Hundreds Gather in Vergennes to Protest Anti-Trans Speaker | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Hundreds Gather in Vergennes to Protest Anti-Trans Speaker


Published June 20, 2023 at 10:21 p.m.

The scene outside Vergennes Union High School - ALISON NOVAK
  • Alison Novak
  • The scene outside Vergennes Union High School
By 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday — an hour before anti-trans speaker Walt Heyer was to speak via video teleconference inside Vergennes Union High School — a large crowd of protesters had already gathered outside.

Wearing colorful leis and rainbow-hued apparel, they held homemade signs with slogans such as "I stand with students" and "Love not hate." They blew bubbles, grilled hot dogs and chatted as pop music blared.
The crowd listening to speakers - ALISON NOVAK
  • Alison Novak
  • The crowd listening to speakers
At around 6 p.m., students addressed the crowd of more than 300 people. Elio Farley, a Middlebury College student who serves as a queer youth advocate, told the protesters not to interact with people arriving for Heyer's talk.

"We refuse to fuel right-wing media narratives of trans people as dangerous," Farley said, "and as such, we will not interact with a hate group with a demonstrated inability to engage in good faith."

Kestin Puechl-Sproul, one of the Vergennes Union High School students who organized the counterprotest, gave a shout-out to her two moms "for teaching me what it is to protest and stand up for my own rights."

"The people in the building right now listening to ignorant talking points are there because they don't want to empathize and talk to the people here in this crowd today," Puechl-Sproul said. "I want to support empathy, and I want to support a human connection, and I think that is the most important thing we can learn from being here today."

Rev. Sarah Flynn, who said she transitioned to living as a woman 40 years ago, also spoke. Flynn, who leaned on a cane, said she moved to Vermont because of the promise of same-sex marriage and later helped to change state laws so that transgender and nonbinary people would be protected from discrimination in education, health care and employment.

"I've witnessed this change in my lifetime, one which I never thought would ever come to pass," Flynn said, as the crowd applauded. "I want you to walk away from here with a sense of hope, because you most surely are going to win."
Walt Heyer speaking from a screen in the high school's auditorium - ALISON NOVAK ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Alison Novak ©️ Seven Days
  • Walt Heyer speaking from a screen in the high school's auditorium
Inside the building, the tone was markedly subdued. Around 60 people in muted colors, many with gray hair, dotted the large auditorium. A little after 6:30 p.m., parent organizer Tara Ferf Jentink appeared on a large screen at the front of the room to introduce the featured speaker.

The event had been organized by several Addison Northwest School District parents who belong to Parents' Rights in Education, a national nonprofit that opposes teaching about gender identity in schools.

Heyer, who lived as a transgender woman for eight years before transitioning back to living as a man, plugged his website before launching into a speech about the dangers of hormone blockers and gender-affirming surgery. He asserted that "peer and social media influence"encourages kids "to go down the path of hormones and surgery" and urged parents to resist, not encourage, it.
The parade - ALISON NOVAK ©️ ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Alison Novak ©️ ©️ Seven Days
  • The parade
Meanwhile, outside, a parade led by transgender and queer youth started after 7 p.m., escorted by a police cruiser with flashing lights. Marchers waved signs and chanted "No hate in our state," and "Trans kids matter," as they turned onto Main Street. Cars and trucks honked periodically.

The group's final destination was Vergennes City Park, where organizers had gotten a permit for a community gathering. There, a DJ blasted tunes from the centrally located gazebo, pride flag garlands were strung between trees, and people chatted and hula-hooped.
Vergennes City Park - ALISON NOVAK ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Alison Novak ©️ Seven Days
  • Vergennes City Park
As the event wrapped up, former gubernatorial candidate and Vermont Community Broadband Board executive director Christine Hallquist, a transgender woman, and State Treasurer Mike Pieciak, who is gay, spoke from the gazebo.

Pieciak said he'd gotten goose bumps as he drove into Vergennes that night, seeing the love and kindness on display.

When presented with ignorance and fear, it's easy to respond in kind, Pieciak told the crowd. Instead, he said, they chose joy.

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