Pa. commissioners called LGBTQ gathering a ‘hate group’ and denied funds to library where it was to meet. So citizens stepped in.
“I think in the end, it’s brought the community together behind tolerance and kindness.”
Sarah Cutchall was scanning through the local newspaper after a long day at work when she came across a story that left her speechless.
“County refuses library request for additional funding,” a headline in the Fulton County News read in its Nov. 11 edition, with the subhead: “Opposed to LGBTQ+ group meeting at library.”
“I was flabbergasted,” said Cutchall, 32, a nurse who lives in Fulton County, Pa., a rural area that borders Maryland.
Reading the article, she learned that the county commissioners had decided not to approve an additional $3,000 in funding for the library, which has received $12,000 annually since 2016.
Although one commissioner, Paula Shives, voted to approve the funding, the county’s other two commissioners, Randy Bunch and Stuart Ulsh, refused to sign off on it. Their reasoning, they said, is that the library had recently agreed to host a biweekly LGBTQ support group — a gathering with which the two Republican commissioners did not agree. The budget increase would not have funded the LGBTQ support group, according to library officials.
Both the commissioners claimed the LGBTQ community is considered a “hate group,” according to the Fulton County News.
“If we support them, we have to support Proud Boys and Black Lives Matter,” Bunch is quoted as saying in a Nov. 2 meeting, during which commissioners discussed the county’s 2022 draft budget.
When a reporter from the Fulton County News asked Ulsh why he did not vote to approve the funding increase, Ulsh said, “I don’t agree with any organization that gets a group together that has an agenda behind it,” according to the newspaper.
Bunch was also asked to clarify his comments.
“I don’t hate anybody. I’m just saying that LGBTQ and any of those organizations make people upset. I personally think none of them need any part in Fulton County. I don’t dislike anybody; I just don’t want something that’s going to create friction between people,” he is quoted as saying.
“I don’t feel where taxpayers’ money is given that stuff like that should go on,” Bunch continued. “None of it. Not the LGBTQ, Proud Boys, Ku Klux Klan — I don’t agree with any of that.”
After reading the newspaper story, Cutchall, who has lived in Fulton County all her life, said she was astonished — and outraged.
“For an elected official to outwardly say those discriminatory things, I couldn’t even process it,” she said.
“I have some very close friends who are in the LGBTQ+ community, and their hearts were broken by those statements,” said Cutchall, a mother of three.
She decided to act.
“I wasn’t going to allow these people to speak for me,” Cutchall said. “I wanted the LGBTQ+ community to realize that they have allies in their corner.”
She started a fundraiser on Facebook on Nov. 11, hoping to raise $3,000 for the Fulton County Library. Within just three hours, the goal was surpassed, and in a matter of days the fundraiser reached close to $10,000.
“We cannot allow them to deny further funding to necessary public areas like our LIBRARY because of their own personal bias and moral deficiencies,” Cutchall wrote in her Facebook post announcing the fundraiser.
Emily Best, who lives in a neighboring county, said she too was appalled by the commissioners’ comments and started a fundraiser on GoFundMe.com for the same reasons as Cutchall.
“I hope it shows the LGBTQ community, especially young people, that there is support,” said Best, 38, who has fond memories of regularly visiting Fulton County Library with her family. “It’s not even political, it’s personal. This is about people’s identities. You can’t just say those things and get away with it.”
People “deserve to be who they are without being denigrated by elected officials,” Best said.
Comments poured in, expressing both outrage over the commissioners’ remarks and pride for the community’s response.
“I have family in Fulton County. I love libraries. I was an odd child and my local public library was a great place for me to learn about the world and about myself. I was always welcome and I appreciate that,” a person who donated $50 to the GoFundMe campaign commented.
“I was born and raised in Fulton County, and so many people do not support the hate that these men represent. Flying my rainbow on this beautiful day,” another person commented, sharing a photo of a Pride flag outside her home.
Collectively, the two fundraising campaigns have raised more than $40,000 for the small library — more than 10 times the amount it had requested from the local government.
Jamie Brambley, the director of the Fulton County Library, said she was stunned by the show of support.
“I really am thankful for these two patrons and women in the community who went above and beyond to try and organize these fundraisers on behalf of the library,” she said. “I think in the end, it’s brought the community together behind tolerance and kindness.”
Brambley was hopeful the commissioners would approve an additional $3,000 in funding, bringing the total to $15,000 — which was the amount of county funding the library received before 2010, when recession-induced cuts were made.
She is not yet sure how the unexpected influx of money will be allocated, but “we hope that the county commissioners will see what we are doing with the funds and how much more we can do for the county if we had a stable source of reliable funding,” she said.
Brambley plans to reach out to the community to gauge how it would like the money to be spent, but she has some ideas, such as creating a maker space, updating the computers and expanding the library’s diverse book collection.
“I’d really like to do something special with it,” she said.
Although the minutes for the Nov. 2 meeting do not directly cite discussions surrounding funding for the library, the minutes for a meeting on Nov. 9 state that Cassidy Pittman, a local reporter following the story, asked commissioners about their “comments regarding the LGBTQ+ community as being a hate group.”
Bunch — the only one of the three commissioners to respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post — acknowledged that he used the term “hate group” but claimed it was a misunderstanding.
“Yes, I did refer to them as a hate group, I’m not going to deny that,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s not what I intended, but it’s what I said.”
He said the public library is not an appropriate place to host an LGBTQ support group.
“It can create hate and friction between people. That’s what I was trying to say,” said Bunch, who commissioned a giant mural of President Donald Trump along the main road through McConnellsburg, the county seat.
The notion of hosting an LGBTQ support group at a public library, he said, “makes people uncomfortable.”
Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said the commissioners’ actions constitute “a tremendous misuse of government power.”
“These commissioners are elected to represent all people, not just people who are like them,” Walczak said. “They’re using money to try to shut down or discourage forums for certain groups that they don’t like.”
He said it is “ludicrous” that a library would be punished by politicians.
“Libraries have historically been a place for gathering and free thought and expression,” Walczak said.
The Library Bill of Rights states that libraries should offer public meeting spaces and make facilities available “on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.”
Brambley, the library director, said offering to host an LGBTQ support group fit squarely in that mission.
“We provide spaces and programs that are inclusive and serve to represent the entire community,” she said.
The idea for an LGBTQ support group at the library started with requests from community members, Brambley said. She partnered with staff at TrueNorth Wellness Services, an agency that provides mental health and other services, to get it off the ground.
Garrett Trout, chief executive of TrueNorth, emphasized the need for an LGBTQ support group in Fulton County.
The biweekly meetings, which have not yet begun, will have between five and 10 members and will initially be held virtually. The sessions will serve to “provide a loving environment” and show members “they’re not alone,” Trout said.
Trout said the enormous success of the fundraising initiatives speaks volumes.
“Fulton County is a great community that will rise up and support individuals, in any and all circumstances,” Trout said. “The more we can come together and support one another, the better off we are.”