Things to do in Sacramento with a megaphone
Our reporter trails a band of anti-gay protesters for six months and lives to tell the tale
The lecture room in Ruef Hall on the American River College campus was already close to full and temperatures were running hot when I stopped at the door to greet Luke Otterstad.
“Oh, you made it,” he said as I stuck out my hand. He shook it, if a bit awkwardly.
“Where you go, I go, Luke,” I said, smiling.
I hadn’t intended to paraphrase that famous passage from the Bible book of Ruth. It just came naturally. That’s what happens when a secularist raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses mixes a religion minor with a couple of English degrees.
I’ve been following Luke around Sacramento for about six months. No, I’m not stalking this 20-something, evangelical Christian, anti-gay activist for the fun of it. Even though he’s good-looking in a youthfully intense way, he’s not my type. You see, I’m a middle-aged lesbian; I was organizing marches for gay and lesbian equality before Luke Otterstad was born. In July, I married my partner of 17 years, so Luke and I are most definitely on opposite sides of this issue.
But when my editors at SN&R decided that someone with journalistic sensibilities and a sense of humor ought to look into these folks—with their extreme approach to protesting; their bold, yellow “Sodomy is Sin” banner; and their retro use of language that even many anti-gay groups have abandoned as insensitive—I volunteered. The timing was right. Real anger had been stirred up between parts of the local gay community and some members of the Slavic evangelical churches, who have protested at gay events for a few years. And since Proposition 8, which aims to end marriage equality, is on the ballot for November, the upcoming months promised plenty of discussion of gay rights as well as ample opportunity to see Luke and company in action.
So through the rest of the spring and summer and on into fall, I followed Luke and his small crew of activists to protest after protest. With my notebook and camera, I trailed after them during the first local same-sex weddings at the Sacramento County clerk/recorder’s office, at the Sacramento Pride Festival and while protesting at an area McDonald’s, which they perceived as gay-friendly. I kept an eye on the activities of Luke and his friends Viktor Choban and Yuriy Popko at American River College, where they’ve stirred up quite a fuss over the past couple of semesters. They’ve managed to aggravate an impressive list of people: the GLBTQ club, Latinos Unidos, campus progressives, Muslim students and the Improv Club.
The most important thing I’ve discovered through all this: Luke and company won’t compromise. They believe they’re on God’s side, and as far as they’re concerned, if you’re arguing with God, you deserve what’s coming to you: death, destruction and eternal torment.
When I first met Luke in the last week of April at Rio Linda High School, I mistook him for a high-school teenager because he seemed so at home. But he identified himself as a college student and then quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as he told me that he’d come to Rio Linda High in “spontaneous support” of the freedom of speech. Some Christian teens had been asked to remove T-shirts with a Bible verse condemning a long list of sins, including homosexuality, or leave school. Luke didn’t seem to think it unusual or suspicious that the shirts were being worn on the Day of Silence, which is intended to raise awareness of the way that GLBTQ students can be bullied into silence. And apparently he didn’t think the verse might be perceived as threatening to gay and lesbian students.
I’d never seen any of Luke’s protests before, so I didn’t recognize the fellow my age who was wandering around with a sign that read, “The Bible is not Hate Speech” as Luke’s father, Dick Otterstad. I also didn’t know that the tall, lean, dark-haired kid leaning on the fence was not a high-school student, but Viktor Choban, one of Luke’s regular protesting companions. But I did recognize Luke’s name from SN&R’s previous coverage of the Church of the Divide, so my radar was up.
And those Bible-verse T-shirts? They’re regular attire at Luke’s protests. There wasn’t anything “spontaneous” about his support. He’d been at Rio Linda—and other area high schools—to oppose the Day of Silence many times before.
Luke had piqued my curiosity, so I did a little research. I found all sorts of videos of Church of the Divide protests online—most of them posted by the Dividers themselves. I also became familiar with that big yellow “Sodomy is Sin” banner. I’ve yet to grow accustomed to that thing, but it’s useful as a way to track the Dividers in a crowd.
The Church of the Divide takes its name from its geographical location in the Georgetown Divide near Placerville. Luke’s father is a pastor with the small group that meets in members’ homes. The elder Otterstad also led most of their protests until Luke came into his own.
A partial list of the protests over the last half-dozen years is impressive. The Dividers have protested at Wal-Mart (for saying “Happy Holidays!” instead of “Merry Christmas!”); at theaters that screened Brokeback Mountain, the “gay cowboy” movie; and at other churches, with signs that read, “This is a fake church” (for sins such as offering free gasoline to new members or being too nice to gay people). Luke’s father has dressed up in a devil costume, complete with pitchfork, to make sure people know where they’re headed for not doing things the Divider way.
But this small band of Dividers have focused with laserlike intensity on protesting at gay events, where that “Sodomy is Sin” banner functions as both a calling card and a demand for gays to return to the closet.
The California Supreme Court’s decision last May in favor of marriage equality brought the Dividers out to protest, of course. And when same-sex marriages actually began at 5:01 p.m. on June 16, the Dividers seemed to be everywhere: Luke was in San Francisco outside City Hall, while Yuriy was with Dick Otterstad at the Yolo County clerk/recorder’s office.
In fact, Yuriy crashed a wedding there, and not in the funny, “I want to meet chicks” style of wedding crashing from the movies. He was removed from a small reception for Ellen Pontac and Shelly Bailes, two of Davis’ busiest marriage-equality activists who celebrated 34 years together by finally legally tying the knot.
“This marriage is a fake!” Yuriy shouted as he rushed into the small reception area. A 20-something fellow with a mop of teen-idol hair and a tendency to wear his sunglasses indoors, Yuriy was gently led from the celebration by Yolo County Clerk-Recorder Freddie Oakley. She was willing to discuss his concerns with him.
Pontac and Bailes were too busy with cake and champagne to notice.
Of course, I expected to see the Dividers at the Sacramento County’s clerk/recorder’s office on Eighth Street as I went to cover the first local marriages on June 17. I had my eye out for that big yellow banner. Sure enough, it was right above the Dividers and their friends in the empty lot directly across F Street from the clerk/recorder’s office, where the protesters lined up along a dirt pathway. It was the usual suspects: the Otterstads, Viktor and Yuriy. There were also about two dozen additional people, including a number of youngsters of junior-high and high-school age.
Viktor was reading from the Bible, while Luke held the mic and megaphone for him. Viktor read a passage from 1 Corinthians on the nature of love, one that’s often read at weddings. Apropos, I thought. Then Dick Otterstad began a discourse on why that particular description of love doesn’t apply to same-sex weddings.
“This is not an expression of biblical love,” he said calmly, gesturing toward the assembled wedding-goers. He had a distant, almost bored expression on his face as he gave a lengthy condemnation of homosexuality from a religious perspective. He wrapped up by saying, “When you hear someone say, ‘I’m a gay Christian,’ they are not. You cannot be gay and be a Christian.”
No one seemed to pay much attention. The line awaiting entrance to the office was far too excited for the impromptu exegesis taking place on the Dividers’ side of the street. People with appointments entered first, followed by walk-ins. Every time a pair of newlyweds exited, the group exploded in applause and cheers.
When the Dividers began singing “We Shall Overcome,” a sigh of recognition went up on the marriage supporters’ side of the street. Apparently, everybody knows that song. The supporters started singing along with the Dividers, and for a moment, thanks to a couple of people who actually knew how to sing, there was even harmony.
Then one very enthusiastic fellow in a gray suit sang, quite loudly, “We have overcome / We have overcome / We have overcome todaaay.”
When another couple emerged to congratulations, Viktor weighed in again.
“This is not something to be proud of,” he stated into the megaphone. “It is shameful. You guys should be ashamed. Some countries don’t even know this is possible. Repent and God will forgive you. Otherwise, everyone who practices sodomy is going to hell.”
The brides and brides and grooms and grooms just kept lining up to be wed.[page]
That big yellow banner was the first thing I saw as I crossed Capitol Park toward N Street for the Pride Parade on June 21. The Dividers were lined up across from Westminster Presbyterian Church with a great view of the parade. Though early, it was already hot, with a cloudless sky and no Delta breeze.
I spotted Yuriy right away, standing with Luke on the curb. The two were doing plenty of shouting. Yuriy stopped occasionally to read a scripture or two aloud, and he had that preacher shuffle—the trick of moving from reading the Bible to waving it—down pat.
“You should be ashamed of yourselves! You are Christ haters!” he shouted. He ramped it up when convertibles carrying local political notables Sen. Darrell Steinberg and City Councilwoman Lauren Hammond drove by.
“You are rejecting Jesus Christ!” That one earned Yuriy a really dirty look from Hammond.
The crowd followed the parade down the route, which is when I encountered a new group of protesters. A couple of them were wearing hard hats. I couldn’t help thinking the outfits were pretty gay, in a Village People way. They were “street preachers” from the Bay Area, known for their confrontational tactics at pride fests and on campuses.
The most annoying of this bunch was a fellow named Kevin Farrar. In addition to the usual “you’re going to hell unless you turn aside from sodomy” shtick, Farrar also offered a running critique of the parade.
“Is that all you got? What, no more floats?” he shouted. “This is a lame parade. The fags in San Francisco do a much better job.” That told me he certainly wasn’t with Luke and the Dividers. I’ve never heard them use the word “fag.” “Homosexual” and “sodomite,” yes; “fag,” no.
“Do you really think Sodom was destroyed because they didn’t show hospitality?” Luke asked into the megaphone as the parade turned a corner just the other side of the Stanford Mansion. “How can you believe that? Sodom was destroyed for the sin of sodomy, which is a sin you are committing. You’ll be destroyed just like Sodom.”
That remark told me that Luke has done his research, or at least taken a class in biblical studies. The interpretation he was scoffing at is a pretty mainstream one: that it was the violence and rudeness of the men of Sodom that led to their destruction rather than their sexual proclivities. A more liberal interpretation of scripture that distinguishes the threatened rape in the story of Sodom from the loving sex in committed gay relationships, it’s a view held by many Christians. But that interpretation carries little weight with fundamentalists and theocrats of any stripe, and Luke’s attitude was clear in his tone.
When the parade reached the entrance to Southside Park, gay and gay-friendly Christians moved toward the protesters to try and “dialogue.” That’s when cops on horses entered the street and inserted themselves between the groups. Then the bike police formed a line with their bicycles in front of the protesters. I’ve got to hand it to the Sacramento Police Department, because things very quickly quieted down.
By 2 p.m., the bike cops had been replaced by a couple of patrol cars parked in front of the protesters and there were only about 10 people left in the protest line. Viktor was holding one end of the yellow banner, so I showed him my press badge and introduced myself. He told me he attended the Romanian Baptist Church.
“Do you really think this is effective?” I asked. “Do you think it will change anyone’s mind?”
“Sometimes, sometimes. But the book of Jeremiah says you have a duty to proclaim the word of God even though they won’t listen.”
I tried to ask about whether or not the Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah apply to contemporary Christians, but he seemed uncomfortable and turned away from me. I suspect he wasn’t ready for a lesbian reporter to come at him with doctrinal questions.
On the way out, I saw a very young boy crouching down behind one of the signs. I’d seen him earlier, looking bored, standing next to a bearded man I took for his father. Now, he looked exhausted—hot and tired, seeking shade.
The sign he was sheltering in said, “Sodomy is not a family value.”
I didn’t see the Otterstads, Viktor and Yuriy again until the August 1 protest at the McDonald’s on Auburn Boulevard at Madison.
Dick Otterstad was wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, a wise move to keep the sun off his face in the sweltering afternoon. The side of his sign that faced oncoming traffic proclaimed in black block letters beneath the familiar golden arch symbol, “McDonald’s promotes ‘gay’ marriage.” On the other side, the sign had an exhortation for readers: “Christians Boycott McDonald’s.”
The Dividers’ summer protests at McDonald’s were inspired by a call by the American Family Association to boycott the burger giant for failing to “remain neutral in the culture wars,” the elder Otterstad told me. McDonald’s had donated to an event sponsored by the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, and a McDonald’s executive was on the group’s board of directors.
He described their venture as a “grassroots” response to McDonald’s donation to the gay business group. No, he said, the Dividers are not affiliated with the American Family Association, Donald Wildmon’s far right-wing group, “but we get their e-mails, so we know what’s going on.”
In the McDonald’s parking lot, Viktor refused to talk to me at all.
“SN&R is very biased,” he said. As if that wasn’t enough reason to snub me, he added “You have gay pictures in your magazine.”
But Dick Otterstad was willing to chat.
“She will make it sound like we are hating,” Viktor warned him before walking off.
Dick Otterstad has a low-key speaking style. He was matter-of-fact about the Dividers’ opposition to “mainstream” Christianity, in which he included most evangelicals.
“Either people think that Christianity is all about the law or they think it’s all about love. The fact is, it’s about both,” he said. “It’s just that, unlike the founding generation of Christians in this country, this generation of pastors is totally, as your paper pointed out in the interview with [Pastor] Rick Cole, lopsided on the side of love, to the point where it’s a distorted love.”
He looked me directly in the eye. “It’s not really a biblical love.”
Then he compared “biblical love” to the love a parent has for a child, which—according to him—includes stern discipline. He tied what he sees as the current cultural decline to Dr. Benjamin Spock and the way he influenced child-rearing, which resulted in people who are “unruly.”
“They’re ungovernable,” he said.
In fact, without the scriptures, most of what Otterstad had to say could have been lifted right out of one of George Lakoff’s descriptions of the “authoritative parent” mindset that the professor identifies with right-wing politics. Otterstad was describing his God’s love as that of an authoritarian parent who maintains order and punishes rule-breaking.
It’s interesting that rather than ranting about gay people, Otterstad saved his worst criticism for other churches, mentioning Capital Christian Center by name several times. “We call people to repent for the kingdom of God,” he said, while more accepting churches do not. Misunderstanding about what repentance means, he said, is the fault of the evangelical church, which preaches a message of love and acceptance.
I asked Otterstad if he wasn’t trying to force his particular brand of Christianity on the rest of us. What if we don’t agree with his beliefs?
“Somebody is going to define marriage in our culture,” he said, turning back to the issue at hand. “It’s a question of who has the right to do that.” The implication was clearly that Christians, as he defined them, had the right to make that definition.
While we were talking, a McDonald’s manager arrived, extremely upset about Otterstad’s presence in front of the restaurant. She wasn’t too happy about having me there, either, and threatened to tow my car. By the time I got my car reparked outside the McDonald’s lot, the Dividers’ group had moved down to the corner of Auburn and Madison and grown a bit. In addition to the Otterstads and Viktor, Yuriy had arrived, along with four other young people.
Soon another McDonald’s manager, a man who refused to give me his name, was talking to Luke. They moved down the street away from the protest, so I tried to convince Yuriy to do an interview with SN&R. He refused, calling us “biased.” But he’d talked to WorldNetDaily, I pointed out. He agreed that the right-wing site was biased, but still put me off.
“How did you find out about this?” he asked.
“You sent me a press release,” I told him.
“OK, we’re done,” Luke said as he walked back to the group. “We got what we wanted.”
The manager had signed their letter and scuttled up the sidewalk.
Thirty-eight minutes. That’s how long it took for seven people with obnoxious signs to intimidate a McDonald’s manager into signing a letter condemning his own corporation for being gay-friendly.
In early October, the American Family Association claimed “victory” in their boycott of McDonald’s because the company executive resigned from that board. But the McDonald’s corporate headquarters told me there was no “victory”—that the executive had merely been transferred to Canada.
What was the whole boycott all about? I still have no idea.[page]
A year ago this fall, Luke, Yuriy and Viktor were among the founders of the Christian Civilization Club at ARC. They began “tabling”—setting up a booth to offer information to students—in the library quad.
“From the beginning,” said Nancy Dziuba, a fellow American River student and member of a progressive campus coalition, “they had the signs up that said ‘Sodomy is Sin,’ so of course everybody noticed.”
But students really noticed when the group held what they called “Islam Awareness Week.” Club members distributed a pamphlet, provocatively titled “Why Islam Is NOT a Religion of Peace,” and signs on their table included accusations of pedophilia on the part of the Prophet Muhammad. This did not lead to productive discussion.
In fact, a number of observers told me that the club darn near caused a riot.
The conflict was videotaped by Luke, the group’s resident videographer. It’s the perfect setup: Luke, Yuriy or Viktor will say something provocative that falls, however narrowly, within the realm of free speech, then Luke records the emotional reactions of the offended parties. When the video is posted on one of their several Web sites or on YouTube, the reaction is labeled unreasonable, hateful or violent.
In this case, to prove that Muslims are violent, the Christian Civilization Club got them very upset first by insulting what they hold dear. It’s similar to a bunch of 12-year-olds lobbing a stink bomb into the girls’ bathroom in junior-high school, and the reaction is the same as well: rage and tears.
While the Christian Civilization Club disbanded—their adviser resigned, which meant they could not continue as a club—Luke, Yuriy and Viktor didn’t drop out of sight. Instead, they got involved in student government as part of a coalition of conservative students, many of whom ran on a platform promising to represent “Christians” on campus. Viktor was among the group who were elected to the Student Association council last spring.
Following the election, accusations of election tampering, homophobia, Christian bashing, conflict of interest and intolerance flew from all sides in a campus dispute that coalesced this fall around the ARC student council decision to pass a resolution in support of Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage ballot measure. Progressive students gathered the signatures to recall the conservative officers, including Viktor, in an election to be held this month. At a rowdy Student Association meeting on September 30, student after student took the podium to make emotion-filled pitches.
When it was Viktor’s turn to speak, he opened with a statement that was guaranteed to get a reaction. “Homosexuals are masters at presenting themselves as a civil-rights issue,” he said. “It’s not a civil-rights issue. It’s a personal choice.”
He was interrupted by shouts of “Fuck you!”
He might have been offended, but he didn’t seem surprised. Meanwhile, Luke filmed it all. He was smiling.
What conclusions have I come to out of all this? It seems pretty clear that a small group of committed activists—the usual suspects—can stir up a ruckus and attract attention. But it’s also clear that they can alter the climate in a pretty serious way. At ARC, both students who identify as Christian and students who are members of the gay community have told me that they feel targeted. Young men and women there told me in tears that they no longer felt safe at school. A transgender student told me she’d transferred to another community college because she didn’t feel safe on ARC’s campus.
The hard feelings aren’t likely to dissipate any time soon, since both the campus recall election and the general election—with Proposition 8 on the ballot—will take up a great deal of energy over the next weeks.
I’m convinced that, no matter what the results of either election, the Dividers will still be out there under their big yellow banner. And even if there are only four of them, Luke’s crew will still serve as an ongoing reminder that not everyone is comfortable in a secular, diverse 21st century.
A few friends and colleagues have asked me what I intend to do next about these fellows, after all these months, now that this story is complete. Will I continue to watch over their activities and report on their protests? It’s true that part of me would love to say goodbye to the Dividers and never have to face that yellow banner again.
But that’s just not gonna happen. In fact, what I plan to do next comes straight from the book of Ruth. Where you go, I go, Luke.
Save American River College (Anti-Dividers site)
Save ARCollege (anti-Dividers)