Writing: Hate drowned out in Russian River town through Sonoma County solidarity

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Hate drowned out in Russian River town through Sonoma County solidarity

As LGBTQ community preps for pride month in June, Guerneville pizza parlor emerges from protest with more business support

The Janis Joplin poster adorning the wall inside Smart Pizza says as much about the vocal renegade spirit of Guerneville as the pro-LGBTQ decorated pizza boxes on the counter with phrases like “Make pizza not war.”

“What can I get you?” pizza parlor owner Suzy Kuhr asked calmly, as she picked up the phone while taking a typical Saturday afternoon order as walkups streamed in and diners were chillin’ outside.

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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Kuhr, openly gay and proud, was in her happy place.

It was hard to imagine the place proudly flying the rainbow flag, a gay symbol, was the scene in March of such strife when anti-gay protesters descended on her restaurant. Holding signs and yelling gays were sinners who would go to hell, they spread their “word” to anyone within earshot. The protesters have shown up on and off in the Sonoma County community since 2019. In March, they started showing up more often, about every week.

“They got really aggressive, telling people: ‘Don’t go into the pizza place,’” she told the Business Journal.

So Kuhr and company surrounded the anti-gay protesters with their own version of hand-painted signs— on pizza boxes. The idea came from her employee Louis Britton. Kuhr’s pizza box read: “Jesus loves me and my girlfriend.”

Next door, the Sonoma Nesting Company retail owner Dax Berg and landlord Jake Hamlin were on watch. Others joined in, and the “Pizza Box Brigade” was born. Word of the army that could be dis-



Pride movie night on the square at 5 p.m. on June 2

Pride happy hour on the square at 4 p.m. on June 3

36th annual gay pride parade and festival at 11 a.m. on June 4

patched as soon as the protesters showed up quickly spread through a town that welcomes visitors and locals with its own sign labeling it a “hate-free” zone.

Guerneville is a small town off Highway

116, about 20 miles west of Santa Rosa on the way to the Sonoma County coastline.

But the group’s goal of targeting the town to divert business away from the small restaurant Kuhr has worked at for 23 years and owned for six backfired.

As result of the protest, Smart Pizza has picked up more orders, exposure and therefore revenue, even though Kuhr was unable to quantify it.

“It actually brought me business,” she said.

The strong support against the group’s hate has meant everything to Kuhr.

“I was born and raised in Nebraska, and I’m 64. You just didn’t speak up there, especially back then. It means so much more now. I’m proud to be in this business community,” she said, adding: “There was an 85-year-old woman standing out there with a rainbow flag.”

Kuhr also recalled being moved by a woman who approached her saying she drove out from Colorado as a show of support because she has a gay son.

PHOTOS BY SUSAN WOOD / THE NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL Though calm and relatively quiet on May 14, Smart Pizza in Guerneville was a hotbed of hate from protesters in March.
See PIZZA page 16
Suzy Kuhr has worked at Smart Pizza for 23 years and owned the Guerneville restaurants for six. The festivities kick off with the raising of the flag at the Old Courthouse Square at 11 a.m. on June 1. It with:
MONDAY, MAY 23, 2022 North Bay Business Journal 7

“To me, this is what pride is about,” she said.

Nearby Guerneville Square property owner Hamlin also took part because he said it was the right thing to do and that he couldn’t sit idly by as the protesters disrupted the Bohemian town’s way of life.

“This was so foreign to us — to have some people come in and try to put us down for things this little town is so proud of,” he said, characterizing the unwanted, out-of-towners as “invaders.”

The protesters used bullhorns. So Sonoma Nesting Company responded by blasting Johnny Cash’s rendition of “Personal Jesus” on the stereo. More in the business community showed up asking for pizza boxes.

The business community was on board with the circle-the-wagons approach to protect one of its own from a threat.

Across the square from Smart Pizza, Equality Vines founder Matt Grove was inspired by how the support for one business against an attack evolved.

“I think it strengthens that bond. We have customers and club members who can feel pride by supporting an organization taking a stand against hate, giving them a voice,” Grove said.

Russian River Chamber of Commerce board President Bob Pullum agreed.

“People defended their town. One of the great things about Guerneville is our diversity. It’s known as an LGBTQ destination. It’s a tight-knit community, and everybody looks after each other,” said Pullum, who runs the Guerneville Bank Club, a retail shopping center. “In the end, it shows the strength of our community.”

The show of solidarity resembles another act of defiance that gave birth to the gay liberation movement in June 1969, when drag queens fed up with police raids at the Stonewall bar on Christopher Street in New York City rose up to fight back against oppression.

And as Sonoma County nears its first post-pandemic cluster of gay pride events blanketing June, locals in this 19th century logging town known as a West Coast version of such well-known LGBTQ resorts as Provincetown, Massachusetts (“P-town”), will mark a new day and age for the LGBTQ community here and abroad.

After all, homophobic verbal and physical attacks as well as “don’t say gay” laws in Florida splatter the news cycles.

Still, with setbacks, there are advancements being made to LGBTQ rights in the business world.

Last month, the California Public Utilities Commission announced approval of a voluntary goal to issue more contracts to certified LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and

transgender) enterprises. The CPUC set the goal as 1.5% of contracts earned in the telecommunications arena be awarded to these LGBT companies.

And according to a report from the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay advocacy group, the vast majority (91%) of Fortune 500 companies, which employ a collective of 25 million people, prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Over three quarters (83%) ban discrimination on gender identity. That’s up from 3% in 2000, two decades before.

A Harvard Business Review report in 2019 implied the change of hearts and attitudes toward doing business with the gay community may amount to a generational tendency.

It found that 67% percent of young adults identified as millennials and Gen Zers in the United States do not believe that small business owners should be allowed to refuse service to LGBTQ people for religious reasons. That compares to 60% in the total population and 53% among seniors.

When it comes to supporting a community anchored by tourism, half of American meeting planners said they would avoid staging events in states that pass anti-gay laws.

So when gay business is attacked, oppositional forces often emerge.

“I think this happens a lot. When groups come out and protest, it backfires on them. More people want to support (the business). I don’t think they realize they’re helping us,” Sonoma County Pride co-organizer Cheryl Kabanack said. “Fortunately, in Sonoma County, we live in a bubble.”

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, tech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. For 27 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or susan.wood@busjrnl.com

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16 North Bay Business Journal MONDAY, MAY 23, 2022
This sign is situated in the window of Smart Pizza.
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