting to protect children from the indoctrination happening by exposure to performance art that historically was for gay men, behind closed doors.”

Bramwell said drag shows represent a “rejection of God’s order,” namely that there are only two genders, male and female. 

“We’re definitely trying to push back against the lie that’s being promoted today … that there are more than two genders and that it’s okay to support the confusion a person may be going through by advocating falsehoods … .”

In their emailed message, Beatie and March said they reached out to Bramwell in hopes of finding a compromise, to no avail. Here’s their full statement:

We made the painful decision to cancel the show out of an abundance of caution. 

We never thought it would come to this. Our driving mission as owners of The Old Steeple is to offer a creative space where everyone in our community feels safe and welcome. Members of Lost Coast Pride are our friends and neighbors, and the drag show was part of a fundraising event and vendor fair that was open to all ages. Contrary to St. Mark’s Church’s deliberately sensational sign, it was not a “drag show for kids.” 

Our first step was to reach out to pastor Tyrel Bramwell, who agreed to meet with us in person. We asked that he either remove the sign, or at least alter it to eliminate the insinuation that the show was specifically for children. He refused to do so unless we required Lost Coast Pride to make their show adults only, at which point he would remove “kids” but still call us out by name for having a drag show. We agreed to disagree, and at this point, we decided to proceed with the event and “turn the other cheek” — basically, to ignore the bully. We also felt buoyed by support from the majority of the Ferndale community, most of whom are very reasonable, loving people.

But by the end of the day the rumblings of discontent started to trickle in. Friends and customers reached out to us regarding threatening Facebook messages that pointed to the possibility of extremists attending the event to disrupt it. As parents and community members, it’s our responsibility to keep our community safe. Children take music lessons at our building, and their safety is paramount. We don’t know that this is the “right” decision but it feels like the prudent decision, and personally that’s what is right for our family. We continue to support Lost Coast Pride and the LGBTQ+ community and would like to work together in the future. As disappointed as we are, we hope to turn this into a time of self reflection and regrouping, so that we can move forward more effectively with our mission of inclusivity.

Cheri & Paul

As of today, the sign outside St. Mark’s had been updated:

The message outside St. Mark’s. | Photo by Andrew Goff.

“I’m so frustrated,” Rivera said, though he added that he understands the decision made by Beatie and March. “It’s amazing to me that there’s like 20 people in this town and everybody kowtows to them. … I don’t understand how we’ve let one man and one church spew so much hate — which is why we have a Pride march, because it’s crap.”

Rivera said he’s still hoping to hold the drag event and is working with other Ferndale residents to locate another venue. 

“I would like to keep it here in town,” he said. “Maybe the fairgrounds.” He’s hopeful that another business might reach out “if somebody is wiling to take that risk — and I know it’s a risk,” he said.

A Pride flag hangs in the window of the Old Steeple.