Protests and Prayers

Kevin Bennet (right) holds a protest sign with Bob Vomhof Wednesday, afternoon (Ryan Lewallen/County 17).

Gillette divided over transgender magician performance at local library

Outrage over a magic performance scheduled at the Campbell County Public Library (CCPL) fueled a protest Wednesday that called for the removal of books “indoctrinating” children into the LGBTQ community.

Nearly 30 Gillette residents gathered next to the CCPL on July 14 to express their displeasure for what they perceived as a betrayal of trust regarding the library’s decision to hire Mikayla Oz — a transgender woman and talented magician — to host a magic show for local kids during the summer reading program.

They waived signs to passing traffic, some of which read “Stop Indoctrinating Our Kids” while others sought merely to identify Oz as a transgender woman. Some residents even clad themselves in white T-shirts with the words “Don’t Trans Our Kids” scrawled across their fronts.

Residents walk back to their vehicle following the conclusion of the Wednesday protest

Reactions from passing residents on 4-J Road were mixed; some honked their horns in support while others stopped mid-traffic to express disgust at the group’s message and to argue briefly with the protesters before moving on.

But what that message actually was, wasn’t necessarily clear.

A convoluted message

Protest organizer Kevin Bennet said Wednesday afternoon that the event’s main goal was to speak out against the use of taxpayer dollars to pay for LGBTQ literature and transgender performances from individuals like Oz.

Putting transgender people in front of kids who don’t even know their own identities yet shouldn’t happen because kids are very impressionable, Kevin said.

In the days leading up to the protest, however, public comments made by community members painted a very different picture of intolerance and fear for Oz’s presence and what the recently ended CCPL Pride Month could spell for Campbell County’s youth.

“What we’re looking at is the ground game in an attempt to destroy the culture in our country,” Hugh Bennet said during a July 7 County Commission meeting, characterizing the growing LGBTQ movement as an overt attempt to demoralize and ultimately destroy the United States itself.

“It’s intimidation by authoritative figures on our most vulnerable population- our teens,” Hugh continued, accusing the CCPL of making specific attempts to confuse the minds of Campbell County youth with specific examples of immorality and perversion.

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To further complicate the message, the day before the protest Oz and the CCPL announced the cancellation of the magic performance at libraries in Gillette and Wright after receiving threats from local residents.

Terri Leslie, CCPL director, said that earlier this week an unidentified resident came into the library and made menacing comments to library staff regarding Oz’s performance.

“He said there had been a parent meeting and that he was upset and that we should close the library because it wasn’t safe to be there,” Leslie said July 14.

Oz reported that she received a threatening phone call Monday night from another upset resident.

An email provided to County 17 by Mikayla Oz that she received from a local resident. (Ryan Lewallen/County 17)

“Essentially, they said ‘you better not f—- come to Gillette. If you do, there’ll be issues,” she said, adding that whoever called hung up immediately when she asked if they could talk it over.

Around midnight that same day, Oz received an email where another resident stated “You ain’t f—- welcome in Gillette.”

Kevin said Tuesday that no one from his group threatened anyone and expressed hope that whoever did would be brought to justice.

Gillette police have launched an investigation into the threats, according to Lt. Kelly Alger.

Minority not majority

In all of her professional career, Oz said, she has never had a reception like the one she received from Gillette. She expressed confusion over where the idea that she was going to use her transgender status to indoctrinate children came from.

“As I’ve told other people, me being trans has never been brought up anywhere in my advertising for my family shows,” she explained. “I didn’t think it was something that was necessary to talk about for a kid’s show.”

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Regardless, rumors of her having Campbell County children watch a video where she takes her pants off circulated in a social media post by Bob Vomhof, who questioned if residents were going to stand idly by and let Oz influence their children.

“How long will you count on others to confront this type of controversy and adversary for you and your children?” the post asked. “How long will you complain to your friends behind closed doors but be afraid to publicly make a stand for what you believe? At what point does your children’s innocence matter more than what others think of you?”

While the post had 161 reactions as of July 16, not all of them were in support of Vomhof’s assertions with some residents asking how a video intended to find humor in working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic translated to coercing children.

Since announcing the cancellation, Oz has received a ton of love and support from the Gillette community that shows, in her opinion, that the backlash that led to the cancellation does not represent the majority by any means.

“I think it was just a small minority group that, unfortunately, ruined it for everybody else,” she said. “I would love to come back at some point in the future. It seems that you have a really good community.”

Betrayal or neutrality

Kevin, as well as several other community members, felt that the library’s choice to hire Oz and to purchase LGBTQ literature shows that the organization and its governing board need more oversight from the citizens of Campbell County.

In his eyes, the library betrayed the trust of the community by not identifying Oz as a transgender performer, either due to negligence or by design, and by having LGBTQ literature easily accessible by children.

“There are a lot of books in there that a child shouldn’t have,” he said. “But we’re not about no books, we’re just against books that indoctrinate kids.”

Dean Vomhof, who also spoke during the July 7 commission meeting, said that by having LGBTQ material easily accessible and promoted for an entire month, the CCPL is not representing the community it claims to serve.

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“Children were given to their parents by God almighty, not the government, not the library, and certainly not the LGTBQ community,” Dean said.

Parents need to be informed about the library’s “queer agenda” and should have the chance to opt their children out of it before rather than after the fact, he concluded.

But there is no queer agenda, according to Leslie, who said on July 7 that it is the role of a public library to provide diverse cultural opportunities for reading, learning, and entertainment for all citizens in a community.

“There are going to be a wide range of things that people are going to want to get from a library,” Leslie explained. “We consider ourselves neutral. We don’t consider ourselves political. We just try to provide collections and programs. That’s what we do.”

She acknowledged on July 14 that the CCPL did not know that Oz was a transgender woman because it did not ask, though not due to negligence like Kevin claimed.

“It’s against federal law for us to discriminate,” she said simply. Additionally, LGBTQ literature is not as easily accessible as some who protest their existence in the library would have one believe.

There is not a specific LGBTQ section at the library and these types of books are not arranged on a pedestal or in a highly visible display. They are integrated into the tens of thousands of volumes housed within the library’s collection.

In order for someone to find them, they would have to specifically search them out through the library’s card catalog system, according to Leslie.

Love not condemnation

While others waived their signs and shouted at passing traffic, a small, separate group quietly walked among the protesters asking questions here and listening to answers there.

While the protesters packed their signs away as the protest came to an end, smiling and laughing amongst themselves, the group formed a small circle in the CCPL parking lot with their hands intertwined and their heads bowed in prayer.

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For ten minutes they stood, praying for those protesting and their community.

“We prayed that wisdom be shown and that the right posture be felt towards Jesus,” Shiloh Aravjo said when they finished, explaining that in situations such as this, Christianity can get misconstrued and the true message of God’s word can become lost.

He said that he, accompanied by three others, were out there that afternoon to listen and pray out of love.

We want to put our faith first, Brady Carlson added, a lot of people here today were pretty quick to judge.

Alyssa Stumbaugh nodded in agreement, saying that their goal was to spread a message of love and not condemnation.

Shilo Aravjo (right), Alyssa Strumbaugh, Brady Carlson, join hands with another youth in prayer outside the Campbell County Public Library following the protest (Ryan Lewallen/County 17).