GILLETTE — The cancellation of a transgender magician’s performance at the library last week has started a spirited debate within the community, and that continued Tuesday at the Campbell County Commission's regular meeting.
On July 7, some residents criticized the Campbell County Public Library about a Facebook post promoting its LGBTQ teen collection for Rainbow Book Month.
Six days later, Mikayla Oz, a magician who had been scheduled to perform at the library, canceled due to safety concerns after it was learned that she was a transgender woman.
Sue Knesel, who worked at the library for 33 years, most of it in youth services, said Gillette has a problem that has bubbled to the surface in recent years. She said that for decades, she promoted her community as a good place to live and raise a family.
“I can’t do that any longer today,” she said, referencing the sometimes angry, inaccurate and violent response to the LGBTQ community. “Campbell County has another black eye with the issues that are going on.”
With the continued decline of the energy industry, Gillette needs to attract new companies and industries, Knesel said.
“How can we market ourselves as a progressive and open community with what’s going on?” she asked.
“If we get a black eye for protecting our children from being sexually exploited and indoctrinated, I’d say that’s a badge of honor,” said Kevin Bennett. “If progressivism means we have to expose our children to sexual materials like this, that’s not the progressivism our community needs.”
It’s this type of thinking that has led to homelessness and heroin addicts in San Francisco and Los Angeles, he said, as well as increasing gas prices across the country.
“The progressivism they want in this community will kill the energy industry and that’s everybody’s jobs,” he added.
“I want to know what happened to the Wyoming way of live and let live?” Knesel said. “I long for the time where we were a good community and accepting and open.”
Jacob Edwards, a gay man who’s lived in Gillette for nearly his whole life, said that he's “never been more disgusted.”
“There is no reason outside of bigoted and hateful religious beliefs that being gay or transgender should be feared or denounced,” he said. “I am not your enemy, I am not a threat. I am your neighbor.”
Bennett and his father, Hugh Bennett, said the media created a false narrative that Oz canceled the show because of threats.
“The narrative is the performer canceled his performance due to death threats, which is patently false. There’s been no death threats, but that’s what the media picked up,” Hugh Bennett said.
Commissioner Del Shelstad said he talked with Mikayla Oz after the performance was canceled.
"We’re not here to censor people,” Shelstad said. “But when it starts affecting others is when I think it’s our jobs as elected officials to start asking questions.”
Shelstad said Oz did not cancel due to threats, but because she didn’t think a children’s performance with protesters outside the library was a good environment.
“Why can he say he’s concerned about the kids but the parents of our county can’t?” Shelstad asked. “That’s important.”
Oz told the News Record about a threatening phone call she received and an email saying she was not welcome in Gillette.
“That’s when I realized for the safety of myself and the safety of the kids and the library patrons, I didn’t want to put my safety and (the safety of) those around me at risk,” Oz said.
Leigh Jacobs said that with all of the questions surrounding Oz’s performance, if Shelstad had called Oz before the public outcry, “that would’ve prevented a lot of this.”
Kevin Bennett said the library betrayed the public's trust and put the community in danger and that “this wouldn’t have happened if the commissioners had just stopped it in its tracks.”
“There wouldn’t be any press saying there were death threats,” Bennett said. “There were no death threats, Mr. Bell. I saw your comments in the Wyofile. There were no death threats, there were no threats of harm.”
Bennett was referring to a comment Bell made that was quoted in a July 17 Wyofile article.
“I think it’s an embarrassment that somebody should be intimidated or threatened to not come to our community,” Bell told Wyofile. “Nobody should ever be intimidated or threatened to not come here. And that’s disappointing, especially when we don’t know what could have been. It was advertised as a magic show. And now we’ll never know.”
Kevin Bennett read a quote by library director Terri Lesley, who said the library doesn’t know the personal details of its performers, and it shouldn’t. Bennett said that in his experience, “a lot of performers, let me tell you now, there’s some perverts, nasty sons of guns.”
“The people who want to pervert our kids love to paint themselves as victims who are misunderstood,” Hugh Bennett added. “Turn your back on them and see what happens.”
He questioned why the commissioners weren’t taking action.
“I don’t see any of you agreeing that child molestation and recruiting of children is a good thing, so why aren’t you doing anything?” he asked, adding that he hopes the commissioners “do the right thing like the men and women who served our armed forces for the last century for Wyoming have.”
Commissioner Bell said the whole situation could’ve been handled differently.
“What’s happened in the community is ugly, and ugliness isn’t helpful for our community. We all know that," he said.
“What happened at Scott’s church is ugly and shouldn’t happen,” Bell said, referring to the vandalism that occurred Friday morning at Scott Clem's church. “And some of the things that were said to this person coming in, trying to keep them from coming here and being happy that they’re not coming here, is harmful for our community.”
Commissioner Colleen Faber said she and her family have used the library for years, and not once did they have a negative experience. But she was concerned about “the innocence of our children.”
“When a parent expects a safe environment like our library has always provided, there should be a good vetting process for anyone who comes in contact with our children,” she said.
Bell said he and the other commissioners got emails from people who wanted them to cancel the show.
“You have to realize you’re wanting us to cancel based on one thing: this person being transgender. And that’s not something we can do,” he said.
The county can take safeguards and do what it can to protect children, Bell said, but it cannot discriminate against anyone because of sexual orientation.
“We’re not saying you can’t have your rights and you can’t be who you are,” Kevin Bennett said. “We are saying that tax dollars should not be spent in a way that puts children in situations of danger.”
Shelstad said this divisiveness “is hurting our community,” and he suggested holding a meeting with people from both sides “to sit down and see what kind of common ground we can find.”
Commission Chairman Bob Maul said the responsibility to keep children safe ultimately falls to parents. At the July 7 meeting, concerns were raised about the dark atmosphere in the library’s teen room.
“If you don’t want your kids going to that teen room in the library, that’s your job to keep them from going to the teen room,” Maul said, adding that it's not the government’s job to say what isn’t allowed at the library.
“Let’s just liberally tempt them, I love it,” Kevin Bennett said sarcastically.
“If you’re not being a parent and taking care of guiding your children one way or another, if the government has to take care of your children (for you), that’s coming really close to what we call communism,” Maul said.
“Oh, it’s communist not to have transgender, I got it,” Kevin Bennett said sarcastically.