Rob Johnson is the vice president of an LGBT group in the Shenandoah Valley that has suddenly been receiving a lot of attention.
“It’s just been a whirlwind over the past 24, 48 hours,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s group, the Shenandoah Valley Gay and Lesbian Association, and LGBT employee groups at Merck Pharmaceuticals and MillerCoors near Elkton, Va., have become the target of the Bible Holiness Church and its pastor, Matt Homer. Homer argues that the Pride event the Merck group plans for Oct. 9 does not reflect Elkton’s values.
Though the SVGLA, nor MillerCoors is directly connected to the Festival, both groups have come under fire for expressing their support.
“I don’t know how we would come to an agreement on it,” Homer told the Blade, “We’re not against gay and lesbian people, but also they say it’s a civil rights issue, and that would lead to a marriage issue.”
Johnson said the festival is an opportunity to raise awareness about LGBT issues, not marriage.
“We’ve never said anything about gay marriage in this entire thing,” Johnson said. “No one has mentioned it but him. I think he’s using that as an inflammatory statement to get the community fired up.”
“Basically we’re just looking to get a story out there, trying to garner up some support for the people of this area,” Johnson told the Blade.
Johnson says that the area was once a more difficult place to be out, but that progress is being made.
“A lot of the people here in this area are still closeted to some degree, it’s a lot more open than it was 10 years ago, but a lot of people are afraid to speak out. There are a few that are very vocal — like myself — but a lot of them really aren’t.”
To Johnson, Pride is about not being ashamed of who you are.
“People of the LGBT community as well as their straight friends and family come together in a show of support,” Johnson said. “Just a feeling of togetherness.”
Johnson says that he has had to scale back his involvement in the Shenandoah Valley group because of the controversy.
Though Homer insists the church does not wish to discriminate against gay and lesbian people, his faith forces him to take exception with this group’s planned gathering.
“We believe that the Bible teaches against homosexuality,” Homer told the Blade. “If they were having an event to promote adultery, we would be protesting that as well.”
Last week, Homer urged members of his church to mobilize and use online tools to raise awareness about the group’s position. Homer enlisted the assistance of a parish member, Josh Shifflett, to set up a page on “ipetitions.com” and a “Stop Elkton Pride Day” Facebook Page, which has attracted 277 fans.
“We’ve collaborated on what we could do to raise awareness of the issue,” Homer said. “I didn’t have a Facebook page in my name so we collaborated to raise awareness about the event.”
“As a board member of Shenandoah Valley Gay and Lesbian Association five years in a row, we did a Pride right here in Harrisonburg, right here in the center of the valley, and have never had any problems,” Johnson said.
He says the trouble only started when a group of employees at Merck decided to have a smaller scale Pride event in their own local community after visiting the Pride in Harrisonburg.
“The Facebook phenomenon has really helped, though,” Johnson said, referring to the social networking site that both sides have taken to in order to raise awareness for their cause.
“A lot of people have really jumped on board with their comments and everything,” Johnson said. “They try to comment on the “Stop Elkton Pride” page that the church put up, they’re trying to be cordial and diplomatic about it, not being hateful, as I instructed a lot of them to do. Their comments are remaining on that page for two or three minutes before being deleted off and those people being blocked.”
Pastor Homer claims the only comments deleted have been graphic in nature, contain profanity or are defamatory.
“People haven’t been deleted from the site just for conducting civil conversation,” Homer said.
“The church is censoring everything,” Johnson said of the Facebook fracas. “I put up a page in opposition to the ‘Stop Elkton Pride Page.’ In the description I state, except in the case of profanity, all comments will be left in plain view because I feel that that encourages a dialogue.”
“[Pharmaceutical] company Merck and Miller, probably the two largest local manufacturers in our area, are collaborating with the local Shenandoah Valley Gay and Lesbian Association,” Homer said. “They’re putting on the first annual Elkton Pride day. Well actually the event isn’t in Elkton, it’s on private property outside of Elkton.”
In fact, the alcohol-free event does have an Elkton address, according to the Facebook page, and Johnson confirmed that — while the event is outside of the town limits — the mailing address is still considered Elkton, but the pastor still insists the event does not reflect Elkton values.
“They’re inviting local businesses and inviting children and stuff like that so we felt we have the right to post our objection to it based on our values system,” Homer said. “We’re exercising our rights giving reasons why we disagree with it.”
According to the event’s Facebook page, “There will be free food, children’s activities, music, information booths and more!”
“There’s going to be children at this event,” Johnson said. “These children are children of LGBT people in the community.”
“It’s a nice family get-together,” Johnson continued. “They just don’t want anything being mentioned that pertains to the LGBT community in a positive light whatsoever.”
When asked whether the church has tried reaching out to the organizers to see if there can be any common ground found, Homer said they have.
“We have reached out,” Homer said, but he says the only response they received was a generic statement from Merck.
Johnson said he was unaware of the pastor reaching out to anyone involved in planning the celebration.
“They’ve been demanding that it be canceled,” Johnson said. “Just flat out.”