Operation Save America’s Flip Benham was unsuccessful in ‘saving’ LGBT community during Diversity Weekend.
Photo Credit: Lainey Millen
EUREKA SPRINGS, Ar. — From Apr. 3-6, this Northwest Arkansas town played host to one of its seasonal Diversity Weekend celebrations.
This resort town only has 2,300 residents. Over one-third of the population is gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans or intersex. A large portion of the census belongs to performing or visual artists who moved from around the world to call this home.
As always, the LGBT community welcomed visitors and residents alike as everyone participated in a myriad of events designed to show inclusiveness.
Well, that was until N.C.’s Flip Benham, president of Operation Save America (OSA) and his cohorts arrived.
Throughout the weekend, with the help of the Jericho Riders, an ultra-right-wing Christian motorcycle gang, they sought to witness to LGBT couples and singles in hopes of convincing them to go straight. A van paraded up and down the main thoroughfare, decorated only with anti-gay slogans and images.
Q-Notes caught wind of the OSA initiative and this writer alerted local promoters and others that Benham was on his way. Mayor Dani Joy and Police Chief Earl Hyatt made preparations, making sure that in the event of a scuttlebutt, reserve and off-duty officers would be available in a moments notice. Benham was notified that if he or his followers used bullhorns and/or loud speakers, was invasive toward Diversity participants or made a nuisance of himself, etc., that he would be asked to stop. If not, then Joy stated, “we have a jail cell all ready for him.”
Joy said in an interview with Q-Notes that Eureka Springs was a warm, inclusive community that embraced tolerance and she would not have Benham or anyone else interfere with the tranquil nature of this mountain haven.
On Apr. 5, a PDA in the Park (PDA=Public Display of Affection) was held in Basin Park at noon. The first 50 to arrive received pink hats from Mark “Sparky” Wetzel, one of the promoters, both a bit of country and a bit of glam (they were embellished with crowns). Musicians jammed. Artists and jewelry makers showcased their creations. The Unitarian church hung a banner to welcome attendees. And, a rainbow flag was mounted on the hillside. Everyone socialized, well, not really!
Benham and his crew in toe spouted out anti-LGBT rhetoric. At one time he mounted the park’s fountain to preach, but, according to a confidential source, was asked to descend because he might be damaging historic property.
This writer approached Benham and said, “Hi, Flip. I’m Lainey. I’m from Q-Notes. Matt (Comer, Q-Notes‘ editor) says hi.” Initially, Benham appeared to be pleasantly surprised and cordial. Then he became perplexed, asking how Q-Notes knew about his visit to Eureka Springs. The retort followed: “I’m a reporter! What do you think?”
An anti-gay rhetoric truck was on parade for the weekend.
Photo Credit: Lainey Millen
Benham spoke at great length. Conversion attempts were made to no avail. Then he said, while speaking about Comer, “ I love Matt. I really do.” He continued saying that he did not want to see “Matt die early” because he knew that Comer’s choice of “lifestyle” would lead him to contract AIDS. He also commented that Comer, as well as any other LGBT person, could not be happy and that they all needed to “turn to the Lord” to be saved and redeemed.
This was also evident when Benham was on the fountain. A gay couple joined him there. He said that gays and lesbians don’t stay together except for sex. Laughter arose. Someone from the crowd asked how long the couple had been together, to which they answered, “26 years.”
While all this was going on, former N.C. trans activist Joney Harper, circulated throughout the park, asking everyone to “not feed the fundies.” By ignoring the zealots, their energy was diminished.
John Rankins and his partner Bill King were visible during the weekend. King founded the Lovely County Citizen but sold it about four years ago to Rust Communications. Rankins served as the photographer. He said, “I am outraged this is happening in our town. The truck was so insulting. I believe in free speech, but I hope that this town comes down hard over these people’s hate speech.” He said that they (right-wingers) tried to pick a fight with him and win him over. They commented on his attire and told him that he was going to hell. They also called him arrogant, but Rankin kept his cool.
King’s T-shirt said it clearly when it came to the overall mood of the weekend: “Jesus, protect me from your ‘followers.’ The Christian Right is Not Right.”
— See the May 17 Gay Travel Destinations issue for more about Eureka Springs.
Ed. Note (Fri. Apr. 18) – This article mistakenly placed Eureka Springs in northeast Arkansas. Q-Notes apologizes for the mistake. Eureka Springs is in northwest Arkansas. We thank our readers who alerted us to this mistake.