It was at a meeting in mid-April when things came to a head in Ferndale. For months, some residents had been pushing the Ferndale City Council to pass an anti-hate resolution, a statement of community values declaring that everyone is welcome in the Cream City, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, religion or ethnicity, and condemning bigotry in all forms.
Dozens of cities and counties throughout the country have passed similar resolutions but, by the time Ferndale's council members took their seats on the small stage at the far end of the Town Hall on Main Street before an unusually large audience on April 19, there were indications the council's majority was inclined to go another route. For months, Mayor Randy Cady had appeared reluctant to put the issue for discussion but finally had — kind of — passing over a draft resolution penned by Councilmember Skip Jorgensen to agendize his own statement on a "desire for respect and inclusion in public discourse."
The April 19 meeting got off to a fairly typical start, with the council leading those present in the pledge of allegiance, followed by a presentation from the Humboldt Waste Management Authority. Then came Cady's statement, in which he said he didn't feel it "appropriate for the city council to condemn one viewpoint or support another viewpoint" but said he hoped Ferndale's citizens would prioritize "kindness, inclusion and respect" toward neighbors and visitors alike. After Jorgensen and Councilmember Jennifer Fisk Becker indicated they felt that didn't go far enough and asked that Jorgensen's draft resolution and a pared down "kindness resolution" penned by Fisk Becker be brought back at a special meeting for discussion, the matter was opened for public comment.
What followed was ugly.
Fourteen speakers then addressed the council, all passionately, with five supporting moving forward with a resolution and nine vehemently opposed.
Those in favor of the resolution said it would be a powerful message — in Ferndale and beyond — that the Cream City would aspire to treat people with kindness and be welcoming of everyone . Supporters also dismissed fears that the nonbinding resolution would somehow infringe on religious or free speech protections as "gaslighting."
But those opposed objected on multiple fronts, with some saying it was not the place of government to weigh in on such issues, that the resolution was an attempt to silence a church's free speech or parents' rights to voice concerns about all-ages drag shows . Others said it simply would do little to change people's feelings and might draw other people forward looking for resolutions of support to the point the council would have time for little else. Some of the comments were overtly political — referring to proponents of such a resolution and LGBTQ support groups as "activist groups" and "leftists" fighting for "manufactured civil rights" — while others were deeply steeped in religion . On e woman stood up for hate, saying that while it's unpopular, God says there is a time to hate, going on to label members of the LGBTQ+ community as "sexual immoral deviants" who are "evil people."
A handful of those who opposed the resolution expressed a deep fear of all-ages drag shows, saying they believe the local "pride community " and the shows, specifically, are attempting to sexualize, "indoctrinate" and "groom" children. (It should be noted there is absolutely no proof of such a claim, and members of the LGBTQ+ community have said the all-ages shows are not overtly sexual and offer a supportive space for youth grappling with gender and sexual identity, while local police and the district attorney have said they are unaware of any cases in which someone used a drag show or LGBTQ+ organization to victimize a child.)
One man from Eureka seemed to take his talking points from the outermost extremes of internet memes, offering the council a picture of "a transgender holding an AR-15" with a message about killing "Christ cubs." He then alleged that all-ages drag shows include "devil horns" and "dildos."
"I know a lot of you guys, you don't do internet, and I don't think you know what's going on," he said. "You gotta' take a look at what's really going on with this pride community and what they're doing to our kids. It's unacceptable."
A McKinleyville resident and co-founder of a fringe local website ranted to the council about "leftists" trying to "cancel" good parents by calling them "hateful bigots that call people faggots," saying he's just a concerned father trying to raise his sons with his wife, "who was actually born a girl and is a real woman."
Rousing applause followed his comments, as well as those of all others who spoke in opposition of a resolution. At no point did Cady ask for order or respectful dialogue.
Some who attended the meeting supporting an anti-hate or inclusion resolution left feeling deeply shaken. A woman who identified herself as Alice was one of the last to address the council that night, saying she hadn't planned on speaking but felt compelled to do so. She said she'd lived in Ferndale most of her life, having left after high school, then returned.
"I went to Ferndale High School in 1986 and this is what it was like," she said looking around the room in apparent dismay, her voice cracking with emotion. "This is what drove me from this town that long ago. I wasn't gay, I was just a weird kid, and I underwent so much torment that I wanted to kill myself. ... I'm sorry, I wasn't intending to speak but it's scary to me that this is even an issue."
A few days later — at 10 a.m. on April 22, a Saturday — Ferndale posted notice of a special meeting to be held at 3:30 p.m. on April 25 with the resolution as the single agenda item. It's unclear exactly why, but not a single proponent of the resolution showed up at the special meeting to address the council, which voted 3-2, with Fisk Becker and Jorgensen dissenting, to pass a motion from Councilmember Phillip Ostler that the council "do nothing."
"In my life, this is either America or it's not, there's a First Amendment, or there's not," Ostler said, adding he felt a resolution was "not the way to go about this."
Two months later, amid a month of countywide Pride events, Lost Coast Pride is planning a June 25 march down Ferndale's Main Street. Organizers are confident it will the biggest one yet.
There's no denying TyrelBramwell, the pastor at St. Mark's Lutheran Church, stands at the center of Ferndale's controversy. It was his words on the church marquee back in 2021 — "Hurt by LGBTQ Culture? Healing here " — that spurred initial calls for an anti-hate resolution and the organization of the city's first Pride march, and it was his marquee's warning back in January that urged residents to "beware" of an all-ages drag show, bringing safety concerns that caused the show's organizers to cancel it, renewing calls for a resolution.
It's a position Bramwell seems to relish.
Addressing the council on April 19, he warned the council that passing an anti-hate resolution would go against God's authority to determine what is and isn't sin.
"Going against his authority and becoming a terrorist to Christians in support of another group is evil in all manners of the word," he said.
Down the street, St. Mark's marquee had been changed that night to read: "City to discuss affirming child abuse 6 p.m. Wednesday."
Bramwell has repeatedly maintained that he is just doing his job as a pastor for the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, which believes the Bible teaches homosexual behavior is contrary to God's word and will and thus a sin. But he hasn't always seemed so fixated on the issue.
Originally from a rural Wyoming county of about 42,000 people, Bramwell received a degree in religious studies from Concordia University before getting a Masters of Divinity from Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, according to media reports. Before arriving in Ferndale, he served as the pastor at Christ Lutheran Church in Murray, Utah, and before that, at California's Our Savior Lutheran Church in Chester. Members of the congregations at both churches told the Journal they can't remember him being outspoken on LGBTQ+ issues in his time there.
Ferndale residents, meanwhile, say Bramwell appeared mild mannered upon his arrival in the city. The church marquee posted simple holiday greetings or times for worship services but little else through his first few years, they say, and Bramwell came across as friendly.
In early 2020, Bramwell, already a published author of multiple books, seems to have taken some steps to extend his reach from St. Mark's small congregation. He started a YouTube video series titled "Alone Together," in which he interviewed pastors of other churches and took over hosting duties of the national Lutheran radio show "Cross Defense" after its former host fell ill with COVID-19.
As Bramwell's platforms increased, his rhetoric seems to have grown more antagonistic. After the St. Mark's marquee generated controversy with the "Hurt by LGBTQ+ Culture" message in June of 2021, he soon began updating the sign weekly, using it as a kind of local, one-way Twitter feed , proselytizing in 40 or so characters or less , weighing in on everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to abortion, but often coming back to the LGBTQ+ community, especially as national efforts to legislatively target trans communities and demonize drag have increased.
It seems noteworthy that while the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod includes everything from alcohol abuse and gambling to premarital sex and greed to be sins, and Humboldt County is awash in child trauma and abuse, Bramwell has focused so intently on what he deems the sins of a specific community.
Multiple Ferndale residents interviewed by the Journal say Bramwell left town for a period around 2019 or 2020 and came back with a more aggressive approach to running his church.
"Something motivated a different tactic," says Pete Bansen, a dairy farmer who's lived in town for 45 years. "When he came back, he was a really changed man. People don't get motivated to be, basically, mean to other folks for nothing. There's some motivation that I don't think we understand."
Whatever the reason, Bansen says the change seems to have drawn new members to St. Mark's from outside of Ferndale.
"He's attracting a radicalized element from across the bridge," Bansen says, noting that many of the most outspoken voices on the anti-hate resolution issue were members of Bramwell's congregation who do not live in town.
And Bramwell has clearly embraced his new role as Ferndale's antagonist. If you visit his website, you'll find the home page now sells a t-shirt bearing his likeness but in blue-haired drag under the slogan "Unashamed of the Gospel." (Bramwell has said the image was used by someone to promote a local LGBTQ+ organization's event, but the event's organizers say they did not create it and had not seen it until Bramwell posted it online. It's also worth noting that Journal was unable to find the original image that was altered to depict Bramwell in drag in online searches.) Wherever the image originated, Bramwell is now selling the t-shirts for $20 apiece and apparently wants them to be the first thing people see when visiting his website.
The irony of Bramwell's approach, says Lost Coast Pride founder Kaelan Rivera, is that it has served to galvanize support for the LGTBQ+ community in Ferndale and beyond.
After all, he says, it was Bramwell's marquee that led to Ferndale's first Pride march, and it was that same marquee that will make this one the biggest yet.
"It's going to be bigger than last year," Rivera says, noting that in the face of increasing hostile rhetoric nationally and locally, Humboldt County is brimming with Pride events this month, held from Arcata to Garberville and seemingly everywhere between. "Their words are having the opposite effect of what they want. So they can keep it up all they want to. It's just getting more and more people to come out and say, 'Enough is enough.'"
Rivera is planning back-to-back events June 24 and June 25. The first is a "Pride Ride" from Arcata (leaving the Safeway parking lot at 11 a.m.) to Fortuna that will end with a picnic in Rohner Park. The following day, the Pride March will start at the Old Steeple (246 Berding St. in Ferndale) at noon, with participants walking past St. Mark's before turning on Main Street, which will be blocked off to traffic, and walking back up to the community center for a celebration.
Rivera says the march itself is a protest — he wants people to bring signs and flags and not "spew hate," but stand up for themselves — while the event that follows will be a celebration of queer joy. (Rivera says he's still looking for volunteers to help with cleanup and someone with a pickup truck to transport a barbecue, and folks can email him at Humboldtspride@gmail.com to help.) He encourages anyone who would like to show support buy may not feel comfortable protesting to simply come watch — maybe even bring a lawn chair to put along Main Street — and show up in solidarity.
While the conversation in Ferndale has been downright ugly at times, Rivera says he also feels a lot of support, saying he recently went around to ask businesses along the march route to see if they'd be willing to "put something rainbow up in their windows to let folks know they are welcome to come in" and many agreed.
Bansen says he will be there for the Pride march, as he was last year, saying he supports "anybody's right to be whatever they need to be." He says he was disappointed by the council's failure to pass the resolution. "I didn't think it was a heavy lift," he says , adding he believes in Ferndale and its residents.
"I know it's going to turn out positive because regressive forces never prevail," he says. "They can surge, but eventually progress is inevitable. And we're making slow but steady progress."
Rivera moved to Ferndale initially in 2000 and stayed a couple of years, then returned in 2020. Rivera, who says he came to Ferndale as a kid with his mom as they tried to escape the inland heat, says he's always wanted to live in the Victorian Village.
"We moved back here, my wife and I, because this is the home of my heart," he says.
He bristles at the notion the council's inaction on the anti-hate resolution, the rhetoric coming from St. Mark's pastor and congregation or the failure of allies to show up in support before the council would change that. He says that the inclusion resolution was even taken up by the council is progress, noting the vote was close and some council seats are coming up for election next year.
"I walk this town unapologetically because I'm a citizen here," he says. "I belong here. It doesn't matter what they think. I spend my money here. And I will help make changes here."
Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org.