On Friday, March 12, as the Affirmations LGBTQ+ Community Center in Ferndale held its twice-weekly ‘Lettuce Help’ food and clothing distribution program, a small group of anti-LGBTQ+ protesters gathered outside the main entrance on the Nine Mile Road side of the building. They ranged from five to 10 in number and held signs and shouted slogans.
When the protest began, Affirmations Executive Director Dave Garcia was not on-site.
“I was actually at a one-on-one meeting with our new program director down the street … and on the way back to the office is when I saw everybody out front at Affirmations,” Garcia said. “My understanding is they had been there for a little while, maybe like a half-hour or hour before I showed up, but when I showed up, there were also members from the [LGBTQ+] community showing up on our side, and they were also bringing in new folks.”
Garcia spoke to the Ferndale Police, who had already arrived and were keeping the peace. Both sides exercised their right to free speech and stayed on the sidewalk. Garcia was concerned the protesters wanted to provoke a fight. Aside from protecting the community, he had the liability of the center to think of, too.
The irony of the protesters spewing hate out front while the staff and volunteers in back had come together to provide food and clothing to the needy was not lost on Garcia.
“It’s hard when you have screaming in your face with those signs of, ‘You’re gonna go to hell’ — that’s what they were spewing, right in front of the community center, while we had the food program in the back. We’ve given out over 4,500 meals to date with our food program [and] we’re dealing with these so-called Christians in front,” Garcia said. “I think they should have put their signs down and given out some food, frankly.”
Soon passersby joined the group to support Affirmations, many of whom were unknown to Garcia. A local rabbi gave him his card. A teachers’ union representative also shared her card and offered to teach peaceful demonstration at the center. When area business owners caught wind of the situation, many flew their rainbow flags. Counter-protesters then outnumbered the protesters, but the groups were at a standstill and tension was rising.
“I think the concern was that we had a lot more people that were starting to come out of Ferndale to be on our side,” Garcia said. “My concern was, how does it end? If we continue to have more and they feel they can’t leave until we leave, how exactly does this all stop? The longer it was going to go on, the more chance you had that something bad was going to happen.”
What happened next could only come from a page out of the LGBTQ+ playbook.
“One of the people from our community who had a small speaker asked me if I wanted him to play anything, and I said, ‘Yes! I want you to play Lady Gaga, Cher and [The Village People’s] ‘Y.M.C.A.’ So, he smiled and put ‘Y.M.C.A.’ on, and then I tried to lead a little bit of the ‘Y.M.C.A.’ thing for a second. So here we had our side doing the ‘Y.M.C.A.’ and they’re screaming through a megaphone about condemning us all to hell; I was just trying to ratchet down the anger and tension that was rapidly starting to build as more and more people were coming.”
Garcia estimated by the time it ended, 10 to 15 supporters were gathered outside Affirmations. He had an idea for how to end the standoff.
“So I walked over to the leader … the one in the green sweatshirt,” Garcia said. “I pulled him aside; it was one of the Ferndale police officers, myself and him, and I was like, ‘Look, I don’t know about you, but it’s late Friday afternoon, a beautiful day. Personally, I’ve had a long day and I want to go have a beer. You guys have said what you have to say. Our community has responded. I’m not sure how you think this is gonna end, but I’d really like to go home.’ And he says, ‘If you guys leave, we’ll leave.’ And at this point, they’re outnumbered.”
Leading the community and allies into the center, Garcia talked about the food program and how proud he was that they had come out in support of Affirmations. But mostly, he was trying to buy time until the protesters left. The police had told him privately if he could get the counter-protesters to leave, the police would escort the protesters to their cars — though that should not be taken as a sign of support.
Garcia said he met a lot of new people that afternoon, and that his mentality went from anger to figuring out how to ease the tension without anyone getting hurt. Hence, the song and dance.
“There’s a delicate balance of, if no one had paid attention to them, if no community member had come up or it hadn’t gotten to a bigger crowd, how long would they have stayed if they hadn’t got any attention?” Garcia said. “At the same time, of course they’re gonna get attention: they’re in the heart of Ferndale, they’re at Affirmations, our community has a right to respond, as publicly as they’re being, on public property. But what is the line between feeding the attention that they want and us being able to say, ‘Not in our house’? I don’t have the answer to that right now.”
At the time of this interview, it was not known who the protesters were, or if they represented a group. Garcia is eager to find out.
“I would be curious to know if they’re a local group,” Garcia said. “Are they out-of-state, are they associated with the Proud Boys? I think it would help us or at least be beneficial to know who these folks are. I’ve been dealing with this for 20 years. In light of where we are currently, I want to know if this was the Church Militant, right around the corner? … And I think we have a right to know that.”
The video of “Y.M.C.A.” was shot by Kathleen Redmon, the new program director with whom Garcia was meeting when this all began.
“She’s been with us now almost two months, but it’s almost all been Zoom,” Garcia said. “She hasn’t been at Affirmations physically much at all. And so the last thing I said to the staff when I left that night to actually go get a beer was to Kathleen, I said, ‘Welcome to Affirmations.’”
As news spread on social media, by the end of that day, Friday, the LGBTQ+ community and allies were already turning lemons into lemonade for the center in the form of donations. And by Monday morning, the total was $6,500 and growing. $1,000 of that came from a birthday fundraiser sponsored by Ferndale Mayor Melanie Piana.
Ferndale Pride Chair Julia Music gets the final word:
“I find it troubling that people have time to spend their weekend spreading hate in a city that‘s known for being welcoming and affirming to all people but I am glad to see that our citizens stepped up and Affirmations was able to raise some funds and feed people in need.”
Learn more about the LGBTQ+ community center at goaffirmations.org.