What Enumclaw Chamber of Commerce staff assumed would be a small gesture of inclusivity turned into a year-long debate between board members, revealing a fissure between two ideologies concerning Pride Month.
For the last three years, the Chamber used a Pride Month rainbow filter on its Instagram account behind its “commUNITY” logo for 30 days. While the filter is a rainbow, it is not identical to the Pride Flag.
But after a member complained last year, the 18-member board spent three meetings in April and May — plus individual conversations in between those meetings — discussing whether the nonprofit should continue that tradition.
It all culminated as a failed motion to allow Chamber staff to use the rainbow filter in an 8 to 9 vote on May 10.
Casting their votes in favor of the motion were Past Chairman Kim Elias, Treasurer Tom Sauvageau, Secretary Eric Emry, Jill Burnes, Stephanie Lynch, Jessica Powell, Vanessa Pons, and Bert Tyler. Chamber Executive Director Shannon Solveg and Marketing Director Kerry Solmonson, who chose to use the filter in the past, were also in favor of the measure but could not vote.
Against the measure were Chairman Tim Dehnert, Chairman-elect Tony Hancuff, Danielle Perry, Bart Jensen, David Ballestrasse, Steve Cadematori, Darrel Dickson, Anne Gannom, and Rene Popke.
Absent from the meeting was David Babbitt.
This local issue appears to mirror a national debate over myriad LGBTQ+ issues — from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas suggesting the court should “reconsider” Obergefell v. Hodges and the right for same-sex couples to get married anywhere in the country to bans of gender-affirming care in states and LGBTQ+ books and educational materials in schools — and how people are able to even broach such emotional topics, let alone voice an opinion, without being labeled.
Although the board decided to not use the Pride filter this month, Solmonson wrote that the Chamber will still display other means of support — the Pride flag sticker in the window and pamphlets directing visitors to LGBTQ+-supporting businesses in town, for example — and will still promote Pride and LGBTQ+ members of the Chamber on social media.
“We remain committed to fostering an environment that welcomes and supports all individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” her prepared statement reads. “… Our commitment to diversity, equality, and inclusivity remains unwavering, and we look forward to engaging with our members and the broader community to create a positive and inclusive environment for all. Together, we can create a stronger, more inclusive Enumclaw.”
HOW IT STARTED
The divide began in June 2022, when Executive Director Solveg received a call from Dickson, who complained about the Chamber’s use of the filter and threatened to pull his membership.
During the May 10, 2023 meeting, Solveg said the call was “abusive”, but the matter was soon settled by the Executive Board. However, she brought it up again, this time to the whole board, because she felt other members believed she then retaliated against Dickson by moving Chamber meetings from his venue, The Claw of Enumclaw, to the Game Vault on Cole Street.
To clear the air, Solveg said her decision was regarding her Multiple Sclerosis and that it was becoming difficult to set up and take down meetings at The Claw.
“It was too much for me. So I looked for an alternative,” she said. “It was in no way a retaliation for that behavior, and I just want that on the record.”
Dickson apologized during the meeting if he offended Solveg during the phone call, adding that his point was that there should have been a vote on the use of the filter. He also said he would have physically helped set up meetings if he was asked.
He clarified in a later email that “making an honest statement and asking hard questions does not make one abusive” and he meant no disrespect. Dickson also said that the Chamber’s bylaws give all board members the right to bring issues that can be considered political to the group for a vote.
“For example, recently we voted at our board meeting to say the Pledge of Allegiance prior to our board meetings, and prior to that action we got approval from the board to do so,” he continued. “It is important that every board member has the opportunity to feel safe in raising an honest question and concern about issues they perceive as political and call for a vote, that is their right and duty.”
That phone call eventually led to the board discussing the use of the filter this year during its April 12 meeting; discussion spilled into a special meeting on May 9 and the regularly-scheduled meeting on May 10.
Solmonson, during board meetings and in a later interview, said this was the first time she had received a direct complaint about the filter, and that community support over the filter use was overwhelmingly positive.
Plateau Pride, a Facebook group for those who identify as LGBTQ+ and their allies, has grown from 11 people in 2020 to 374 members — certainly not large, at least in comparison to other community pages, but far more than what co-coordinator Reilin Crncevich expected.
In 2021, Crncevich approached the Chamber to see if the group could enter the Independence Day parade.
She expected to be turned away, but instead, Solveg and Solmonson were so excited to have the parade’s first-ever Pride section that they made a member of Plateau Pride the Grand Marshal and had the group walk right behind.
“We had a lot of people that came, for lack of a better term, out of the woodwork with us,” Crncevich said in a recent interview. “Older queer people that have been in the community for a long time felt validated for the first time ever.”
Public reception to the Plateau Pride section, she added, was generally positive.
However, she felt the local political atmosphere darkened the following year, in part because several comments were made at Enumclaw School Board meetings in early 2022 concerning student LGBTQ+ clubs “grooming” students and that viewpoints were being “shoved down” the community’s throats, according to meeting minutes.
Positive comments about the LGBTQ+ community and related school clubs were also made, but Crncevich said Plateau Pride members — especially students — retreated from the public eye, fearing additional backlash, and the group’s presence in the 2022 Independence Day parade was greatly diminished.
She said Plateau Pride really appreciated the Chamber’s use of the Pride filter in the past, so having the Chamber now take that away is another blow to the local LGBTQ+ community.
“That said a lot to us, as a group,” Crncevich said, adding this decision could also affect visitors’ attitudes toward Enumclaw. “We do see a lot of dollars from outsiders, and I think that it’s important that they know that they’re welcome.”
“It grieves me to think anyone would feel unsafe. It is an unfortunate part of humanity to have the freewill to act and speak based on how they feel and in doing so can cause harm to others. However, it should be noted the actions of the public are not a direct reflection on the Chamber,” Chairman Dehnert said in response in a later email. “The Chamber, in line with its mission, created a place for all to participate and an opportunity to bring commerce to our local businesses. We will continue to create opportunities like this and we welcome anyone to participate.”
POLITICAL NEUTRALITY, LIABILITY, AND RETALIATION
The Enumclaw Chamber board appears to be split, in general, into two ideologies.
One group holds that the nonprofit should stay neutral when it comes to political, social, and ideological movements in order to prevent the Chamber from being distracted from its mission and keep the Chamber safe from potential liability.
“What I’m concerned about is we don’t get into something that can be interpreted as extremely political,” Dickson said. “I’m not saying it is political, I’m saying it could be interpreted by some people as being extremely political and ideological. And that takes us away from our focus.”
The other group believed Pride Month is a non-political issue, using the filter sent a positive message to the local LGBTQ+ community, and suddenly no longer using the filter will have a negative effect on the community.
“Despite the noise you might have heard, this flag represents all of us. It does not represent some special club, or any anti-anything. And it does not represent a political party and it most certainly does not steal the meaning from any other flag,” Emry said during the April 12 meeting, recounting how he and others watched as a man jumped out of his truck to steal a Pride flag on his business property in 2021. “For many community members and business owners, seeing a Pride flag flying at the Enumclaw Chamber of Commerce will evoke hope.”
Central to the former group’s argument was the 2022 Supreme Court’s Shurtleff v. City of Boston ruling. The issue at hand was that Boston was allowing groups to apply to have their flag raised over its city hall. In 2017, a Christian group applied to fly a Christian-themed flag for Constitution Day, but the city denied their application. This was the first time the city had denied an application, but it was also the first time it received an application for a religious flag.
The Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that Boston violated the group’s First Amendment rights.
“If we’re going to pass this motion… I think we need to consider if anybody wants to fly whatever flag, we need to be willing to consider it or else there could be a liability,” Dickson said during the May 10 meeting.
It should be noted that while much of the board discussion revolved around “flying” a flag, no motion was ever introduced to fly or hang a physical flag at the Chamber building.
There appear to be several key differences between Shurtleff v. City of Boston and the Enumclaw Chamber of Commerce.
First is that the local Chamber, while a 501(c)6 nonprofit, is not a government entity like the city of Boston.
Second is that the Chamber does not have a program for special interests to apply for their cause to be advertised by the Chamber on social media (the Chamber does have groups apply for the annual Independence Day and Christmas parades, and has a policy of not denying applicants except for if the parade is full).
Until this point, all the Chamber’s social media content was controlled by Solsomson, who has also made posts about other themed months and for various Chamber businesses that want to highlight their own causes with no issue; no other filters are used in regard to the Chamber’s logo.
“No one has ever had one word to say to me about anything I’ve ever posted, ever, until this,” she said on April 12. “There are many businesses that are members of the Chamber that I might not agree with… what they stand for. Yet I share their stuff all the time. No one in those businesses have ever thought to themselves, ‘I wonder if I’m welcome at the Chamber.’ But do you know who might have wondered? The people that I posted that flag for. The people that I posted Black History Month for and Women’s History Month. If anyone comes to me and says, ‘Hey, I’d love you to highlight this’ — great. If it’s a member, that’s what we do.”
Several on the board also worried about retaliation, either from staff, other Chamber members, or the public at large.
The Chamber’s relatively-new use of its “commUNITY” logo was an effort to “emphasize unity… but this issue has accomplished just the opposite,” said David Ballestrasse. “We now have staff that won’t talk to certain board members. It’s not doing us any good, and we’re spending time on issues that are not related to what our mission is.”
“It’s like… ‘If you don’t vote for this, then you’re guilty of hate and discrimination’,” said Steve Cadematori. “It’s not great to be told by your friends that you’re guilty of hate and discrimination…”
But that’s exactly how Solmonson saw it as she warned the board about potential community fallback.
“… The lobbying against this stance is so thinly veiled. It’s bigotry hiding behind bureaucracy. The only reason to vote against this is hate. Not an irrelevant Supreme Court [ruling], or political neutrality, or opening the door for other groups. It’s hate and fear,” she said. “Are we prepared as a group to discriminate against the LGBTQ people and allies in this room, in our membership, and in our community? And if we are, are we prepared as a city for the backlash if this gets voted down and becomes visible in the media?”
In her interview, Crncevich is already thinking about what changes she may make as to what businesses she’ll spend money at.
“When you live in a community that’s close-knit, and you’re trying to advocate for others, it starts pretty minimally with voting with your dollar,” she said.