Bonita A. experienced a flood of emotions as she headed back from a walk to her front porch: anger, worry, confusion and frustration.
The East Sacramento resident, who requested her full name be withheld due to fear for her safety, was one of many in the city who who found flyers with anti-LGBTQ and antisemitic messaging on her doorstop.
Packaged in plastic sandwich bags with gravel and other material as weights, authorities and residents found them in multiple Sacramento neighborhoods and other California cities in mid-June. Some employed the phrase “White Lives Matter,” while others featured a conspiracy demonizing LGBTQ+ people and Jews, specifically targeting those who hold both identities.
“It totally messes with my sense of justice,” Bonita A. said. She soon alerted her fellow neighbors to the incident, and now wants to support anti-hate activities in her own neighborhood, recognizing that it’s also on folks like her who aren’t Jewish or LGBTQ to speak out. “When you’re the one being targeted ... it must be scarier for them.”
“I do want to show the support, I want to show them they’re not alone, and that they have more than just their own community supporting,” she said.
In light of the hateful flyers, many Jewish and LGBTQ residents and leaders say they are more concerned with moving forward and finding effective ways to stand together against bigotry.
The flyers come weeks after an outpouring of antisemitic messaging during public comment periods at Sacramento City Council meetings and rising hate crimes in the state of California against LGBTQ people. City officials, Jewish and LGBTQ community leaders roundly condemned the comments at the time, choosing to spread a message of resiliency.
The Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region quickly received calls from concerned residents and eventually law enforcement about the flyers, said Barry Broad, president of the federation. Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg also quickly denounced the flyers once the news broke. Though the hateful speech is not technically a crime, Broad said, it’s important to track these incidents in case it “escalates into something that is a crime.”
The nature of the added attacks on the LGBTQ community signals a need for growing solidarity between Jewish people, LGBTQ folks and other marginalized communities, Broad said.
“There’s an old saying in the labor movement that an injury to one is an injury to all. An attack on, on African Americans or Latinos or LGBTQ people, or any people is an attack on us,” Broad said. “That’s the most important central message of how we need to respond to this, is that we all stand together against hate.”
Allyship in Sacramento goes back decades
The flyers and recent antisemitic messaging at the council come in a broader context, Broad said. The number of reported anti-Jewish hate crime events rose by 24.3% from 2021 to 2022, according to recently released state data. Reported hate crime events based on sexual orientation increased by 29% and gender-based ones increased by 55.6% in California, an annual Department of Justice report found.
And beyond recent incidents, Sacramento has seen events targeting the LGBTQ and Jewish community for decades.
In 1999, two white supremacist brothers firebombed three synagogues in the Sacramento area: Congregation Beth Shalom, Congregation B’nai Israel and Kenesset Israel Torah Center. The violence did not stop there. The two went on to murder a gay couple weeks later and torched an abortion clinic. Both perpetrators pleaded guilty. Matthew Williams committed suicide in the Shasta County jail in 2002; his brother, Tyler Williams, was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison for the murders and firebombings.
That’s a history that Rebecca Olson, chair of B’nai Israel’s pride committee, remembers deeply. When attacks on marginalized communities happen, it’s often them who have to speak out first in opposition to violence, she said. Seeing how non-LGBTQ and non-Jewish folks stood up to condemn the flyers “was just so heartwarming to us,” she said, and reminded her of how people came together after the violence in 1999.
Olson herself has found significant support from Jewish leaders and peers when it came to her identity. Her congregation married her and her wife before gay marriage was legal in California. Asked about how long there has been bond between some in the LGBTQ and Jewish community, she said: “A very long time.”
“Even back then, the city of Sacramento folks said, ‘No way we’re not doing this again,’” said Olson, referencing the 1999 bombings. “Of course we have our problems, but to know that the community will come together again in the face of this was so heartening to me.”
The incidents extend beyond the Sacramento region. A Chico State professor linked antisemitic flyers recently distributed in Chico to a man with a history of distributing similar materials across other California cities, including Chico and parts of the Bay Area.
Sacramento LGBTQ Jewish Community Leaders speak out
The flyers and their targeted nature also underscore the importance of the work many LGBTQ Jewish residents have been doing to make their communities even more inclusive.
Willie Recht, CEO of the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region, has been out as a gay man for more than 20 years. He fought for domestic partnership benefits for college employees as an intern with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Hillel. He remembers planning Pride Shabbats and Queer Seders. While there are some folks within the Jewish community who are “more conservative,” Recht said, he’s largely received support over the years, recognizing that his experiences may be different from Jews of color or trans Jews.
“I try to enter every space knowing that I’m part of these groups, and making space for other marginalized groups is really important for me,” he said. “When I’m in a space with more religious members of the community, or more conservative members of the community, I don’t hide who I am, but I also, to the extent possible, try to be compassionate to their beliefs.”
At Congregation B’nai Israel, the first iteration of the synagogue’s pride committee was focused on ensuring marriage equality for LGBTQ people. That goal was largely realized with the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges to legalize same-sex marriage. But over the past few years, Olson said rising anti-trans sentiments and broader anti-LGBTQ rhetoric led more and more of the congregation to realize that “that’s definitely not the end of the work.”
“We’ve got many, many folks that fit in the acronym, but we all bond together to ensure that we’re protecting rights and making sure we’re all okay,” Olson said, pointing to the committee’s participating in this year’s Sacramento Pride March and Parade.
The committee has hosted educational sessions with congregation members on pronouns and respectful terminology, receiving a mainly positive response, she said. She’s heard stories from grandparents committing to using the right pronouns for their grandchildren, or accepting their name changes even when their given name at birth was meaningful for their Jewish identity.
For Recht, the “double risk” facing LGBTQ Jewish people is a real threat. But he prefers to draw upon hope and inspiration from Jewish leaders, electing to recall a phrase known to many in both communities: “Actually, it’s not double risk, but rather, gay Jews are twice blessed.”