A protester holds a sign on the front lawn of the Campbell County Library on July 14, 2021. The group of two-dozen protestors were gathered to object to the library’s promotion of LGBTQ content in the library’s collection. (Nick Reynolds/WyoFile)

GILLETTE – It was just supposed to be a magic show.

Months ago, trustees at the Campbell County Library, seeking performers for their summer programming, booked magician Mikayla Oz, a well-regarded entertainer who has built a career performing hundreds of shows for family audiences across the Midwest.

But there would be no magic in Gillette this week. The day before she was set to perform, Oz — who was slated for dozens of shows around the region this month, including four in Campbell County — was forced to cancel, citing numerous threats she’d received from members of the community. “You ain’t f**king welcome in Gillette,” a community member wrote in one email Oz received. “If you come here there’s going to be issues,” another told her in a phone call, she said. 

“With great regret, regret shared by [the] Campbell County Public Library System, Oz canceled her programs in Gillette and Wright due to safety concerns for herself and library patrons,” the library announced in a Tuesday release.

Oz is a transgender woman from Iowa, who found herself at the center of a local controversy between the Campbell County Library and a community group that opposed the library’s Pride Month book display. 

The outrage — first at the books, and then at Oz’s magic show — caught many by surprise, particularly given what little promotion the show (which was funded without the use of any taxpayer dollars) received, and that it had nothing to do with sex, gender or LGBTQ topics. Library staff involved said they never gave Oz’s gender any thought prior to booking her. 

“[Gender identity] is not something that we would ask about,” said Terri Leslie, executive director of the Campbell County Library System. “We can’t imagine having a questionnaire for somebody’s sexual orientation. So that’s just not something that we knew. What we did know was that she does a good job, that the kids love her, and that it sounded like a great family event.”

Others, however, felt the conflagration was a predictable development in this community where a vocal, socially conservative faction regularly challenges the role of government and where discrimination often makes headlines. However, the reaction has also inspired serious discussion in the community about its legacy of anti-LGBTQ activism, and how best to build from the latest headline-grabbing anti-LGBTQ incident in Wyoming.

“I think we have some decisions to make, and they’re yours to make,” Sara Burlingame, executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy organization, Wyoming Equality, told advocates in an impromptu speech Wednesday night in Gillette. “This is your town, this is your community. You get to decide what Gillette looks like.”

Protestors on the front lawn of the Campbell County Library on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. The group of two-dozen protestors objected to the library’s promotion of LGBTQ content in the library’s collection. (Nick Reynolds/WyoFile)

Pride protests

June — nationally designated as “Pride Month” in support of the LGBTQ community — was quiet in Campbell County.

That was, until the end of the month, when the Campbell County Library promoted a blog post on its Facebook page advertising a number of book titles celebrating the LGBTQ community.

One selection was a graphic novel covering issues of sexuality, gender identity and “navigating relationships.” Another tells the story of an asexual teen who has given up on finding love until she falls for a friend and has to decide “whether to risk their friendship for a love that might not be shared.” Another documents the struggle of a closeted lesbian as she sought to navigate the conservative upbringings of her church and her Christian school.

The Facebook post was little noticed at the time — and received just two comments. Yet it kicked-off a chain reaction of misinformation and conflict that dominated local discussions for weeks. When the Campbell County Commissioners met two weeks later, dozens showed up to protest and formally comment on what they described as a government supported attempt to “indoctrinate” children.   

For more than an hour on the morning of Wednesday July 7, residents dominated the public comment period to express concerns about the promotion, often employing anti-LGBTQ rhetoric to do so, according to a recording of the meeting viewed by WyoFile. 

One commenter wanted parents to be able to opt their children out of the library’s “queer agenda,” though the event was voluntary. Another asserted there are only two genders. Others insinuated that homosexuality correlates with pedophilia and that high rates of suicide among queer and transgender people demonstrate the inherent and natural dangers of not being a cisgendered heterosexual. Another community member said acknowledgement of the existence of an LGBTQ community was helping to “destroy our culture” and degrade the country’s moral and legal structure, both of which they said are “based on Judeo-Christian values.”

“What we’re looking at here is the ground game of an attempt to destroy our culture and our country,” resident Hugh Bennett said during the meeting. “This is an assault on our morals, our ethics, or heritage, our belief in God.”

Soon after the meeting, the activists’ attention turned to Oz.

A Facebook post by former Wyoming State Rep. Scott Clem raising alarm over an upcoming magic show by transgender magician Mikayla Oz. Oz cancelled after receiving multiple threats, she said. (Screenshot/Facebook)

While the library did little to promote her show and didn’t discuss her gender identity in marketing materials, the library noted in its cancellation of the show that Oz’s transgender identity was shared on a social media post made by a “Gillette citizen,” leading to a rash of activity online and planned protests of the event. Though the library did not explicitly state who initially raised the issue, many pointed to a Facebook post opposing the show by pastor, former state legislator and now Gillette College Board of Trustees candidate Scott Clem, in which he repeatedly compared LGBTQ people to animals.

“Guess what’s being marketed to your teenagers at Campbell County Public Library on July 15th? A transgender magic show,” Clem wrote in a July 8 Facebook post.

“Sex is a base, animal, biological instinct shared among almost all living organisms,” he wrote further down. “All animals have sex, but humans are more. Humans are the image of God, not mere animals. So why is it that our library is promoting the base things of life, and not the higher virtues? Why are we relegating the human race to that of animals?” 

On Thursday evening, Clem’s church was vandalized. “God loves all” and a rainbow was painted on an exterior wall, according to social media posts viewed by WyoFile. 

Local LGBTQ advocacy groups denounced the vandalism and offered to pay for new paint. 

A movement behind the scenes

Messages obtained by WyoFile suggest that Clem and two county commissioners were aware of the backlash county officials were set to receive in advance.

The night before the July 7 meeting, county commissioners Colleen Faber and Del Shelstad were involved in a string of Facebook messages begun by local pastor and conservative activist Susan Sisti expressing concerns about the library and discussing ways to bring accountability to a library accused of promoting “unacceptable” material. The participants included local political activists who had protested a multitude of issues in Gillette, including COVID-19-related public health orders, actions by Gillette’s mayor, and the creation of an independent community college district, according to local news reports and several individuals interviewed by WyoFile.

“We need 30-50 people to attend the [County] Commissioners meeting tomorrow at 9:00 in the Court House,” Sisti wrote. “We will meet outside the Chambers at 8:50 in the hallway. If you do not want to speak, please just come to support us – we need you to stand up for the kids and push back on this blatant indoctrination that was unauthorized.”

The online discussion — which included  Clem — was wide-ranging, lasting several dozen messages. It included suggestions to introduce a parental advisory board to vet library materials and debated the degree to which the government should be involved in library content decisions. 

Faber and Shelstad, who have been popular among hardline conservatives, did not encourage plans to protest, offered alternatives to organizing and, in one instance, recommended that protesters not cause trouble with the library. At one point, Shelstad expressed a feeling it was not the government’s responsibility to dictate what is or is not displayed in the library, but that government did have a responsibility to remain as removed from the promotion of any ideology as much as possible.

“Do we want this garbage in a county library? No!” Shelstad wrote in one of the messages. “How do we handle it from here? The Commissioners tell the appointed library board to cease this kind of support for any group. Period. Not the Governments [sic] place.”

A torrent of messages ensued urging county commissioners to cancel the show and to apply greater scrutiny to the library. Some, in emails obtained by WyoFile, alleged “indoctrination” by the local government and the library, and accused the magic show of being  “highly sexually explicit.” Some baselessly accused Oz of promoting pedophilia, despite numerous endorsements promoting her show as family friendly. Others accused the current members of the library’s board of trustees of having an “agenda,” and urged members of the county commission to remove them from office.

A Facebook post by Gillette resident Cheryl Vomhof promoting a protest of Mikayla Oz’s magic show at the Gillette Library. (Screenshot/Facebook)

“I am very cautious about promoting censorship of books, once you start where do you end?” one email obtained by WyoFile read. “But the books I have seen tonight that influence under age children, teens, should be illegal!! Some of these books have penny power stamped on them! My tax dollars supporting trash to our kids???”

Oz told WyoFile she had no plans to address her transition in the show, nor did she plan to perform, or discuss anything other than magic. 

However, as misinformation continued to spread, opposition to the event eventually reached a fever pitch. On Monday, an unidentified individual entered the library and informed staff they could be in danger if Oz was allowed to perform, Leslie said. Shortly after, Oz received several threats, she said. On Tuesday, Oz announced she would be pulling out of the performance out of concern for her and her audience’s safety. 

Oz’s withdrawal following the threats did little to satisfy her opponents. Some, like Sisti, denied on social media that any threats were actually made. And despite Oz’s exit from the event, Tuesday and Wednesday were marked by protests at the library, where a small group held signs opposing the use of taxpayer funds for LGBTQ-inclusive content and slogans like “don’t trans our kids.”

The protest movement is not about censorship, Kevin Bennett — a spokesperson for the group — told WyoFile. They simply do not want taxpayer dollars going toward the “promotion” of materials they don’t agree with, he said. The library board’s decisions are an attempt to “subvert the will of the community,” he said. (Trustees are appointed by the county commissioners.) Others called for additional oversight of programming at the library beyond the library board of trustees, such as a parental advisory group. If the library board is not receptive, Bennett said, protesters “would seek the commissioner board, the county commissioners, to make a decision in that direction.”

Campbell County Commissioner Rusty Bell said the entire effort to rein in the library — and compel county government to pull the plug on Oz’s performance — would establish an unsustainable precedent of giving into outrage: one that would only deprive the community of the diversity it desperately needs.

“I think it’s an embarrassment that somebody should be intimidated or threatened to not come to our community,” Bell said. “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.”

Library censorship

Terri Leslie, executive director of the Campbell County Library. Leslie has been with the library for 25 years. (Nick Reynolds/WyoFile)

Officials with the Campbell County Library say that independence from government intervention is what makes libraries so vital, particularly for underrepresented populations such as people of color and the LGBTQ community.

One parent of a transgender teen who was a regular patron of the library admonished protestors on Wednesday. Theresa Miller drove by the library with her 17-year-old grandson and 7-year-old granddaughter who had planned to attend the magic show. When asked by the 17-year-old what the protestors were doing, Miller responded: “They don’t want anyone else to have any fun.”

While protestors objected to the promotion of material they deemed inappropriate, Terri Leslie, the Library’s director for the past nine years and an employee for the past 25, said their job as librarians is to not only provide access to a wide variety of materials, but to let people know they exist.

“What we do is we go through a multitude of steps to select materials that have been reviewed, and are authentic, and get them into our collection,” Leslie said. “We let people decide what they want to read, what they don’t want to read.”

Some members of the county commission, however, are debating the level of neutrality the library should have in promoting its material. Some, like Shelstad, said he believes the government should have no role in promoting anything that could be perceived as ideologically driven, whether they are books on religion or books on the LGBTQ community.

“When we have our next library board meeting, I will sit down and say, ‘Look, can we use common sense, please, and keep us from having these lightning rods?’” Shelstad said in an interview. “What if somebody had a Satan worshiper that came in? What if we had a Christian poet or something? Somebody is always going to complain.”

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Others, like Campbell County Commissioner Rusty Bell, expressed a feeling that local government showing underrepresented communities they were valued was essential to how Gillette and all of Campbell County is perceived by outsiders.

“It’s really hard for Campbell County to continue to say we need to diversify our economy, but that we’re not okay with somebody coming into the community that doesn’t look like us or act like us,” he said.

That sensibility was what made Oz’s performance so symbolically important, Oz said. While she is a transgender woman, her gender is not central to her professional identity or her performance. The performance wasn’t to be “a transgender magic show,” as Clem alleged, but rather a magic show that happened to be performed by a transgender woman. Oz is simply a magician, she said, whose primary mission is to entertain. Just being able to do that, she said, is significant: a sign that who she is does not need to be trivialized or explained. 

“You never know who you’re going to touch or who you are going to reach, who you are going to find yourself in,” Oz said. “That’s part of the reason why I really love my job. It’s because you have all of these different kinds of communities and people who might not feel like they’re often seen. To be able to maybe find yourself in somebody else and see them doing something they love and maybe have that inspire somebody else … That’s a really cool thing. That’s kind of why I do what I do.”

Sara Burlingame, director of LGBTQ advocacy organization Wyoming Equality, speaks to members of Gillette’s PFLAG chapter at a gathering at Pizza Carello on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. (Nick Reynolds/WyoFile)

Baseline or black eye?

Shelstad said that the vitriol of a small group of individuals should not define Campbell County. “It doesn’t really show a heartbeat for our community,” he said in an interview.

Members of the LGBTQ community, however, have long had to deal with signs they were not welcome in their own community. Some scars are deeper than others. In 2016, Trevor O’Brien — a gay man living in Gillette — died by suicide after incessant bullying. Shortly after a lesbian couple opened a new restaurant in town, Pizza Carello, in 2016, a patron carved a slur into the bar denigrating them. (Patrons later pitched in money to fix the damage.)

When Miller and Karin Ebertz, the current director of Gillette’s chapter of the LGBTQ advocacy organization PFLAG, formed the organization more than six years ago, they did so with the understanding that advocacy was not always an explicit thing: that being an ally sometimes meant keeping a low profile.

“We have to take our lead from the people who reach out to us,” Miller said. “A lot of the time what happens is we just need to get together, let them know that they aren’t alone, that someone loves them.”

Counterprotestors assemble outside of the Campbell County Library on July 14, 2021 after an anti-LGBTQ protest earlier that day. (Anonymous/Provided Photo)

Late Wednesday night, more than 40 friends and allies of PFLAG Gillette — including former Wyoming State Sen. Michael Von Flatern — gathered at the outdoor patio of Pizza Carello, many expressing dismay over the rhetoric from some in the community and Oz’s cancellation. Some expressed concern over the future. Others expressed gratitude for the vocal “minority” of people speaking out against anti-LGBTQ protesters. A young student teared up when they saw a teacher of theirs in-attendance, appreciative that there was someone who identified so closely with what they had dealt with.

Attendees also discussed how best to build and evolve. Sara Burlingame, director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Wyoming Equality, suggested the community begin taking stock of their allies — local religious organizations, businesses, non-profits — and begin to form a visible coalition to stand in solidarity with Gillette’s LGBTQ residents to show the strength of their support and resilience in the face of bigotry.

“I just would urge everyone to not let them own this narrative, because they don’t own this town,” Burlingame said. “They don’t own this state. Y’all live here because it’s the place that we love and call home. We have every right to claim that.”

Several hours before Burlingame’s speech, the protestors had cleared out, with Bennett saying they would return to the site of the protest if necessary to achieve their goals. By 5 p.m. Wednesday, the anti-LGBTQ protestors were replaced with people holding Pride signs.

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  1. Wyoming continues to move backwards – if parents felt strongly about their kids not seeing a trans magician, then why didn’t they just not go? Why does their opinion have to be forced onto everyone? If it doesn’t impact you, just move on with your life! I’m pretty confident in saying these are the same people who have complained about “cancel culture” yet they are the first to want to “cancel” anyone who doesn’t agree with them. I happen to agree with “cancel culture” when a person has abused and/or caused harm to other human beings….not when their opinion is different from mine. Our public institutions are supposed to separate church and state and represent everyone.

  2. Can an entire state be found guilty of Fraud for not following its own state motto ?

    Anybody in Wyoming seen our Equality ? We seem to have lost our Equality. In fact, I’m having a hard time remembering if we ever really had it…

  3. Mr. Clem had no concern for the community of Gillette when he kept his church services going when he KNEW members of his congregation were infected and spreading covid around the community. He kept his services going against the recommendations of health officials.

    to me, if i were religious, I’d think keeping people healthy and alive would be a more pious act then that of criticizing books and the library system that booked a magician he didn’t approve of.

    His “concern” for the community is a farce.

  4. I am not religious. I would never harm anyone, physically or emotionally. This magician should have been allowed to perform. But the magician is male. I do not want to be gaslighted or bullshitted and calling this young man “she’ is insulting to me both as a biological female, and as a rational human being. I will not participate in this. And whether, due to religious beliefs, or just learned common sense, others do not wish to participate in it, that must be accepted. I hope protesting these things can happen without harming people or property. Also, I have many times in my life as an avid reader, been shocked at librarians who attempted to censor my requests for materials, inter-library loans, and computer use. I was several times stunned during my college education, to find that primary resources had been destroyed and replaced with poorly copied microfiche and microfilm, often illegible. Nobody should glorify librarians. Nobody should force anyone to accept beliefs or ideas they know to be false.

  5. A few years back Gillette faced a similar problem with a small but vocal group of Islamophobic reactionaries protesting refugee resettlement. There was a Quran-burning and threats also made to the public library about an educational event talking about refugees. Like this incident, the sane, tolerant, educated part of the community came out in force to show that the agitators, who knew almost nothing about refugees and what resettlement was, were really a very small minority.

    Wyoming is at a crossroads. There is an image that the state is filled with these uncaring, uneducated, intolerant, and even hate-filled people. I don’t think that is true. I think that normal Wyomingites in Gillette, and throughout the state vastly outnumber this loud group. We must speak up against this movement of vocal people who resist change and promote fear of anyone who is not perceived to be or believe exactly like them. If Mr. Clem wants to believe these things and promote them to his followers, he is free to do so, but he and his small group don’t get to define our state nor our definition of Christianity. If we all speak up, these negative people will know they are in the minority. It might not stop them, but they won’t be as emboldened. God bless Wyoming.

  6. This saddens me , our town was the last place I thought people would be judged, there’s so much hate in our world today , Please don’t bring hate to our town , leave these people alone and let them live their lives!!! They aren’t harming anyone and they just want to be excepted!! I’m sure many of you have a closet full of skeletons that you don’t want to be judged on !! We need to come together as one and love one another !! God Bless you all

  7. I don’t think a county library should ever be censored. It’s a place of learning, whether about the past or the present. It’s a good place to go to find out what has been written on various subjects,some of which we are unfamiliar with.
    Letting our children be interactive with all situations helps them to grow emotionally and intellectually. A magic show is so entertaining and gives us a space to be just an audience in awe for a moment.

  8. Just as victors get to write the history, so do those who own the powers of narrative, e.g., newspapers, television, and other public platforms. This issue is no different. And who has the power? Well, just look at the narratives and you will see who has the power. One is described as a “community,” while the others are described as “anti-LGBTQ bigots and transphobic.” This isn’t rocket science. It’s quite clear who is setting the narrative and whose side they represent. The tactics are in plain view: you deny there is an issue and you attack those who disagree through name-calling, social demonization and when you think you have the upper hand you de-platform. You silence.

    The Christian worldview has always affirmed that we are in a rebellious and broken world. The implications for this are clear on the gender issue (just to pick one). All of us are broken. All of us have inner fragmentation that can run deep and wide. The question is, “what are we going to do once we find ourselves thinking we are one gender trapped in the biology of another? For the Christian, the answer is going to be a deliberate and compassionate attempt to abide by the biology that God has providentially given. As mentioned, our brokenness runs deep and wide, but we are not empowered to contravene biology. That is bad counsel and will have bad effects.

    Fundamentally, the issue is ethical and moral. First we have to discern what is right and then we need the courage to do what is right. As one who embraces historic Christianity, same-sex sex is intrinsically disordered and no amount of exegetical gymnastics will change what is clearly and consistently portrayed in Scripture and through the church. To direct one toward solidifying ones biology by acting in accordance with it, is not trans-phobic any more than retaining monogamy in our culture is poly-phobic.

    1. That is your *opinion* and should not govern the lives or attitudes of others who don’t share your opinion. A true American believes in democracy over religion.

      1. Hi Rachel,
        Thank you for your response to my comments. It is true all of us have *opinions* about this, that and another thing, but certainly not all things fall under the heading of opinion, right? Murder as being wrong (the taking of innocent life) is not a mere opinion, is it?

        Regarding democracy I believe it was Winston Churchill who said, “‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.'” I don’t think morality by opinion is a good foundation for ethics. However, in many instances moral intuition will vote for what is right.

    2. Actually, the people who control the narrative are the people who have decided to ban books they don’t agree with and those who literally threaten a children’s entertainer to the point the entertainer cancels the performance over what strangers perceive to be that person having the ‘incorrect’ genitals to put on a magic show for kids.

      Certainly, you don’t have to have same-sex sex if you don’t want to or if your imaginary friend told you it was “disordered” (whatever THAT means). But that actually isn’t even relevant to what happened in Gillette anyway, which didn’t involve sex of any kind, because this was a magic show for children…

      1. Hi Zachary,
        Thanks for your comments. I agree no one should be threatened. Nor do I think books ought to be burned, unless they are ours to burn, i.e., we own them. So we agree here as well.

        Our disagreement seems to center on what you’ve dubbed “my imaginary friend” that you alluded to in your response (the source of the phrase) and the “disordered desires” that I used to describe same-sex sex (the meaning of the phrase). I did not get the phrase from an imaginary friend, but rather from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1st edition, 1995, p. 625, Chastity and homosexuality, 2357). So there’s the source for you.

        In reference to “disordered” you commented, “(whatever THAT means),” and just to clear up its meaning, the church and most of human history, has put forth a reasoned and intuitive appeal to Natural Law. Specifically, the behavior in question cannot transmit life; it lacks the complementarity of the sexes for such an outcome; therefore, it is intrinsically disordered.

        Hope that clears things up.

      2. Zackary,

        I forgot the point of who controls the narrative. Poll after poll shows that mass media is controlled by those of a liberal leaning disposition. Google it. An abundance of data will arise. Narratives are formed by those in control. Conservatives dominate talk radio, but liberals pretty much own the rest. It’s not all black and white, but on this issue the predominant narrative-setters are left-leaning. That was my only point and I think it is well known. Can left-leaning journalists provide good journalism? Absolutely they can, if they choose to do so. I commend WyoFile for printing my comments. I fear a day is coming when they will be empowered to refrain from doing so, but until then I applaud there willingness to allow for a diversity of positions in their comment section. It would be nice if they also allowed for a Point/Counterpoint presentation. Democracy functions best with informed consent.

  9. I’m so embarrassed to be from Wyoming right now. Protesters might want to start using the library a lot more and enlighten themselves. A person’s sexuality is their business and no one else’s and they just want to live their lives. They aren’t trying to convert your children. Protesters, stop trying to color the world for others! Your ignorance is showing.

  10. I refute Scott Clem’s suggestion that “Humans are more, humans are the image of God, not mere animals”.
    I cite his Facebook Post and the other rancid clowns who came out of the woodworks to publicly cry and whine and rage about the genitals of a children’s magician…

  11. I grew up in Wyoming, and visit when I can. My memories of living there are mostly positive, happy ones. But the more I read about Wyoming politics and the more the ugly underbelly is exposed, the more I realize that my memories have more to do with beautiful geography and the happiness of the young, and perhaps not so much with the people who live(d) there. It’s a shame the magic show was cancelled, understandably so, and although I’m sorry that the free-thinkers in Gillette have had to suffer somewhat at the hands of the delusional, they should be proud of how they handled the situation. Libraries are one of the last bastions of the free world and need our unlimited support.