An embrace. A kiss. A “yes” that put those gathered around them in a visible state of excitement, all smiles and phones out, recording a beautiful moment where two people in love committed to spend their lives together.
It’s a scene you might have been present for once or twice yourself, perhaps at a baseball game, or Disney World, or in a restaurant where the couple had their first date. It could be described in a number of ways, but a word that probably wouldn’t come to mind: Political.
Yet that image of now-husbands Bren and Justin Hipp, captured by photojournalist Grant Baldwin for Charlotte Pride in 2017, and on display as part of an exhibit titled Into the Darkroom at the Gaston County Museum of Art and History, was deemed to be just that by Gaston County Manager Kim Eagle, who ordered its removal.
The exhibit opened on May 31, just one day before Pride month. Eagle ordered the removal of the image days after the opening, a fact Baldwin only learned when Gaston Gazette reporter Kara Fohner called him to ask for his reaction.
Baldwin, a regular Queen City Nerve contributor, was in the Nerve newsroom when he received the call.
“I told her, ‘I’d be happy to talk to you, but I gotta find out what’s going on,’” Baldwin recalled. “So, I called the museum and talked to the director and he was very apologetic. He’s like, ‘I don’t know how you found out so fast.’”
The director, Jason Luker, told him he hadn’t had time to reach out yet, but was quick to tell him who was behind the decision, and to Baldwin it sounded like the government-funded museum was “caught in the middle.”
Baldwin said the museum did not want to take it down and they did push back on it, but the county forced its hand.
“What the museum told me was that the county said that it was removed because it was an advocacy image. That was the operative word,” Baldwin said.
He felt it was clear Eagle had targeted his work because of its LGBTQ theme, and noted that another image in the gallery, “Sitting For A Change,” taken by Bae Hive and inspired by the Greensboro Sit-Ins, which depicts nine Black children at a lunch counter, could also be considered an “advocacy” image. The museum told Baldwin they received no complaints from the county about that work, which remains in the show, not that Baldwin would have wanted it removed.
Notably, Baldwin was also blocked from displaying another work, in this instance ahead of the start of the exhibition and at the behest of the museum itself. Taken for Queen City Nerve in 2020, during the summer of the George Floyd protests, the image shows police arresting an activist outside the Gaston County Courthouse after attending the hearings of the trials of fellow activists arrested in protests the night before.
Sheriff’s deputies moved in on the activists gathered in front of a Confederate monument which, though the city council subsequently voted to remove it, still stands in the same spot to this day, after an order to move off the property wasn’t immediately obeyed. Two white deputies pinned one activist, a Black woman, to the asphalt. It’s a powerful image.
Gaston County spokesman Adam Gaub said in a statement that Eagle had been “originally unaware of the submission” and claimed it was later discovered that “the museum director had decided against displaying the photo as part of the Into the Darkroom exhibit.”
Baldwin, on the other hand, said a representative from the museum had told him the county prohibited the arrest photo because it showed county employees, those being the sheriff’s deputies.
The county spokesman also released a statement about the removal of Baldwin’s Pride photograph, saying Eagle “instructed museum staff to work with the photographer to find an alternative photograph to display that would be more considerate of differing viewpoints in the community.”
“The idea behind the exhibit is to document a historical event, and there are other options from the photographer’s work that more fully capture the context of the parade that was documented,” it continued.
“The museum is government-funded, and as such, it is important for the items it shares to be informational without championing political issues,” it continued.
Baldwin decided not to replace the image, leaving an empty space where an image of love once resided: a visible reminder of the erasure the county manager demanded.
In a statement, President of the Charlotte Pride Board of Directors Clark Simon, who happens to be a Gastonia resident, called the county’s decision “reminiscent of recent national efforts to paint the simple existence of LGBTQ people as dangerous to society.”
Charlotte Pride communications director Matt Comer characterized it as “pure censorship that was motivated by homophobia.”
“If this had been a heterosexual couple, this would not have been an issue and the county government wouldn’t have ordered it to be removed,” he added. “There is certainly nothing political or inappropriate about a couple proposing to each other and then eventually entering into a legal marriage. This goes back to LGBTQ lives and love being overpoliticized, and being oppressed by the government. The only people who could view this as being political are people who are actively opposed to LGBTQ equality.”
In response, on June 21, Gastonia City Councilmember Robert Kellogg, himself a member of the LGBTQ community, proposed the council pass a Pride proclamation.
“I really feel that there’s a segment of our population in Gastonia who’s really looking for … some people in leadership to give them validation and make them feel welcome,” Kellogg said after making clear that he understood his late proposal did not adhere to the standard protocol for passing such proclamations.
“Especially with some things that happened last week, I think my role, and the reason that I’m bringing this forward, is that I hope we can be that body that gives them some kind of comfort.”
Councilmember Jim Gallagher cited being a born-again Christian, as well as procedural concerns, while stating his opposition to the motion. Mayor Walker Reid and Councilmember Donyel Barber also expressed concern around bucking the usual procedure.
The motion failed to pass, with only Kellogg voting in favor.
In a follow-up article by Fohner published by the Gaston Gazette on June 27, two Gaston County commissioners stated their support for Eagle’s decision. One commissioner, Tracy Philbeck, stated that he believed “homosexuality is a sin” and that he did not support Pride month, while another, Chad Brown, voiced his support for pulling all county funding from the museum.
Pride and drag events targeted
Unfortunately, Gastonia is far from an isolated case. In fact, it is part of a broader trend of increased targeting of the LGBTQ community by violent, radical groups, politicians, and media — traditional and social alike.
In Wilmington, on the same day Gastonia City Council voted against a Pride proclamation, members of the Cape Fear chapter of the violent neo-fascist group the Proud Boys and a handful of other protesters picketed and disrupted a Pride reading event at the Pine Valley Library.
At least a dozen demonstrators stood outside of the library with signs accusing staff there of participating in child abuse and “supplying pornography to our students.” Several then entered the library, including members of the Proud Boys, escorted by local police.
Attendee Angie Kahney said a local pastor, Reverend Tim Russell, who posted a picture of himself with the group to Facebook, asked her on her way in if she “knew they were teaching pornography in our schools.”
She said she ignored them and entered the library, where things were quiet at first. But after about 15 or 20 minutes, she said a demonstrator she recalled seeing with the Proud Boys at other events, such as school board meetings, came in and said he was registered for the event and wished to go into the room where the event was being held.
“And so I immediately intervened and said, ‘He’s not a parent, he’s with the protesters outside. He is literally at every single event that the Proud Boys are at, in Wilmington anyway,’” she said.
Nonetheless, Kahney said the man was led back to the room, and that she heard him arguing with parents and library staff before going back out to the group of demonstrators, which she said by this time had grown to over 30.
According to Kahney, that’s when some of the protesters, alongside New Hanover County sheriff’s deputies who had been stationed outside, entered the library, saying they wanted to see where their tax dollars were going. They said they wanted to see “the pornography and the inappropriate sex books that were being shown to kids,” as well as “the drag queen,” despite the event not being a drag queen storytime and obviously not including any pornography or “sex books.”
Kahney said the door was locked while library staff stood in the hallway blocking the doorway. Still, she said, children and their parents were frightened at the protesters’ actions, which she said included pushing their faces up to the windows to look in, shaking the door and yelling.
Kahney said they also walked around the rest of the library, looking into empty rooms and asking patrons who were not there for the event if they were aware of “pornography in schools.”
Eventually, they exited out a back door, she said.
Another attendee, Emily Jones, said she was in the room with her daughter when the Proud Boys disrupted the event. Jones said she was “super excited” when she found out about the Pride-themed storytime. She admitted was nervous due to reports of Pride events being disrupted, but felt this was less likely to end up being targeted.
She said she entered the library without incident, but that she heard from other parents at the event who were confronted with derogatory language. She couldn’t hear what was being said, but did hear commotion and said people who were out in the hallway told her they were talking about pornography and drag queens.
“I could just hear emotion,” she recounted.
“They just kind of walked back there ‘cause the cops were with them and they showed them the room that we were in,” Jones said. “And I was dancing with my daughter, or something like running around with her, and I look at the window and I see one of the men with his face pressed up against the glass … and just kind of glaring at us and really trying to antagonize us. And then they kind of marched through that hallway. Again, it was clearly to antagonize us, to let us know that they were there.”
Jones said a member of the library staff came in after they left to say they needed to stay there for a few minutes to make sure they were safe. Finally, she asked if she could leave and the staff member spoke with a coworker and decided it was safe, but they had to exit through a side door for their protection.
Jones said library staff escorted her through the hallway, where a sheriff’s deputy was standing by the door, through which he let her and her daughter out.
“It was very scary in the moment,” Jones said. “Honestly, I cried all night last night. It’s hard to even really formulate the words, but I’ve been dealing with abuse from these types of people my whole life and all I really want is to provide a space for my daughter that is loving, and accepting, and inclusive.”
New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Lt. Jerry Brewer disputed some of the claims being made about the event across social media. “They walked in [and] they were not disruptive,” Brewer said of the protesters.
“The librarian asked them a question and they said, ‘No, we’re just here to come inside of a government building that our tax dollars pay for. And we wanna see what they’re paying for,’” he continued, adding that library staff did not attempt to stop them.
“There was no reason to stop them,” he said, and noted that there wasn’t any video evidence showing deputies escorting them. He characterized pictures some have used as evidence as showing a deputy “walking past the group of people coming in to get in between them and the door that was holding the reading.”
Brewer also said they didn’t try to enter the room, and that the reading was “mostly over with” by that point.
The same group of Proud Boys also claimed to have had a presence at Fayetteville Pride, held just four days later, on June 25, posting a picture to their Telegram of a drag queen reading to children as well as a video of a drag queen performing on a stage to a mixed crowd, including some kids. They have also made clear their intentions to continue attending drag events.
Earlier this month, on June 11, an Apex Pride drag storytime event went on as planned after it was initially canceled by the Apex Festival Commission in response to violent threats. Statewide LGBTQ advocacy group Equality NC stepped in to sponsor the event.
In yet another case of a sudden change of heart, in Union County, which will hold its first Pride in September, the library system has pulled out from planned participation that was to include a booth at the festival, hosting a teen book club, and participating in seminars.
Union County Pride President Cristal Robinson told WBTV she believes the library pulled out over the organization hosting a drag queen storytime at a church.
“As a government entity, our organization typically participates in and promotes municipal-sponsored events or those events sponsored by organizations that have received funding support directly from Union County Government,” a spokesperson for the county said in a statement.
In Hickory, a patriotic-themed drag event, called Red White and Q, was scheduled for July 9 at the L.P. Frans Stadium, home to the minor league baseball team the Hickory Crawdads, a farm team of the Texas Rangers. Organizers for that event also found themselves on the receiving end of bad news.
David Zealy-Wright and his husband run Cardboard Castle Productions, which not only planned Red White and Q but also held a similar event at the venue last year, he said, although without a drag queen story hour component. He believes that was the reason the Texas Rangers organization canceled at the last minute, although Crawdads’ management have told the press it was due to the event never being fully approved as well as staffing concerns.
“The manager of the Crawdads stadium called and he was just very brokenhearted about it,” said Zealy-Wright. “He had advocated for us, saying, ‘We had an event last year,’ and the organization literally told him, ‘Yeah, but really with the current political climate and the fact you’re doing a family resource fair, and the story hour, we’re just not gonna do that.’”
“It’s very obvious that it’s politically motivated. But the sad thing is, is that the family resource fair and the drag queen story hour were gonna be free,” he added, and said the decision caused him disappointment but that the only option was to continue on performing where they’re able.
Zealy-Wright said he feels the decision is part of a larger political agenda in which politicians lean on “hot-button” issues to “gin up their base,” especially during election years.
“I teach psychology and critical thought. It takes extra steps for people to think critically or ask questions. And a lot of people are hurting right now, financially, you know, inflation through the roof, gas prices, et cetera. So they’re looking for somebody to blame,” he concluded.
“So there is an agenda, like we’re seeing with ‘Roe v. Wade,’ et cetera, there is an agenda and we are an easy mark.”
The issue is far from a regional one, with a Pride event in Idaho narrowly avoiding possible bloodshed as 31 white supremacists from the group Patriot Front showed up with reported plans to cause mayhem. A tip led to arrests, but it could easily have gone another way.
A drag event was recently disrupted by the Proud Boys in San Lorenzo, California, and another was targeted in Texas. A library system on Long Island, New York, pulled Pride displays after significant backlash.
Politicians are also taking action on the issue, with both Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene in Georgia and Texas State Rep. Bryan Slaton looking to legislate a ban on minors attending drag shows, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis publicly mulling over the idea of tasking child protective services with investigating parents who take their kids to such events.
A Supreme warning
The recent Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade — notable as an LGBTQ issue as plenty of queer people have a uterus and can get pregnant, and marginalized groups of all kinds are often hit hardest whenever rights are under assault — also included an extra gut punch in the form of Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion.
Thomas argued that, although the Roe v. Wade ruling did not impact other court decisions not directly related to abortion, he cited three other landmark rulings that were, like Roe, decided based on the same legal reasoning, that being the due process clause of the 14th amendment: Griswold v. Connecticut, which granted married couples the right to access contraception; Lawrence v. Texas, which legalized same-sex sexual activity; and Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage.
This has understandably raised the anxiety level of advocates and LGBTQ people, who wonder if this ruling will lead to a further stripping away of rights.
LGBTQ rights are already under attack even if the Supreme Court never revisits those rulings, with a record number of anti-LGBTQ legislation popping up nationwide, much of which has been signed into law.
A bulk of that legislation is targeted at the transgender community, with laws limiting healthcare and sports participation being among the most widespread. The so-called “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” bills, justified as “Parental Rights” bills by supporters, limit classroom instruction around sexual orientation and gender identity. While often presented as little more than common sense legislation to prevent teaching children in K-3 about topics that could be age-inappropriate, many are written so loosely they could apply to older students, and in some cases even require teachers to out students to their parents, regardless of whether or not they’re supportive.
This is especially concerning given that LGBTQ youth are drastically overrepresented in the houseless population, due in no small part to unaccepting parents.
The North Carolina General Assembly flirted with passing such a bill, as well as one that would ban transgender girls and women from competing in women’s sports, and a third that would limit medical care for transgender people under 21 and punish their doctors.
Republican leadership knows the odds of getting such bills signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, are nonexistent, but that could all change after the midterms. If Republicans can gain just three House seats and two Senate seats, they would once again have a supermajority that would have the power to override Cooper’s veto.
And failing that, they could always hope for a Republican governor to assume power after the 2024 gubernatorial election.
Not backing down
Despite all these obstacles, many in the LGBTQ community want people to know they have no intention of canceling events or hiding.
Charlotte Pride, which takes place in August, will continue unabated.
“Rest assured, we are boldly moving ahead with all of our plans,” reads a recent tweet from the Charlotte Pride account in response to news of recent event cancellations in nearby towns and cities.
“I think it’s really important for people to know and realize that violence at Pride events is extremely rare,” said Matt Comer, Charlotte Pride communications director.
“People are rightfully concerned when they hear reports about rising harassment at libraries, or like the incident in Idaho. It’s OK to be concerned, but also be aware that violent events at Pride events are just extremely rare. And that’s a testament to all of the months of planning and preparation that goes into any product event in any city.”
Kendra Johnson, executive director of Equality NC, said she has a “deep concern” in this “new era…[of] Christian nationalism,” but stressed that communities can help protect themselves by taking the threats seriously and maintaining vigilance at events.
“I’m hoping that this extremism and the insurrection are a wake-up call,” she added. “The fact that we’re still debating an insurrection is an indication of how far we need to come to grapple with our current reality.”