Editor's Note: Portions of this story originally appeared in The Enterprise's June 16, 2022 edition. The Enterprise is owned by the North Coast Journal, Inc.
Ferndale on a Sunday morning is quiet but not sleepy. Middle-aged couples put in their daily miles walking loops down Main Street, turning on Van Ness to pass the fairgrounds. Gaggles of young moms window shop while clutching coffee cups. Farmers done with their morning chores catch up at the counter of Poppa Joe's under the watchful eye of taxidermied bucks. The Veteran's Hall marquee is advertising its monthly pancake breakfast, scheduled for next week. Across the street, the Friends of the Ferndale Library are hosting a book sale. The bells of St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church call the faithful inside for The Divine Service at 10:30 a.m. On the lawn of the church, its sign this Sunday, June 26, says "The LGBTQ Are Being Deceived."
A similar declaration last year, asking people if they had been hurt by LGBTQ culture, inspired the small town's first-ever Pride March on June 27, 2021. Plans for a second march, almost exactly a year later, were also galvanized by inflammatory statements from the church's pastor Reverend Tyrel Bramwell.
"Ferndale's first pride march was a protest and the turnout was more than I expected that year," says Kaelan Rivera, who organized this year's march. "The turnout was more awe-inspiring because of that sign."
Rivera, who came out as transgender in 1998 while living in Redding, is a military veteran who has lived in Ferndale for two years. Rivera says he has always been very open about his identity and displays rainbow flags on his vehicle and home.
Things have not always been this way. As recently as 2007, community members attempted to prevent openly gay therapist Stuart Altschuler from conducting sessions at his home office, citing concerns that it might not be appropriate for a "family setting." The planning commission's vote to deny Altschuler's permit was eventually overturned. Altschuler, who still lives and works in Ferndale, says things have changed over the past 15 years.
"My experience, since arriving in Ferndale in 2007, is that the support of LGBTQ people has been stronger and more evident," he says. "The vast majority of Ferndale residents make me feel safe and loved and supported. Unfortunately, there will always be those who prefer ignorance and hateful belief systems to drive their hatred and attacks on minorities of any kind. I prefer to see the good in Ferndale and deal with the bigots only when I must."
In recent years there has been an increase in visibility for the queer community. A home at the north end of Main Street proudly displays a rainbow flag. Two local businesses — Foggy Bottoms Boys and Patches' Pastries — put their identities front and center with their marketing efforts. Recently, the Cream City played host to numerous folks in drag and saucy costumes as they attended the Rocky Horror Show at the Ferndale Repertory Theatre.
Bramwell, who appears to have leaned into the controversy, chose Pride Month this year to conduct a series of sermons titled "Rescued from Sin's Rainbow." On June 23, he added a blog entry to St. Mark's website titled "Moral and Immoral Cyclones." In it he references Lynette Mullen's April 21, 2022 article in The Enterprise describing an incident from 1892 in which several citizens destroyed the home of a local woman accused of prostitution. The Enterprise's editor at the time, Denis Edeline, referred to the reaction as a "moral cyclone" striking Ferndale. Bramwell perceives the marches as an "immoral cyclone" centered not "on a house of immorality," but the church.
"On June 26, 2022, another rainbow-striped cyclone of immorality is scheduled to touch down in town," wrote Bramwell. "What will be Ferndale's response? ... Sexual immorality was once struck by a cyclone in Cream City. Is there enough morality left among us for those winds to swirl yet again? We shall see what the weather will bring. I, for one, believe we will see the gale-force winds of a moral people once again."
When the June 26 march was initially announced, The Enterprise reached out to Bramwell for comment, and he offered to respond via email. We asked about his interpretation of the Bible's views on homosexuality, why he felt compelled to comment on the subject and how he felt about his views seeming to have encouraged the local LGBTQ community to be more vocal and present in Ferndale.
"The Bible says homosexuality is a sin against God's Law for which Jesus Christ died so that repentant believers in Him would be justified," Bramwell wrote. "I want my hearers to know the depth of God's love for them and how far He goes to save them from their sins. I have a vocational duty to address the sinful temptations of our day when they are presented. The LGBTQ presence was in and around Ferndale before I arrived in our community in 2017. I saw it steadily increasing for years before my message revealed its presence in no uncertain terms."
In 2021, Bramwell stood on the church's steps to address the crowd and was met with chants and kazoos. He alleges on the St. Mark's website that he and his family have been threatened. This Sunday he is speaking to his congregation about "the simple and the senseless," quoting from the Book of Proverbs and Corinthians, encouraging this flock to be "daring and direct and unashamed of the Gospel." Outside, the remaining scrim of the coastal fog burns off to reveal the full promise of the day.
Around 11:45 a.m., the quiet of the Cream City is broken as more than 100 people, many waving rainbow flags, descend on the lawn in front of City Hall. Some arrive on foot from their homes in Ferndale, others from further away. Pat McCutcheon and Cheryl Rau of Bayside, holding a banner that said, "Celebrating 37 Years Together," pull up in their bright yellow convertible.
"This is our service for the day," said McCutcheon, waving to her friends from the Humboldt Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Behind her, a young family with a mother, father and two young girls apply sunscreen. The mother wears a shirt that says, "Protect Trans Youth." Over by the gazebo, Pete Bansen, in a striped shirt and suspenders, shakes hands with a friend.
"I'm here to represent the straight, retired farmers in suspenders contingent," says Bansen, chuckling. He adds that he had an uncle who was gay and that he "suffered."
"Ferndale's changed quite a bit," Bansen says.
On the sidewalk, Ferndale Police Department officer Cesar Cervantes stands with his thumbs on his belt, gamely answering questions. His vehicle is pulled to the side, its lights flashing silently to give drivers coming into town a reason to pause as march attendees stream across the street. Many have questions about where they'll be marching. McCutcheon asks if they can drive. Yes, Cervantes says, they can drive slowly, but as the organizers don't have a permit, the march will have to take place on the sidewalks, not the street. A samba band gathers, members rolling their drumsticks experimentally.
The siren atop the Ferndale Volunteer Fire Department sounds at noon and Rivera climbs the steps of the gazebo, shouting for people to gather closer so they can hear him. He lays down some guidelines, saying, "this is a march, this is a protest." Rivera asks participants in wheelchairs or with mobility problems to go to the front and lead the procession.
"Queer people with disabilities do not get seen hardly ever in a parade and they're going in front," he says, prompting a round of applause.
Rivera also calls for the crowd to "not engage" with detractors.
"There will be people who say things, do things, all sorts of foul stuff if you've never been to a parade," he says. "We send them peace and love and we keep marching."
Rivera's warning turns out to be unnecessary. At 12:15 p.m., the march begins, with Renee Crandall and her family, with one member using a wheelchair, at the front.
"I am supporting myself, and I am supporting my people, and I am supporting my moms," says Crandall, "All women, all genders all around the world, who want to be here but can't be here. They have to be hidden or they can't express themselves because of their family ... my father disowned me because I'm a lesbian. There's nothing I can do about it but love him from afar."
Crandall added that she thinks Ferndale is a great place to have a pride parade and "spread kindness."
"It's a beautiful place, it has history," she says. "I think it's a great place to teach old dogs new tricks."
The marchers snake their way down Main Street, past the Cat Shack, then across the intersection at Shaw as the samba beat throbs. Cheryl Etter stands on the corner in front of Ferndale Pizza, clapping her hands as she watches.
"I don't believe you judge other people," says Etter softly when asked why she came out to support the march. "You let people be who they are."
In front of Tuyas restaurant, brunching tourists look up from their sopes and enchiladas as the colorful crowd streams past. Two employees stand in the doorway, also taking it in.
Rau and McCutcheon are still inching their way up Main in their bright yellow car. Another Ferndale Police officer is waiting at the intersection of Main and Bluff, lights flashing to alert northbound traffic.
"Happy Pride!" shouts a woman from the sidewalk, receiving a cheer. The marchers turn again to cross at Brown Street and a pickup hauling a horse trailer brakes to let them pass. The driver flashes a peace sign out the window. The beat of the samba band goes on and on.
Just a few blocks away, at Firemen's Park, the blanket of afternoon quiet drops once again. Tables are set up behind the bocce ball court with a handful of vendors waiting to sell tie-dye rainbow T-shirts and jewelry. A radio plays Sting's greatest hits at a serene volume. The entire Petersen family is gathered beneath the shade of pop-up awning on folding chairs, waiting to hand out ice cream. No, they say, they don't have anyone in the march.
"We're just here to be of service," one says.
Back down Main Street, the march has returned to City Hall and dissolved. Several people are headed north to the park, others are starting their cars. A Suburban pulls up next to a truck to give it a jumpstart. The steps of the church are empty, but two teenagers pose in front of the sign. One wears a short plaid skirt and fishnets, a rainbow flag draped over their shoulders. Their friends snap pictures. The sky above is clear and blue, not a cloud to be seen.
Linda Stansberry (she/her) is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.