A group of nearly a dozen men carrying a Nazi flag protested Sunday afternoon outside a local event that featured a drag performance brunch for charity at Hix Farm Brewery.
This protest comes just days after citizens filled the Cookeville City Hall chamber at a council meeting demanding action to prohibit such shows from happening in the city.
Upper Cumberland Pride, the organization who organized the event for charity, said they believe the influx of the word “grooming” has sparked flames of hatred targeted at the LGBTQIA+ community.
“We are disgusted by allegations of child grooming being placed on us as well as the
community as they are unsupported and just sick,” UC Pride officials said in a statement. “UC Pride supports protecting children.”
In 2022, more than 141 LGBTQIA+ events were targeted by groups like Proud Boys, Patriot Front and other alt-right groups nationwide, according to Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). Tennessee was among the highest-ranking states for these attacks.
Protesters emblazoning the Nazi flag, which is seen by many as a hate symbol, carried signs that stated “No grooming in Tennessee” and “Why do they want an audience of children?”
While some of the events targeted across the nation were all-age events, Sunday’s charity event for UC Pride was an 18-and-up show.
“We are currently being protested for staging an 18-and-up show. There will be no children at this, and yet, we are still being attacked,” UC Pride officials said. “Our core mission is to strengthen equality and increase awareness around issues important to our community such as health, safety and marriage equality. UC Pride celebrates individuality and diversity of every person as we all strive for acceptance from parents, friends and society at-large.”
Among the men dressed in all black with mostly-covered faces to conceal their identities, were other groups that were identified as Patriot Front and two other groups who clarified to The Oracle that they were not with the men carrying the Nazi flag.
LuAnn, who did not feel comfortable providing her last name, said she was among the crowd at Thursday Cookeville City Council meeting where many demanded that the city prohibit these shows that have sparked controversy among the greater Cookeville area.
While LuAnn spoke with The Oracle reporters as protesters chanted “Fags out!” and one trying to incite private guards outside then venue while shouting, “Come over p******, let’s fight!”
“We’re here praying. We’re here just making sure there are no children going in,” she said. “It is unfortunate that they have half a truth, which is that we don’t want kids groomed. But the other half, we’re not for any of that. We don’t think children should be exposed to it. When you’re an adult, sure. Knock yourself out.”
“We’re here to stand up for all the children of god,” Sean Mohler, with Protect The Children Now, said. “We wish they (drag supporters) would come over and speak with us, let us pray and show them that we don’t hate them. We’re here to make our presence to provide a healthier alternative to them (the apparent alt-right groups).”
One PTCM member, Zion Hochstetler, even crossed sides holding a sign that said, “Free hugs.”
He told The Oracle reporters he chose to cross sides because he did not like what was happening across the street.
“Do you know what an LGBT activist is? A groomer, a rapist, or an enabler,” the men in black shouted while Hochstetler spoke.
“I don’t like this,” Hochstetler said. “This is something that is incredibly rude and mean. The whole everything is just wrong.”
While some of the protesters tried to provoke violence, no incidents occurred as a result of the disturbance.
UC Pride expressed their gratitude to Hix Farm Brewery for sticking by them through this turbulent time, and all who volunteered to work as private security, as well as the Cookeville Police Officers who patrolled the area, to keep the fundraiser safe.
Mayor Laurin Wheaton said Sunday the disturbance was unfortunate.
“This is not the Cookeville we all know and love,” she said. “Some people are looking to start a fight when such a polarizing topic is front and center. When people come, because most of these are outside agitators, and send messages such as this, the original message gets lost.”
As news of the disturbance circulated in the community on social media, Tennessee Tech student groups who were recently targeted on social media for hosting an all-age drag show fundraiser event reacted to the disturbance in the community with great concern.
One student said, “Nazis in Cookeville are dangerous to students of color and other minority groups on campus.
Another student said they could imagine that non-local freshmen would see this disturbance and think it is a common occurrence.
Tech’s Lambda GSA said in a statement that it is their role as an organization to build a community for LGBTQIA+ to interact in a safe environment.
“This is impossible when the larger community we inhabit is becoming less and less safe,” said Lambda president E. Vigil. “The demonstration (Sunday) shows that fascism is not just alive but thriving. As long as institutions such as this university refuse to speak out against it, they remain complicit in its growth. By pandering to the whims of extremists, these institutions empower them.”
Vigil referenced an all-age event hosted by the organization to raise funds for Lambda which subsequently led to controversy across the state after Landon and Robby Starbuck, proclaimed children’s advocates, posted a viral video demanding action from the university.
Ultimately, Tech President Phil Oldham issued a statement condemning the event and prohibiting Lambda from hosting similar events upon a policy review.
Tennessee Tech officials revised its policy and clarified that minors would no longer be able to attend events featuring live performances.
“We will not be silent,” Vigil said. “We will continue to promote freedom of speech and the right for our community to exist.”
University officials, however, said that Lamda is valued.
“The Lambda Gay-Straight Alliance is a valued part of our diverse roster of student organizations and a partner in University leadership’s efforts to maintain the inclusive, respectful campus experience that all Golden Eagles expect and deserve. Following a thorough review of policies for student organizations and minors on campus, all student organizations in good standing with the University, including the Lambda Gay-Straight Alliance, have the opportunity to again reserve space on campus under newly revised guidelines. These guidelines will be applied consistently across all student organizations. In polarizing times, we are proud of how our Golden Eagles continue to set an example of how students of diverse experiences and viewpoints can share mutual understanding and kindness.
“The University strongly condemns all acts of discrimination and hate, including the appalling display of a Nazi flag seen off campus over the weekend.”
This story was last updated Jan. 29, 2023.