A gay ole time in ‘Old Hangtown’

The once-sleepy town of Placerville becomes a new flashpoint for gay-rights protests

Kiss-free zone: Luke Otterstad waves to a passing supporter after parking his “truth truck” along the edge of Highway 50.

Kiss-free zone: Luke Otterstad waves to a passing supporter after parking his “truth truck” along the edge of Highway 50.

Photo By Larry Dalton

A town that prides itself on its Gold Rush heritage and booming tourist trade, Placerville has become an unlikely microcosm for the battle over gay rights.

Here is a town where craft and niche shops give Main Street the cozy feel of a bygone era, where men clad in head-to-toe cowboy outfits walk the streets and where the cop cars say “Old Hangtown” on the door in memory of the town’s reputation for frontier justice during the Gold Rush era.

But on Sunday, February 13, all that seemed painfully quaint as gay-rights supporters organized on the steps of the old courthouse on Main Street to counter a demonstration by GaymarriageNO, a Christian group that has drawn what spokesman Luke Otterstad says is a necessary line in the sand. There’s a war on Christian values in America, he explained, while motorists drove by the group perched on the edge of Highway 50, passing in a slow-moving bottleneck caused by the signs on his truck. Members of GaymarriageNO also carried signs that said “Bible=Hate Speech?” and other things of a similar theme.

Some drivers honked in approval. Others hurled gibes. He seemed to enjoy either response equally, waving and smiling.

Otterstad’s local Christian group has been handing out anti-gay literature at area high schools and targeting gay-owned businesses. On February 8, Mayor Roberta Colvin declared the city to be a hate-free zone in direct response to the group’s tactics, which some believe to be so aggressive as to border on harassment.

“By issuing that ‘hate-free’ proclamation, it considers all of our actions hateful. The Bible, too,” Otterstad argued. “We’ve seen it in other countries. In Sweden, for example, a pastor was jailed for preaching an anti-gay message. I don’t feel threatened by gays. I just want to make a stand now.”

The 19-year-old and his father, Richard, both reside in Garden Valley, a tiny rural community about 10 miles north of Placerville. They have a church group, which meets in various homes in the area, with two dozen attending on a good night, Otterstad said. Last year, they decided to affix two Ford pickups with signs depicting gay men kissing and a ban symbol around their heads, along with provocative signs with declarations like “Homosexuality is sin.” The trucks are mobile billboards and have stirred up a considerable ruckus in this previously sleepy burg in El Dorado County.

Otterstad said his father, who declined to speak to SN&R, has “always been an activist” and is the founder of the group. He decided to focus on homosexuality in May when the issue of gay marriage in Massachusetts “was too much.” That same month, the “truth trucks” were born—and Placerville hasn’t quite been the same since.

Alex Pop, standing next to Otterstad, said he also believes Christianity is under attack in America, which he finds especially disturbing because he was jailed in his native Romania in 1989 for doing missionary work. He said he spent three years in seven prisons for being caught by the secret police with a list of fellow missionaries’ names.

“I couldn’t believe the Bible is an issue here,” Pop said, adding that he thinks categorizing Christian values as “hate speech” is a slippery slope toward religious oppression.

A few blocks away, Renee Krupp and Norma Echabarne, supporters of the hate-free-zone proclamation, felt otherwise.

“They seem to have a cafeteria style of Christianity. They pick and choose, and pick one thing to beat you over the head with,” Krupp said. When the two moved to Placerville as a lesbian couple in 1978—even though it was and still is “very religious” in their opinion—they felt accepted in the community.

Although Otterstad said he doesn’t feel threatened by gays, the feeling is not necessarily mutual. Matt Huckabay—along with his partner, Tony Matthews—owns a shop in Placerville and said he was disturbed to learn that their business had been identified on GaymarriageNO.org in an effort to boycott them because they had advertised in a gay publication.

“This moved from a freedom-of-speech issue into trying to do economic damage to a community, and an individual,” Huckabay said. “When someone targets a community, we really just can’t stand for that. I’ve had the opportunity to speak with Dick and Luke on several occasions. I find it interesting that the proclamation hasn’t changed anything they’ve said. Freedom of speech is the only politically correct tag they can use. Their belief that Christianity is under attack is just wrong.

“The first time I became aware of the organization, they were turning onto Main Street one morning, and painted in huge plywood attached to their truck was ‘Jesus hates gay people,’” he said. “That was disturbing.”

GaymarriageNO’s Web site lists its own account of protests and instances of what its supporters feel is oppression by the city and police. One member, Robert O’Conner, was arrested for a January 5 incident at El Dorado High School in which he allegedly punched an 18-year-old student who confronted him.

Ironically, future Sundays figure to be the flashpoint for protests and counter-protests, as both groups say they will continue to demonstrate in separate shows of solidarity.

Even low-key protests these days seem to invite an element of rancor from interlopers. The pro-gay-rights group downtown was briefly counter-rallied by a group of skinheads carrying placards that would’ve made George Lincoln Rockwell proud; they read “White Man love your race” and “White Pride.” A young boy of about 10, replete with shorn hair, gleefully gave the sieg heil salute from across the way in a celebration of Aryan mores that, in another era, would’ve afforded him a respectable standing in the Hitlerjugend.

However, the skinheads left “as soon as it started raining,” quipped Huckabay. The rain continued as about 75 gay-rights supporters gathered on the courthouse steps. Organizer Steve Bryant, from the El Dorado County Human Rights Round Table, was putting the final touches on the afternoon’s effort when a man made his way through the crowd. He stared angrily at Bryant and the group for several tense moments as talk dissipated, an outburst all but written in the air.

“You’re all a bunch of freaks! Why don’t you get out of here?” said the man, who identified himself only as “Rob” to SN&R. He continued to verbally assail the group until police escorted him away.

The Otterstads and company, meanwhile, took up their spot off the freeway, where a half-dozen of them milled about on a muddied shoulder, the two “truth trucks” advertising their message to slowly passing traffic. Activist O’Conner and an unnamed cohort were perched up on the freeway overhang, displaying signs that read “Homosexuality is Sin” and “Christ can set you free” to eastbound Highway 50 motorists.

A man materialized about 30 yards from the overhang, down at ground level, shouting up at the two-man sign detail.

“You fucking assholes!” he shouted. “Why don’t you let people the hell alone? What business is it of yours?” The duo did not reply, and the man did not act on his threat to come up and take the signs down.

The man identified himself as Mike Jones, a 45 year-old resident of Placerville.

“Do these guys really think they’re gonna be admitted into heaven? Wouldn’t freedom allow you to make the choice of life you want to live without being harassed?” he said. “I’m not gay. I love women. I don’t even understand homosexuality. But these people have gone too far.”