Records show Little’s office directed IDHW to pull Pride sponsorships

From the Idaho Press


A day before the start of the Boise Pride festival last September, Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen sent a letter to festival organizers saying his agency would be dropping its sponsorships.

Jeppesen’s letter, which circulated on social media, said that though the agency had sponsored the event in previous years, it would be dropping its two sponsorships this time due to “some confusion about whether DHW endorses specific activities involving minors during this event.”

Outcry had erupted two days before over concerns that sponsors of the festival were condoning a festival event called “Drag Kids,” in which kids would dress in drag and perform on stage on Sunday afternoon.

But the letter didn’t include a key detail: The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is a state agency that answers to the governor’s office. Gov. Brad Little’s office had asked the agency to terminate its sponsorships, email records obtained through a public records request show.

Madison Hardy, the governor’s press secretary, confirmed that in a statement provided to the Idaho Press via email.

“The Governor’s Office asked DHW to pull its sponsorship of 2022 Boise Pride event because of concerns about public funds being used to support an event that planned to feature children as young as 11 performing in drag before an adult audience,” Hardy said.

Hardy declined an interview for Little or other governor’s office staff, and did not provide answers to additional emailed questions regarding the decision or officials’ positions on LGBTQ+ issues.

In an email to the Idaho Press, Niki Forbing-Orr, spokesperson for the Department of Health and Welfare, declined interviews for department staff, saying, “we don’t have anything to add at this point.”

Emails from the agency in the week leading up to the festival show that staff were disheartened by the decision. And Boise Pride Executive Director Donald Williamson said he is considering legal action against the state for breaching its contracts for Boise Pride 2022, amounting to a loss of $38,000.

A quick refresher

The decision to pull sponsorships came following an article published by the Daily Caller, a right-wing news and opinion outlet, which questioned why corporations were sponsoring an event featuring children performing in drag, as previously reported. Following that article’s publication, Idaho GOP Chairwoman Dorothy Moon sent emails denouncing sponsorship of the event, alleging that the drag kids event promotes the sexualization of children. On social media, posts circulated that included sponsoring businesses’ names and contact info and encouraged concerned citizens to call on sponsors to terminate their sponsorships.

Such messaging about children being in danger has become common among far-right groups in recent years, though the ostracization of the LGBTQ+ community — and their fight to be accepted in society — is not new. The most recent narrative insinuates that members of the LGBTQ+ community are pedophiles, sex traffickers, and the like, and are “grooming” children in order to molest them, ideas promulgated by QAnon and other conspiracy theories.

Following Moon’s email, Boise Pride issued its own statement, saying, “the only perversion and sexualization of this performance are coming from extremists and people like Dorothy Moon who are twisting it into something it is not.”

But the statement did not prevent sponsors from dropping out. In total, the festival lost about 6% of its sponsors, Williamson said. Those that dropped were Zions Bank, CapEd Credit Union, Idaho Central Credit Union, Idaho Power, and the Department of Health and Welfare.

The Thursday before the festival weekend, Boise Pride announced it was postponing the Drag Kids event. But sponsors that had dropped out, including the Department of Health and Welfare, did not opt back in.

‘Incredibly disappointing’

DHW staff emails in the week leading up to the festival show that higher officials in the organization were well-aware of calls to revoke sponsorship.

Late on Wednesday, following Zions Bank’s announcement of its dropped sponsorship, a DHW staff member wrote, “there is a chance the governor’s office may ask us to pull our sponsorships … “

By late Thursday morning, a day before the start of the festival, Elke Shaw-Tulloch, administrator for the public health division of DHW, sent an email to notify some staff that the governor’s office had indeed asked the department to pull its sponsorships and that she would be drafting a letter to let Boise Pride know.

“The governor’s office likes the tone of the Zions Bank letter,” Shaw-Tulloch said in the email. “I would like something that also emphasizes our support for the community and the importance of our services.”

Shaw-Tulloch continued, “I very much appreciate all of the hard work of your programs and your staff supporting the community and I expect that to continue. This saddens me to not support this particular event, but I understand the downstream ramifications.”

Cristi Litzsinger, a bureau chief with the agency, said in an email to some of her staff, “I agree with Elke’s sentiments and it makes me sad it has come to this.”

In a separate thread, Aimee Shipman, the section manager for the HIV, STD, and Hepatitis program, said, “This is incredibly disappointing. We are throwing our strategic populations under the bus just because of a letter?” She appears to be referring to Moon’s email.

After Boise Pride announced it was postponing the Drag Kids event, staff in DHW’s HIV, STD, and Hepatitis program seemed hopeful the sponsorship could still move forward.

“Do you know since the drag (kids) show was dropped if we are still moving forward with withdrawing sponsorship?” Shipman wrote Friday morning.

“Yes, we are waiting to hear if we are back on for sponsorship today,” Litzsinger said. “Hopefully soon.”

“I know the letter (to Boise Pride) was sent, but there still might be a chance the department will change their mind?” wrote Kimberly Matulonis-Edgar, program coordinator for the HIV, STD, and Hepatitis program on Friday morning.

“Correct,” Litzsinger replied.

It is unclear what additional discussions were had, but the department did not reinstate its sponsorships.

In a December email provided to the Idaho Press by Williamson, a staff member with DHW told Boise Pride organizers that “our program heard about the sponsorship retraction after you did, and were equally upset. We weren’t able to talk through the ramifications nor able to convey that it actually presented to stand up to discrimination and stigma.”

The person says their program “hasn’t heard much from DHW since the week after Pride,” and, “our program will do everything in our power to continue supporting the event, and are actually more motivated than ever to make sure we find ways to support organizations that work directly for/with the LGBTQIA+ community.”

DHW’s indirect participation

The Department of Health and Welfare had two sponsorship agreements in place for the festival. And though it had dropped its sponsorships, some components went ahead, records show.

The first sponsorship was from the department’s Project Filter, a smoking cessation program, which was supposed to have a booth at the event. The program is for all Idahoans, not just the LGBTQ+ community, Shaw-Tulloch told a colleague via an email obtained by the Idaho Press.

The department considers the LGBTQ+ population a priority for smoking cessation efforts because “it tends to have a tobacco use rate almost 3 times higher than the rest of the population,” Shaw-Tulloch said in the email.

In addition to the booth, the program’s sponsorship meant a contribution of $18,000, according to the contract for the event. Because of the sponsorship termination, the program did not have a booth at the festival, according to department emails.

The other sponsorship was $20,000 from the department’s HIV, STD, and Hepatitis Section. That program had not planned to have a booth but did provide materials to two other organizations at the event, according to department emails.

Full Circle Health, an Idaho health care provider, received condoms to distribute during the festival, according to email records. And Central District Health, the local health district covering Ada, Boise, Elmore, and Valley counties, received condoms and PrEP, a preventative medicine for HIV, for festival distribution, according to department emails.

In addition, the department contracted with Injury Care EMS to provide vaccinations during the event, Forbing-Orr told the Idaho Press via email. That effort provided 189 doses of MPX vaccine, which protects against the disease caused by the monkeypox virus, and three doses of COVID-19 vaccine, Forbing-Orr said.

Central District Health staff also administered 76 MPX vaccines at The Balcony during the festival weekend, said Maria Ortega, a spokesperson for the district. Those vaccines were originally distributed by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare to entities that requested them, though they were not distributed specifically for use during pride events, she said.

Potential lawsuit

Of all the Boise Pride 2022 sponsors, including those that rescinded their sponsorship, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is the only sponsor that has not paid, Williamson, the executive director of Boise Pride, said.

The department had two contracts in place with the festival, and choosing to back out on those just a day prior to the start of the festival means the department is still legally obligated to fulfill them, Williamson said.

“Breach of contract. Absolutely breach of contract,” Williamson said.

On Oct. 5, Williamson sent an email to Jeppesen asking the department to make good on its contracts, but said he reduced the amount invoiced to 75% of the original amount for both the Project Filter and the HIV, STD, and Hepatitis sponsorships.

Williamson’s email discusses how in his understanding, the funding that would have been coming from Project Filter and the HIV program was federal funding those programs had at their discretion to distribute in the fulfillment of their public health objectives. The department still had a presence at the festival through its vaccination booths, and the department’s presence is essential for being able to directly reach members of the LGBTQIA+ community about health issues, Williamson said.

“It was unfortunate that partisan pressure from certain extremist members of the Idaho GOP and their supporters were able to get in the way of that mission and severely damage the years of goodwill and trust-building that your department has developed with the Idaho LGBTQIA+ community,” Williamson’s email said.

“It is easy to be a ‘supporter’ when things are all butterflies and rainbows, but when things get muddy and difficult, that is when support is truly needed and most impactful,” another part of Williamson’s email said. “The citizens of the LGBTQIA+ community and their allies will notice that inaction, and they will remember it.”

On Nov. 15, Boise Pride Board President Michael Dale followed up on Williamson’s email, saying “we have yet to receive any response from anyone at the (department) other than your letter on September 8.”

“We are fine if you do not wish to sponsor or be involved with Boise Pride in the future, but this doesn’t resolve the obligation that is still due from 2022,” Dale said.

On Nov. 17, Sen. Melissa Wintrow wrote to Jeppesen, saying, “I understand that after the head of the GOP started to threaten businesses, that many folks pulled sponsorships but for a state that values contracts, I would hope that my colleagues would understand the importance of following through on them.”

“I know that you are … doing what you are directed to do, but once again, an agreement/contract is an important part of business,” Wintrow said.

On Dec. 8, Jeppesen replied to Williamson and Dale, saying, “it remains the position of the department that it retains the ability to ultimately determine how best to maximize the use of program sponsorship funds, which includes the withdrawal of our sponsorship funding from any applicant if that becomes necessary.”

Forbing-Orr declined to provide an updated comment on the department’s stance for this story.

The politics of bowing out

The events that unfolded around DHW’s sponsorship of the festival and being asked to renege on its sponsorship are unsurprising in the context of Idaho politics in recent years, said Luke Fowler, associate professor of administration and public policy at Boise State University.

Some of the controversies in the state since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as whether to mask, have boiled down to how people view the role of government, Fowler said. Drag kids performance aside, some may still see DHW’s public health mission and the strategies it employs to achieve it as government overreach, Fowler said.

“Of course there are issues of discrimination against the LGBTQ community here, but (the controversy was) also about how we are spending public resources and whether DHW should be doing this or not, whether or not this is the role of a government agency,” Fowler said.

It is true that federal agencies give money to state government agencies to spend, including health departments, Fowler said. But state agencies are still at the whim of their governors, legislators, and local government.

“We’re seeing this more and more, where state legislators and the governor are saying do one thing, and federal institutions or laws are saying do something else,” Fowler said. “That puts these bureaucratic agencies in really sticky situations.”

As for why the governor’s office did not publicize its involvement in the decision, Fowler said that while he could not say for certain, it represents a classic political strategy: shifting blame away so as to not be perceived as the center of controversy. Plus, Little likely did not want to pit himself against the will of those who are farther right in his party, Fowler said.

Williamson pointed out that the kerfuffle occurred two months away from the November general election, in which Little was running for reelection.

Fowler said he has not personally spoken with anyone in the governor’s office about the events, but added, “I imagine (Little) looked at it and was like, ‘look, this is not worth the fight … let’s save our political capital to have fights over scholarships, or jobs, or something else.’”

Lessons learned, looking to the future

Children have performed at the festival since its inception 32 years ago, Williamson said.

“Like I’ve said countless times before, there’s a difference between the drag show that you and I would expect to see in a park on a Sunday afternoon with kids performing versus one on a Friday night at 10 where we’re paying a $20 cover and getting alcohol and there’s no kids,” he said. “It’s no different than any other type of performative art, whether it’s musicals, plays, or whatever.”

“(The far right) is just trying to spin it to fit their narrative, and it just happens to be their soup du jour this year that it’s kids and drag and grooming,” Williamson said. “It’ll be something different next summer because this can’t stick forever.”

However, Williamson said he would have phrased the description of the event differently. It read, “You’ve seen the Queens and Kings and now it is time to see the kids. A drag show like none other the drag kids range from 11 to 18 and are ready to bring it all to the Boise Pride festival stage! Come and cheer them on as they bring drag to the younger generation!”

He said he sees why it seemed ambiguous to sponsors what the event would actually entail, particularly when viewed through the narrative of Moon and other politicians.

In reality, the performance was going to feature around five children: two 18-year-olds, two 16- or 17-year-olds, and one 11-year-old, Williamson said. The 11-year-old was slated to perform with their mother, who is a local drag performer, Williamson said. The description of the event could have included more language about the event being all-ages and family-friendly, he said.

One of Williamson’s goals as executive director is to organize additional Boise Pride events throughout the year beyond the diversity prom and September pride weekend.

“Those events are amazing and our community needs those,” Williamson said, “but we have to be a bigger presence in this community than just those two things. It has to be more year-round, whether it’s events, whether it’s outreach, whether it’s resources for mental health. … I have a plethora of ideas, just have to figure out a way to get there.”

From the Idaho Press

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