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How government hurdles and online protesters changed the shape of Arlington Pride

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Daniel James / Unsplash

The city of Arlington was scheduled to have a Pride celebration in early June. But organizers say the city has put up new hurdles that forced the 2023 celebration to be delayed.

On June 20, Everett Herald reporter Jordan Hansen went to a city council meeting in Arlington, Washington.

"I got there about 5:45. There were probably about 50 or 60 people in there. It was packed. extra chairs had to be brought in. The mood was tense," Hansen said.

Many were there to discuss Arlington’s upcoming second annual LGBTQ pride celebration.

Hansen was there to cover the story — you can find his reporting here.

Typically, Pride celebrations happen around the U.S. in June. But organizers for Arlington WA Pride say new hurdles have delayed the event.

That’s in contrast to last year’s event, which went well, according to Hansen. Around 300 to 400 people attended — a big number for a town of 20,000.

But when the group went to the city in December with their proposal for the 2023 Pride event, they faced new restrictions.

"The city told them that they needed to have insurance," Hansen said. "That they needed to find off duty cops to provide security."

That insurance, combined with the expense of private security, was going to cost an estimated $3,500 — something the Arlington WA Pride organizers hadn’t anticipated, since neither was required last year.

Originally, Arlington Pride was scheduled for early June. But with the new fees, organizers said they needed more time and volunteers to fundraise. So, they pushed the event back to July 22.

Hansen said the city also raised concerns about the content of the event, specifically a drag story time, during which drag performers read to children.

"The city officials suggested that drag story time would be a security issue and that it would invite elements that could potentially be a security threat," he noted.

Soundside reached out to the city of Arlington for comment on this issue. Officials declined an on-air interview but agreed to answer written questions.

Eventually, "it was determined the event was considered a First Amendment event under the terms of the ordinance, and the insurance and security requirements were removed, and the permit was issued," Arlington city administrator Paul Ellis wrote in a statement to Soundside.

In a letter sent to Arlington WA Pride on May 30, Ellis said the organization "has a right to minimize the risks of backlash and problems that might occur by regulating the content of your entertainment."

Whether the word "entertainment" accurately reflects the nature of a Pride event, which many see as a form of demonstration, has been called into question.

Ellis told Soundside, "The use of the term 'entertainment' ... was describing only a portion of the proposed Arlington Pride event, which did not describe a demonstration."

The letter in question also states that the event "is clearly entertainment which certain segments of the community do not support."

This growing pushback against LGBTQ people and events is an issue being seen all over the country.

In recent months, states like Tennessee have passed anti-drag performance legislation, which is currently being challenged in court. A number of other states have also proposed bills that would ban drag in certain settings. Florida has mandated how and when educators can talk about sexuality and gender identity, and whether a trans person can use a public restroom that aligns with their gender identity.

In Arlington this year, there was suddenly a lot of energy focused on a small city’s pride celebration, with drag story time at the center of protests.

Those protests have moved predominantly online, led in part by a Facebook group called Moms for Liberty Snohomish County. It’s a local arm of a national group that’s earned a big megaphone in conservative politics, like fighting Covid restrictions and pushing to limit discussions of race and LGBTQ issues in schools.

As Hansen sat at the back of the room during that June city council meeting, he watched members of Moms for Liberty show up to speak out about the event for the first time.

He said the first group of protestors that attended that city council meeting was small, but their numbers have grown in subsequent meetings, and so has the reach of their ideas. Comments by city officials made during a meeting with Arlington WA Pride organizers parroted social media posts seen online.

Hansen said the rhetoric has gotten so heated, there’s a lot of fear over what could result if the event isn’t handled correctly. He said he even feels it, as a journalist covering the story.

"I worry that groups such as the Proud Boys or other militia groups will show up. I'm worried that this could become a flashpoint. I'm worried for everyone involved," he said.

Probably no one worries more about the potential consequences than the Pride event’s organizers.

"We know that there are people who have shown up to other events with guns to intimidate people, to open carry," said Caera Gramore, the acting president of Arlington WA Pride. "And that they are talking online about doing this at our event."

Gramore has lived in Arlington with her partner since 2018, and was a founding member of Arlington WA Pride in 2021.

Due to safety concerns, Arlington WA Pride requested the city enact a new state law which would restrict open carry of firearms within 250 feet of the permitted event. The city denied that request, stating that the event did not meet the requirements as a "permitted demonstration."

Ellis told Soundside the city's decision there was "based on legal counsel review."

"We've heard from some of the lawmakers who contributed to writing this this law that they absolutely intended it to apply to Pride events," Gramore said. "The city of Arlington keeps refusing to enforce it."

Gramore added that the event is meant to be family oriented — and specifically for young LGBTQ+ people living in Arlington, who have shown enthusiasm for local representation and support.

But now Arlington WA Pride is seeing student groups pull out of the event because they're scared, Gramore said. "They don't believe the city's going to keep them safe."

Arlington WA Pride is asking people to write to the city of Arlington, asking that open carry restrictions be enforced.

Meanwhile, Ellis noted that Arlington "has heard from both supporters and non-supporters of the event and we are promoting a safe environment for the attendees of the Pride event and the host, the Arlington Farmers Market." He added that local law enforcement has not received any credible threats of violence related to the Pride event.

Ellis also pointed to a proclamation issued by Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert on June 6, which asserts that "members of the LGBTQ+ population reside throughout our city ... and these community members deserve to live without fear of discrimination, prejudice or violence." The proclamation also states that the city of Arlington is committed to "creating an environment that is inclusive and equitable, and free from discrimination and harassment, and desires opportunities to celebrate the growing diversity in our city."

Tolbert issued a similar proclamation in 2021.

Read the full list of questions and responses from Soundside's written interview with the city of Arlington below.

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Arlington WA Pride Q&A

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