Dragged Through the Mud: This Little Church-Backed Support Group for LGBTQ Teens Suffered Bomb Threats, Smears and the Cancellation of its Drag Show

Pastor Casey Tinnin of Loomis Basin UCC. Image: Instagram/The Landing Spot

“Twenty years ago I thought now would be better. And it’s not.” That’s how Tiffany Vasquez, a longtime resident of Roseville, California, feels after weeks of vicious right-wing attacks on the local LGBTQ community—attacks that are part of an increasingly hostile assault on the rights and dignity of queer, and especially trans, people taking place in many state legislatures, school board meetings, libraries hosting Drag Queen Story Hour events, and other venues nationwide. 

Vasquez, who is nonbinary, is fiercely protective of her transgender son, who attends Roseville High School. And both she and her son have now found themselves caught up in a high-stakes struggle that involves local churches, an LGBTQ youth support group, the Roseville Joint Union High School District (RJUHSD), far-right street gang the Proud Boys, and notorious disinformation group Project Veritas.

Located just northeast of Sacramento in Placer County, Roseville is a city of about 150,000 people. Sara Bocciardi, who went to college in San Francisco before returning home to Placer County, describes the area this way: “It’s a two-hour drive, it’s a hundred miles, it’s a world of political difference.” 

Bocciardi, a software engineer and co-moderator for the Church Council at Loomis Basin Congregational United Church of Christ, says the mostly rural, inland county has grown more diverse in recent years. But she’s well aware that a majority of the population still votes Republican.

The county’s conservatism notwithstanding, concerned parents RD spoke with agree that even some local Republicans aren’t happy with the right-wing circus the area’s turned into over the last few years since organized far-right groups like Moms for Liberty, the American Council (a self-described “Judeo-Christian advocacy group”), and even the Proud Boys began pressing for more influence on school boards with a “parental rights” platform that has little if anything to do with the desires of parents whose children attend the local public schools. 

One ongoing controversy involves a book banning effort. That’s how Michele Tong, an attorney and parent, found herself going to school board meetings to fight back—first, against censorship of educational material by a well-organized, far-right minority, and now also on behalf of the rights and dignity of LGBTQ students.

The ongoing anti-LGBTQ moral panic in the area started with an attack by local megachurches and The American Council on an innocuous youth drag show fundraiser for the Landing Spot, an LGBTQ youth support group highly valued by many area parents and teens. Eventually, the group’s leader, Pastor Casey Tinnin was targeted by Project Veritas in a smear video, over which the RJUHSD cut ties with the group and falsely maligned the pastor to the school district community. Proud Boys then intimidated Tinnin outside his home, while an anonymous caller targeted his church, the same one in which Bocciardi is a lay leader, with a bomb threat. 

“We’ve left a bomb at your place and all of you are going to be killed” is all the caller said before hanging up. Law enforcement swept Loomis UCC’s property but didn’t find anything. Because of the threats, however, the church is now working with police to establish a security plan and has reverted to holding virtual Sunday services in the meantime.

The bomb threat came on March 23, the date of a contentious school board meeting in which many queer students spoke up for their rights and on behalf of the Landing Spot. The meeting concluded with the angry rant of a White-power-sign-flashing Proud Boys member who was later detained outside Tinnin’s house. 

Tong spoke at the meeting, after students from various district high schools had spoken. “I really want you to listen to these students tonight,” Tong told the board. Speaking directly to board member Heidi Hall, she continued, “You emailed me today and you asked me, what rights didn’t they have? They just told you. They don’t feel safe because of what has happened.” She then asked very pointedly what the board would do to help the school district’s LGBTQ students feel safe. 

Tong moved from Sacramento to Placer County about 13 years ago, partly due to the school district’s strong reputation. “I think had I known the political climate a little bit better—I wasn’t so focused on that at the time,” she explains, “I might have made a different decision as to where to move to. But we do have a great community; I don’t want to put down our community.” 

According to Tong, that community contains many conservatives opposed to book bans. “Across the political spectrum, people don’t want books banned, they don’t want people to be able to say that my child can’t read something,” she tells RD. At the March 23 meeting she was seated next to two people on the opposite side of her on the issues, but, she maintains, even they were clearly uncomfortable with the last word going to a member of the Proud Boys who was clearly there to intimidate LGBTQ students and their allies.

Wake up and fight for your territory

Pastor Casey, as church members and the young people he mentors refer to him, moved to Placer County in 2013 to take on his first full-time ministry position. The tragic suicide of a local high school girl that took place that same year, he says, gave him the determination to build something to provide support and community for local LGBTQ youth. That determination led Tinnin and his flock to found the Landing Spot in 2017. 

While it’s run by Pastor Casey and other Loomis Basin UCC leaders, the Landing Spot is a secular support group for local LGBTQ teens and parents who want to support their queer children. There has never been cause for concern or any allegations of child abuse against any of the Landing Spot’s leaders, and its mentors follow safety and boundaries best practices, including never being alone behind closed doors with any of the minors who attend meetings and events. All the parents of teens who attend Landing Spot meetings and events who spoke with RD hold the group in high regard and credit it with improving their children’s quality of life.

The Landing Spot’s planned 2023 youth drag show was nothing new for the group, which previously hosted two similar events. The performances raise money to send local queer kids to a summer camp—Camp Fruit Loop—where they can simply be themselves and be supported. Each past show easily sold out, which prompted the group to look at larger venues. 

This year, they rented the 500-seat auditorium at Roseville High School for a March 31 performance. Everything was going fine until right-wing activists decided to manufacture outrage, insinuating that this was a school-sponsored event, despite the fact that the school wasn’t in any way affiliated with the show, that it would not be taking place during school hours, and that it was, in any case, family-friendly.

The Landing Spot’s previous youth drag shows had proceeded with little to no controversy. But this time, in line with the increasing anti-trans and anti-drag hostility that’s come to define the U.S. Right, the American Council kicked into gear. Claiming to be concerned “that it was an event that was specifically for students” and that it was taking place in a school, the organization alerted its network of far-right foot soldiers—about 9000 people according to local reporting—“[to] let them know what was going on on the Roseville High School campus and [encourage] them to email the administration asking them to remove the event from the school campus.” The school district subsequently revoked its rental agreement with the Landing Spot, claiming Loomis UCC had “misrepresented” the event.

Meanwhile, Destiny Church of nearby Rocklin, California, a Pentecostal megachurch, pounced on the opportunity to get in on the culture warring. In a February 26 sermon called “The Sin of Silence,” head pastor Greg Farrington lamented the supposed decline of the United States from the 1950s, calling for “righteous anger” among “remnant church” Christians (a reference to Romans 11:5, this phrase is commonly used by apocalyptic Christians who believe there are very few “true Christians”’ left in an age of “decline”). To make his case for righteous anger, Farrington pointed to the example of the prophet Elijah who, according to the Bible, had the prophets of Baal slaughtered after defeating them in a contest of divine power. 

Farrington then made the dominionist assertion, “I must take responsibility as a Christian for the territory that I’m in, for that atmosphere that exists in it.” Dominionist charismatic evangelicals like Farrington believe that demons and angels literally fight for control over earthly territory, and that Christians must “help” by engaging in “spiritual warfare.” So when a Christian like Farrington makes a statement about Christians “taking responsibility” for the “territory” they are in, he means striving to establish or maintain social domination over those who deviate from “God’s will.”

It didn’t take long for Farrington to make this seemingly abstract principle concrete. Whipping the audience into frenzied applause, Farrington launched into a direct attack on Loomis UCC (which he incorrectly called “Loomis Basin Community Church”) for “sponsoring a drag queen event, inviting minors to it, and encouraging minors to bring dollar bills to tip the dancers.” Associating this event with “the spirit of Jezebel,” Farrington called explicitly for Christians to “wake up” and “fight for their territory.”

Steeped in evangelical fever dreams about imaginary predatory drag queens, Farrington wildly mischaracterized the Landing Spot’s fundraiser. As members of Loomis UCC and sources affiliated with the Landing Spot explained to me, their annual fundraisers have been a lot like talent shows, with crossdressing teens lip-syncing to popular music for an audience that consists largely of their families and friends. 

Some parents have been thrilled to see their children come out of their shells in these family-friendly performances, and supporters of the Landing Spot see hypocrisy in the standard now being applied to its event. “The boys came out in girls’ bikinis at the last swim meet. Why is that okay?” Tong asked rhetorically during our conversation. “It just to me seems so hypocritical. Why the drag show?” she went on. “Because it’s gay people, that’s why. That’s the only difference that I can see.”

One parent, who would only speak on condition of anonymity, described a past show as less revealing than a typical high school sporting event: “None of the performances were risqué or inappropriate for the audience. That I recall, there wasn’t one performer that was dressed in the lack-of-clothing that a cheerleader, girls’ golfer, or girls’ volleyball uniform would show.” 

The parent continued, “The joy and growth I saw out of the performers was inspirational. Kids that are normally quiet, reserved, and self-conscious performed on that stage without a care in the world, so proud to be themselves.” 

As for those “dollar bills” Farrington seemed to imagine minors would be tucking into inappropriate places, event organizers passed around donation baskets and butterfly nets to collect donations for the Landing Spot’s summer camp—in other words, they collected extra donations in the exact same way most churches do during their services; any “tipping” that would have taken place during this year’s show would have been just as innocent.

All of that notwithstanding, thanks to the American Council’s aggressive intervention and Farrington’s sermon, the damage was done. Threats began to roll in. And Pete Constant, President of the RJUHSD board of trustees, ran with the same narrative from Farrington’s sermon in his comments to the press, expressing concern about adults giving “cash tips” to “juveniles” and thereby insinuating that the drag show would be sexualizing minors. 

Claiming that the school district, which reportedly received over 2000 calls opposing the drag show, was initially unaware of the nature of the performance, Constant defended the decision to pull the venue by stating, “Our district’s response would have been the same if this was a female burlesque show or a Chippendale (or ‘Magic Mike’) style show featuring heterosexual performers and audience.”

Michele Tong took Constant to task over that comment in a March 9 email exchange obtained by RD. “In your comments, you basically equated these teenagers to strippers,” Tong asserts. “Do you have any idea how your public comments have offended, hurt, and belittled these teens, their parents and the community at large?” she continues before asking Constant to retract the statement. 

Constant dismissively replies, “I made no comments about the teens, therefore there is no basis for a retraction.” When Tong presses him, noting that his comparison of the Landing Spot’s drag show to a striptease event was inherently a commentary on the teens involved, Constant more or less sent her away with a metaphorical pat on the head:

Interpret as you wish to interpret—I guess we will have to agree to disagree. You have your perspectives and I have mine, which are informed by my experiences. I will not issue a false retraction to appease someone who disagrees with me.  Sorry. That’s the beauty of our country we don’t have to agree [sic]. 

With the Landing Spot’s adult mentors and youth performers now fearing that their fundraiser might be targeted for violence, they canceled the event instead of trying to find a new venue. Pressed by local media on their roles in this turn of events, both Farrington and Tanner DiBella of the American Council insisted they were not responsible for the threats and that they did not advocate violence. But their hateful rhetoric can certainly be construed as stochastic terrorism; while staying just shy of the line of direct incitement, speech like theirs has the very real potential to lead individual bigots to take matters into their own hands. And their highly visible rhetoric clearly inspired the threats people associated with the Landing Spot and Loomis UCC received.

A deceptively-edited video

Unfortunately, this was just the beginning of the ordeal for the Landing Spot, Loomis UCC, and the LGBTQ and allied communities—especially LGBTQ youth—in Placer County. Because it was at this point that Project Veritas moved to target Pastor Tinnin, sending in two operatives posing as parents of a transgender teen with questions about how to support their child. In the state of California, it is against the law to record a conversation understood to be private without the consent of all parties. But this did not deter Project Veritas’s operatives from recording their conversation with Tinnin, snippets of which were later released on March 19 in what was obviously a deceptively-edited video.

In one example from the video, Tinnin makes comments that, in context, clearly have to do with how to support LGBTQ youth whose parents are queerphobic and unsafe. “When they know that their queer kid is coming to me for support, they’re gonna be upset,” he says, and then describes how, by meeting at the library, teens who cannot safely come out to their parents, and thus cannot safely participate in queer support groups with their parents’ knowledge, can tell their parents “that they’re meeting their friends at the library. So it’s not lying, but it’s not fully the truth.” 

For the “parental rights” crowd, who don’t see their children as capable of making their own decisions and thus seek to control their lives, this stance is intolerable. This issue is at the crux of state-level fights over laws requiring school officials to out queer children to their parents. Opposing those laws does not mean thinking it’s ideal for children to be compelled to hide their gender identity and/or sexuality from their parents for their own safety—it only means recognizing that this is the reality we live in and trying to protect queer minors’ right to be themselves safely in at least some spaces.

As any queer person or ally understands, social support is crucial for the mental health of queer young people. According to the Trevor Project, having even just one supportive adult in their lives makes queer youth 40% less likely to attempt suicide. This is clearly what Tinnin has in mind when he refers to the importance of “intergenerational relationships” for thriving communities in the Project Veritas video. 

And in fact, far from the false accusations of “grooming” generated by the video, the Landing Spot cultivates relationships with many of the parents of its youth members, helping to educate those parents on how to better support their queer children. During its monthly meetings, both student and parent groups gather separately but simultaneously. According to a church member who helps with the parent support group and asked not to be named due to safety concerns, about 15-20 parents attend each month, with parents cycling in and out according to their needs and availability.

Although she has not attended the Landing Spot’s parents’ group, Vasquez speaks highly of the adult mentors who introduced themselves when she first dropped her own child off at the meeting, noting that they were waiting there to greet children and parents and that the entire group went into the library together. Vasquez and another local parent who asked to be identified only as Jason D. both expressed satisfaction at how the Landing Spot has given their children a safe space for social interaction. Both are standing by Pastor Casey and are simply livid over the Project Veritas video and the wildly irresponsible reaction of local school district officials.

Shortly after the video dropped, the RJUHSD sent a memorandum to school district parents stating that it was immediately cutting ties with the Landing Spot, whose volunteers were among those working with students through the schools’ wellness centers. But the statement, signed by Constant and superintendent John Becker, went much further. 

Treating the deceptive and inflammatory Project Veritas video like legitimate journalism, Becker and Constant wrote, “Given statements by Pastor Tinnins [sic] in the video, along with other related concerns, RJUHSD staff has contacted the Roseville Police Department and Child Protective Services to advise them of the matter so they can ensure no students have been harmed.” These reports went nowhere, of course, because there are no actual allegations of sexual misconduct against Tinnin.

Many parents called out the RJUHSD for their mishandling of the situation at the March 23 school board meeting, but the damage was already done. Proud Boys and their ilk stood in the back of the room, one wearing a face-concealing balaclava through the entire meeting. A representative of Project Veritas spoke to stir up more trouble. And Jeffrey Perrine, the aforementioned Proud Boys member who spoke last, talked about intimidating Tinnin outside his house a day earlier before inviting people to join him again that evening (which some of them did). 

In his speech, he thanked the board members, saying they “actually stood up for the kids and the families” against the “LGBTQ cult” that he claimed “is taking over everything in this state.” As his comments became more incendiary, people in the audience began to shout, and Perrine flashed a “white power” hand sign at those in attendance. Tensions in the room became palpable, and the board adjourned the meeting early.

Not long after, Perrine and his entourage could be found outside Tinnin’s house. In a streaming video that he later took down, a copy of which was obtained by RD, Perrine can be heard shouting out Tinnin’s home address multiple times, saying “groomer pedophile pastors will not be allowed in our community,” bragging about “shutting down” defenders of Tinnin and the Landing Spot at the school board meeting, and ranting hateful conspiratorial nonsense about “the rainbow cult.”

At one point, Perrine says to Tinnin, “You are working for the Synagogue of Satan.” At another, he claims that the Project Veritas video shows Tinnin “admitting to grooming children” and asserts, “[Tinnin’s] objective is to grow his dating pool.” A few minutes later, Perrine asks, “What should we do with these pedophiles? The pedophiles should have a millstone tied around their neck, and they should be thrown into the deepest darkest parts of the ocean.” (The millstone reference is to the Bible verse Matthew 18:6.) 

In addition, Perrine raves about Title IX, “the ridiculously mentally ill governor [of California] Gavin Newsom,” “Satan-worshiping communists,” and false QAnon conspiracies about child trafficking: “We spread these kids around because pedo Joe, he needs to make sure he gets his adrenochrome.” Perrine continues his fear-mongering for over half an hour, sometimes egged on by others who join him, before he’s detained by police.

Asked whether they take any responsibility for the fallout from their mishandling of the youth drag fundraiser and the Project Veritas video, RJUHSD officials would only “clarify” that they did not directly distribute the video and provide a statement that reads, in part: 

“The safety and well-being of all of our students is our first and foremost priority. Wellness centers are on each of our campuses, staffed by skilled and experienced therapists and social workers who support all of our students, including those in the LGBTQIA+ community.”

Meanwhile, Loomis UCC, parents of children who participate in the Landing Spot’s activities, and allies of LGBTQ youth in Placer County schools are deeply unhappy with the board. After the March 23 meeting, the RJUHSD sent out an email that included the statement, “We acknowledge we have challenging work ahead to process and heal, with the goal of supporting our LGBTQIA+ students.” What it did not contain, however, was an apology or any direct acknowledgment of any wrongdoing. 

Vasquez, who emailed Superintendent Becker to say “shame on the district” for not “doing their due diligence” before spreading the false narrative associated with the Project Veritas video, wants more than these anodyne statements. “There has been no accountability,” she tells RD, adding that the board owes Pastor Casey an apology.

But the Landing Spot isn’t going anywhere. “We’re not an activist group,” the leader who works with parents tells me. The group’s goal is just to provide support for Placer County’s LGBTQ youth and their parents. And they are not going to let right-wing terror and intimidation keep them from doing that.