Lewis County made history Tuesday with its first formal acknowledgement of Pride Month. The resolution honors the historic Stonewall Riots, points to the area’s “diverse LGBTQ community” and urges residents to “build a culture of inclusiveness and acceptance.”
First-term Commissioner Sean Swope, whose district includes the Twin Cities and northwest Lewis County, abstained from voting.
And while the resolution is being celebrated by some as a win for LGBTQ inclusion, its passage came on the heels of lengthy condemnation of Swope, who became the subject of controversy last week after questioning whether individuals could “identify” as vaccinated against COVID-19. He added: “in our society today … if I'm a man, I can identify as a woman. Or I can identify as a goat. Or something else.”
Centralian Mary McHale — who said the commissioner “dehumanized an entire community of his constituents by comparing us to goats” — joined a small crowd of Lewis County residents Tuesday in the historic courthouse to publicly condemn what they called transphobic remarks.
“Mocking trans folks isn’t just ignorant. It’s dangerous. Doing so actively encourages others in our community to see us as less than, to see us as acceptable targets for hate and violence,” McHale told Swope. “This is exactly the reason Pride Month exists in the first place: because there is an ongoing need for myself — and members of the queer community — to actively defend our right to simply exist.”
Symbolic resolutions like the one passed Tuesday rarely prove controversial, or even elicit input from the public. Already this year, commissioners have passed similar resolutions recognizing Earth Day and Mental Health Awareness Month. Three separate resolutions have been passed recognizing law enforcement, National Police Week and National Correctional Officers and Employees Week.
But on Tuesday, as some constituents urged commissioners to formally recognize Pride Month, one written public comment instead condemned the county for celebrating “sexual immorality for an entire month.” James, Mardona and Imari Custer, along with Carla Hollinger, submitted the joint letter saying they were “appalled” by the resolution, which “does not represent the majority of this county.”
The written public comment was alone in its critique. Afterward, Caleb Huffman relayed his experience growing up queer and religious in Lewis County, saying “soon enough you’re daydreaming about looking down the barrel of a gun because you have no place here.”
“I hope it shows that there’s some problems that need to be fixed in this county,” Huffman told The Chronicle.
Centralia resident Gillian Davis also warned Swope that “words have real consequences,” recounting her work in the 1980s as a hospice nurse in Oregon, tending to young men dying of AIDS. Due to “ignorance,” she said, families were broken apart and were denied support from their own communities.
“His language is at best ignorant, and at worst it’s hate speech,” Davis said before the public meeting.
Public testimony ended with an apology from Swope, who said he was thankful that his constituents showed up.
“I apologize that my words have this kind of effect. And I never in a million years would’ve ever intended that. I do have family members who are part of the LGBT community as well, and would never want to be offensive toward them, toward you, toward each other. I do believe that we have to be an inclusive people,” he said. “I hear you and I just want to apologize that my words had this effect. So I hope you can forgive me.”
Swope ultimately abstained from voting to recognize Pride Month. When asked why, he pointed to his comments from the day before, when he said adding his name would “cheapen” the county’s effort given his recent comments and subsequent backlash. In that meeting, Swope also said he received “death threats” over the comments.
Swope’s apology “missed the mark,” according to McHale, who asked Swope to vote for the resolution.
When asked what inspired the introduction of the Pride Month resolution, first-term Commissioner Lindsey Pollock said this year “was my first opportunity to bring it forward.”
“I think it’s important for our community to acknowledge that all people are equal,” she said. “And this was a way to go about doing that.”
Commissioner Gary Stamper called the resolution a small step, “but at least it’s a step in the right direction.”