A sign-carrying anti-gay protester is surrounded by a sea of Pride umbrellas during the Pride parade in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Saturday, June 18, 2022. Protesters across the country targeted LGBTQ Pride-themed storytimes on Saturday, including one in Wilmington, (AP Photo/Skip Foreman) Pride Month in North Carolina
A sign-carrying anti-gay protester is surrounded by a sea of Pride umbrellas during the Pride parade in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Saturday, June 18, 2022. Protesters across the country targeted LGBTQ Pride-themed storytimes on Saturday, including one in Wilmington, (AP Photo/Skip Foreman)

With anti-LGBTQ activists on the move in the U.S., a Wilmington local talks about her frightening experience with members of the hate group. 

Emily Blankenship Jones wasn’t fazed by the protesters, the ones holding the offensive signs. “Stop supplying pornography to our students,” read one. 

It was Pride Month and locals were holding a Pride-themed story time for families at a Wilmington-area public library. And while support for LGBTQ people has been on a gradual rise in North Carolina, as it is across the country, the bigotry is never far from view.

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But the masked men frightened her, the ones wearing blue and yellow bandanas and Proud Boys regalia. They shouted obscenities. One man pressed his face against the window, leering at the young families inside.

“I felt unsafe,” Jones told Cardinal & Pine. “The night that it happened, I cried for hours. I’ve spent my whole life dealing with these kinds of people who pass judgment before they ask questions. Now these people are telling me that I’m a ‘groomer’ and projecting horrible things onto my daughter.”

This type of LGBTQ harassment ramped up during Pride Month 2022, and much of the rhetoric echoed what’s happened at school board meetings across the country since last fall. In North Carolina, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, the state’s highest-ranking Republican and a GOP favorite for governor in 2024, has expressed bigoted views about LGBTQ people numerous times, calling them “filth” and comparing them to maggots and feces

In fact, a new study suggests 2022 is on track to be the worst year yet for anti-LGBTQ mobilization. 

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a nonprofit that collects data on political violence, found that demonstrations, political violence, and offline propaganda activity increased by more than four times—from 15 documented events to 61—between 2020 to 2021; as of early June, the nonprofit had already recorded 33 incidents this year.

For the families experiencing these incidents with their children in tow, it’s terrifying and personal. 

However, the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office denied that protesters interrupted the Pride Storytime event, which was held for children under 7 and included books featuring LGBTQIA+ families. The event was held in a private room at the library.

“At no time did Sheriff Deputies witness nor did any library staff report any of the demonstrators causing a disturbance within the library or try to enter the private room that was holding the reading,” the NHCSO said in a statement

The sheriff’s office also denied that they had any responsibility to protect event participants from intimidation by the Proud Boys, who are designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. ​​Sheriff McMahon stated, “I took an oath not to uphold opinions, but to uphold the law. Which is exactly what my supervisor and Deputies did.”

Participants at the Pride storytime and LGBTQ leaders also say that the men in Proud Boy regalia who disrupted the event “are the same four guys” who have also disrupted school board meetings. In addition to holding signs equating LGBTQ kids books with porn, they have yelled at officials, screamed the Pledge of Allegiance, and “patrolled” the back of the room.

In Wilmington, The LGBTQ Center of the Cape Fear Coast is aiming to counter this type of hatred year-round by working directly with local government and businesses to educate them about the LGBTQ community and their specific needs. But it’s not always successful.

County organizers for the library’s Pride Storytime and the New Hanover County Sheriff’s department knew in advance that a protest was planned, but dismissed local LGBTQ activists’ concerns. 

“The County and the LGBTQ Center connected when it became clear that some folks intended to protest or disrupt the event,” says Caroline Morin, the LGBTQ Center’s executive director. “The County assured us that the event would be safe and free from harassment. However, it seemed like library administrators, the Sheriff Department, and County administrators did not take our concerns seriously.” 

Morin hopes that the incident at the Pride Story Time will help galvanize the city, county, and state to better protect LGBTQ North Carolinians and create long-term change.

So far, partially in response to the LGBTQ Center’s advocacy efforts after Pride Storytime, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo signed a Pride Month Proclamation on the steps of City Hall and a city advisory committee for community relations held a special virtual meeting to discuss LGBTQ community concerns.

According to Morin, these are all important first steps to broader protections and equity. 

“It’s easy to get distracted by flashy stuff like the Proud Boys. But we still don’t have comprehensive discrimination protections in this region, or the state, or the country. LGBTQ people still do not experience the same safety and access to opportunity that everybody has here.”

Only 20 cities in NC have laws on the books that establish any or “some” protections from discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and more. 

Jones and her family have attended Pride events in Wilmington without incident, but her experience at the library left a bad taste.  

“It’s very upsetting that we live in a community, where not only did this happen, but law enforcement just sit back and allow it,” she said “I don’t feel they have our back.”