The Gay Pastor, The Conservative Megachurch And The Fight Ripping Apart A Suburb

PLACER COUNTY, Calif. ― Pastor Casey Tinnin leads a congregational church in the Sacramento suburb of Loomis. He is also gay. After one Sunday service this past January, a man named Kyle approached, looking for some advice. As Tinnin remembers the conversation, Kyle said that he and his wife Alley had a transgender teenager and were worried about what living in Loomis would be like. Tinnin understood the concern.

Loomis sits in Placer County, an island of political and cultural red in the sea of California blue. It has relatively few ethnic and racial minorities, at least by California standards, with a significant population of Mormons and an even larger number of evangelicals. In the western part of the county that includes Loomis and the other Sacramento suburbs, many attend a Pentecostal megachurch called Destiny that is led by an outspoken right-wing pastor who frequently attacks what he has called “the LGBTQ, trans mafia.”

But Placer County has been changing, thanks to an influx of young families drawn to its affordable homes and high-performing schools. Many of the newcomers are from the San Francisco Bay Area or other parts of California, and they have brought their more progressive values with them. Some ended up at the United Congregational Church of Loomis, which hired Tinnin seven years ago ― in no small part, church leaders made clear, because they wanted to make their congregation a welcoming place for LGBTQ+ worshippers. Meeting with prospective parishioners like Kyle and Alley was an important part of the pastor’s job.

Over dinner at a local restaurant, about a month after Kyle had first approached him, Tinnin talked about the programs he and the Loomis Church had created. He said he was especially proud of a secular LGBTQ+ youth support group called the Landing Spot. It offered monthly meetings through local libraries and the counseling offices in some of the public schools ― providing, Tinnin said, the kind of validation and mentorship that these kids frequently needed but didn’t get. The presence of LGBTQ+ adults was important, he said, because it gave the teens positive role models and the chance to learn from people who had gone through similar experiences. “In my mind, how communities thrive is through intergenerational relationships,” he said.

Kyle and Alley seemed pleased to hear that, Tinnin says. But they also had questions, including some about confidentiality and how others in the community were reacting to the project. “Parents don’t want me talking ― encouraging this lifestyle,” Tinnin conceded to Kyle and Alley. “We’re like this close to having parents freaking the fuck out,” he added in his characteristically blunt way.

It helped that meetings were in school libraries or church buildings, Tinnin went on to explain. “Kids would say they’re going to ‘youth group,’” he told Kyle and Alley. “It’s not lying, but it’s not fully telling the truth … It keeps them safe. That’s all I fucking care about.”

The back-and-forth went on for about 90 minutes, as Tinnin remembers it, and sometimes the conversation got intense, with all three of them sharing deeply personal stories about their own difficult experiences with less tolerant congregations or communities. “It’s a very pastoral conversation where I am allowing them to be vulnerable and I am being vulnerable, in a way to support them and their families,” Tinnin told me.

Tinnin says he felt good about the support he’d offered Kyle and Alley and their teenager, though he also remembers thinking ― and telling his husband ― that there was something odd about the way the couple had steered the conversation. As it turns out, there was. A month and a half later, while Tinnin was at lunch with friends, his phone started buzzing with messages: The right-wing group Project Veritas had just posted a video with excerpts from the dinner, presenting it as an exposé of how Tinnin “discusses sexual identity and gender with young kids behind their parents’ backs.”

Tinnin never figured out who “Kyle” and “Alley” really were, or what prompted Project Veritas to focus on him. But he and his allies couldn’t dwell on those questions because they had a more important issue on their hands. The video had prompted an outcry, with parents and local conservatives calling on the area’s school districts to sever ties with the Landing Spot. (Project Veritas didn’t answer my questions about the video’s origins or production, instead responding to my inquiry with two social media posts describing the footage and the angry response it generated, along with a link to the video itself.)

The debate over Tinnin, the Landing Spot and their respective roles in the community would play out over the following weeks and months ― not as an isolated controversy, but as part of a broader, escalating debate about children, schools and LGBTQ+ issues that is still ripping apart Placer County today. Clashes have erupted over curriculum issues, like whether elementary school lesson plans should highlight the role of prominent gay figures in history. More recent disputes have centered on issues related to gender identity, including “parental rights” proposals that would require teachers to notify parents when students request to use names or pronouns other than the ones on their school documents.

The fights in Placer County look a lot like the fights that have upended local and state politics everywhere from Virginia to Michigan to Colorado, and that have infiltrated the 2024 presidential campaign. But the debates in Placer County have been going on longer than in most places. They first burst into public view in 2019, when protests by conservative parents in the city of Rocklin made national headlines, and they’re rooted in political and cultural changes that started sweeping through California many years before that. That makes the story of Placer County’s conflicts a particularly useful case study for understanding who is fighting these battles and why, and what’s really at stake.

Arguments about sexual orientation and gender identity have been a mainstay of American politics for roughly 50 years, with talk about the well-being of children, and different ideas of what that means, playing a prominent role. In the 1970s, just a few years after the Stonewall uprising in New York City launched the modern gay rights movement, former beauty queen Anita Bryant led a “Save Our Children” campaign to overturn a Miami ordinance that prohibited schools from firing teachers because of their sexuality. Her campaign succeeded and led to similar efforts around the country, while helping to inject the idea of “grooming” into the political dialogue. “Homosexuals cannot reproduce,” Bryant said, “so they must recruit.”

The current round of conflict playing out in America comes after what seemed like a detente of sorts, following the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015 and polls documenting a dramatic, unmistakable uptick in acceptance of gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans as citizens deserving of equal treatment. With more and more Americans identifying openly as part of the LGBTQ+ community, and the change especially pronounced among young people who speak as freely about exploring gender identity as they do about sexual orientation, some conservatives have pushed back on a variety of fronts ― advocating everything from boycotts of retailers that celebrate Pride month to restrictions and prohibitions on gender-affirming care.

One animating argument behind these efforts is the conservatives’ sense that they are under attack ― that they are having a radical ideology forced upon them in ways that undermine not just their values, but also their rights as parents to determine what’s best for their children. That sentiment can be difficult to understand at a time when conservatives have so much power in so many parts of the country, and when they may be less than a year away from an election that gives them full control in Washington, D.C. It makes more sense in Placer County, where conservatives say they were minding their own business, raising their kids as they saw fit, until a coalition of Democratic state officials, teacher union leaders and LGBTQ+ activists started interfering.

But to the progressives in Placer County, it’s still the conservatives and traditionalists who wield the ultimate power ― through megachurches like Destiny and a political organization that one of Destiny’s leaders now operates, as well as through governing majorities on several local school boards. Conservatives in Placer County also have their own set of powerful, well-funded allies, including national advocacy organizations like Moms for Liberty and a California-based group called the Coalition for Parental Rights.

Progressives say the conservatives also fail to acknowledge why there’s been such a strong push to affirm the LGBTQ+ community ― namely, that it’s a reaction to the historic exclusion of LGBTQ+ Americans from public life and public discussion, as well as the discrimination and outright abuse long directed toward members of the LGBTQ+ community.

This concern is especially acute for teenagers who are LGBTQ+, or who have questions about whether they might be. In Placer County, as in the rest of America, many say they still struggle ― that they can’t always count on adults, not even their own parents, for support. It’s why Placer’s teens have emerged as some of the most passionate defenders of the Landing Spot and most determined opponents of the new parental rights proposals, giving these philosophical and religious battles a distinctly generational bent.

Tinnin can identify with these LGBTQ+ teens, because he remembers what it was like to be one. We spoke in person for the first time this fall in Roseville, which is Placer County’s most populated city and the one closest to Sacramento. Like any proper youth pastor, Tinnin straddles the line between gently hip and gently aging: On the day we met, he was wearing a Stonewall T-shirt and gauged earrings about a centimeter wide. He has dark hair starting to show gray, a broad smile and thin, deep-set eyes behind thick-rimmed glasses.

We were at a local coffee shop ― a place he picked, he told me, because it has always been welcoming to LGBTQ+ customers. Since the Project Veritas video came out, Tinnin says he has been more careful about where he goes and who he sees. But he realizes that having any safe place to go represents an important change, both in the area and in his life.

Tinnin poses for a portrait at United Congregational Church of Loomis.
Tinnin poses for a portrait at United Congregational Church of Loomis.

Max Whittaker for HuffPost

Tinnin, now 37, grew up in a rural part of California’s Central Valley, about a hundred miles south of Placer County. By the time he fully understood his sexual orientation, he also understood how unacceptable it was to be gay in his community.

“There was a specific church with a youth pastor who was talking about the sin of homosexuality, and that not only are you living in sin, but things will happen to you because of your sins ― such as AIDS, HIV,” Tinnin said. “It was really scary. I’m like 14, 15 years old, I’m a baby, and to hear that felt like there was no hope for me.”

Tinnin kept his sexuality mostly secret through high school, not even telling his parents. When he came out, he says, administrators at his religious college in the Pacific Northwest considered whether to expel him, and students started anointing his dorm room entrance with holy oil ― “in order to drive away the demons,” Tinnin told me.

He still craved acceptance, and one night, when some classmates offered to take him to an “IHOP,” he thought they were suggesting a cheap, late-night breakfast at the restaurant chain. “I’m like, ‘I’m a poor college student, baby, let’s go,’” he told me with a chuckle. IHOP turned out to be not the International House of Pancakes, but rather the International House of Prayer, an evangelical organization where members sometimes conduct “healing prayers” for people like him.

Tinnin says he was in a dark place mentally and emotionally by that time, with occasional thoughts of self-harm. The IHOP visit was something of a turning point. “This lady just kept saying, ‘Are you healed?’ And finally something in me said, ‘Maybe there’s nothing in me that is broken. Maybe there is something that is broken in you.’” He had decided long ago he wanted to be a minister, and now he felt like he had a mission: to create safe spaces for LGBTQ+ youth.

Tinnin attended a Lutheran seminary, as part of the branch that, following a 2010 split, was accepting LGBTQ+ ministers. A few years later he moved to the United Congregational Church, whose embrace of LGBTQ+ leaders and parishioners was consistent with its history of promoting gender equality and racial justice. After a few years of service and part-time pastoral work, a church in Auburn, another Placer County city, invited him to become their youth minister.

Auburn is further east than Loomis, putting it within the county’s more rural and conservative section. That made it a particularly unlikely place to welcome an openly gay pastor. But a teenage member named Hannah Olson had just died by suicide, having been harassed and bullied after she came out as a lesbian. She was spit on and called names, her father, Amos Olson, told me in a recent interview. Sometimes people would say to her things like, “Why don’t you just kill yourself?”

Olson believes the harassment contributed to mental health problems his daughter was experiencing. And while he’s careful to say he doesn’t blame the harassment — or the people behind it — for her death, Olson says the congregation’s collective grief was one reason the board hired Tinnin.

The decision was controversial, and a bloc of parishioners ended up leaving the church. But today the church’s website features a photo of the chapel with a rainbow Pride-themed banner hanging outside. And although Tinnin no longer works there, he keeps in touch with Olson, who sees in the pastor’s current work the same motives ― and methods ― he saw back in Auburn.

“He’s trying to rescue others from Hannah’s fate,” Olson said.

Destiny Church in Rocklin has not undergone a similar transformation. And if Pastor Greg Fairrington has anything to say about it, it never will.

When Fairrington and his wife, Kathy, established the church in 1990, they held services for a few dozen people in a converted warehouse. Now, up to a few thousand members fill Destiny’s pews each Sunday, with tens of thousands more tuning in via livestream or one of several local television broadcasts to watch the white-haired, white-bearded, impeccably dressed Fairrington give one of his energetic sermons.

The church’s main campus is a collection of modern, blocky structures along a main highway. Drivers could easily mistake the grounds for those of a big-box retailer, if not for the large crosses in evidence. The sanctuary’s main stage has a giant video screen and synchronized lighting that creates the feel of an arena concert, especially when the church’s in-house, indie pop band is performing. The community center has conference rooms, a gym and a cafe, plus an indoor playground for kids.

Destiny Church in Rocklin, California, on July 19, 2020.
Destiny Church in Rocklin, California, on July 19, 2020.

Daniel Kim via ZUMAPRESS.com

Destiny’s Facebook page proclaims that “we are a community who love people,” touting service projects that include free backpacks for schoolchildren and a monthly soup kitchen for homeless people in the area. As far as theology goes, the church embraces a conservative, traditional interpretation of Scripture, which it describes as the “infallible, authoritative rule of faith and conduct.” Fairrington believes that leaves no ambiguity when it comes to gender and sexuality.

“Somebody has got to call a sin a sin, and if it’s offensive, so be it,” Fairrington said in a sermon last year, according to a feature article by Jenavieve Hatch of The Sacramento Bee. “The word of God is written to change culture, not for culture to change the word of God.”

In that sermon, Fairrington, who declined to speak to HuffPost for this piece, spoke out against prohibitions on what’s commonly called “conversion” or “reparative” therapy, which seeks to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The American Psychological Association has long condemned it as unethical because it treats being LGBTQ+ as an illness that needs curing, and because of evidence that the practice can cause significant psychological harm. Conversion therapy has been illegal in California since 2012.

“Destiny believes in the biblical model for sexuality, gender and identity,” Tanner DiBella, who is Destiny’s communications director and who answered questions on behalf of the church, told me in an interview. “‘Conversion therapy’ is a politicized term that historically has intended to demonize the Church’s belief on these issues. Destiny does not practice or affirm forced conversations or coercive measures. We offer pastoral care for any individual who asks for Biblical clarity on these issues.”

To Fairrington and his allies, the attack on conversion therapy is just one more way that an unholy alliance of progressive lawmakers, advocates, scientists and media figures are threatening religious freedom ― and, in some cases, the eternal souls of community members.

“We are not going to be a compromising church,” Fairrington said last year while introducing the conservative activist Charlie Kirk, who is one of several prominent right-wing figures who has spoken at Destiny in recent years. “We are in a war, we are in a battle … What we fight for in America, and in our churches, is a spiritual fight.”

Destiny’s fury at the left was perhaps never more visible than in the summer of 2020, a few months after COVID-19 first hit, when the church made national headlines for defying state bans on indoor worship. One year later, Fairrington was among the conservative Christian leaders railing against vaccine mandates. “We are not anti-vax, but we are pro-freedom here at Destiny,” Fairrington said in an Instagram post announcing he would give religious exemption forms to followers who felt “morally compromised” by the mandate.

Fairrington’s other big cause in 2021 was the recall effort against Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. “My God, do your job as Christians on September 14, and vote ‘yes’ on recalling an immoral governor,” Fairrington said in one sermon, also reported in the Bee.

Churches that endorse specific candidates or ballot causes can lose their tax-exempt status, which may explain why Fairrington went on to say: “My comments on the recall do not support a candidate, but rather highlight the unfortunate actions by Gov. Newsom that have traumatic consequences for families, schools, communities, and the church.”

Fairrington then attacked President Joe Biden, along with a list of enemies familiar to anybody who has spent time on right-wing media. “Are we afraid of Big Tech, socialism, higher taxes? Are we afraid of a vaccine, liberal school boards, racial, social agendas, [critical race theory], LGBTQ agenda?” he asked. “The gender-neutral doctrine, anti-America, radical groups like Black Lives Matter? What are we afraid of, church?”

The effort to recall Newsom did not succeed. But Christian conservatives in Placer County have had more success at the local level.

A driving force behind that impact has been the American Council, a nonprofit organization that DiBella co-founded in 2018. The council, which originally went by the name American Council of Evangelicals, has no formal ties to Destiny. But Fairrington praises it regularly, and DiBella’s involvement with the church goes beyond his work as communications director. His mother is on the church’s executive council. “I grew up around Destiny,” he told me.

DiBella, 29, has a neatly cropped beard and a confident, soothing voice that would not seem out of place at a D.C. lobbying firm. He says he has been reading and thinking about politics since he was a kid, citing among his major influences 18th-century British conservative philosopher Edmund Burke and modern-day theologian Wayne Grudem, whose 2010 book “Politics – According to the Bible” urges Christians to get involved with politics. DiBella says another big influence was the lessons about church-sponsored humanitarian organizations that he got from an African history class while studying economics and political science at the University of California, Davis.

All of that was on his mind, as DiBella explains it, when he noticed, through his work on Destiny’s leadership, that Christian conservatives angry with the direction of public policy were not trying to change it through the political process.

“They were voting, but they weren’t voting like Christians, they weren’t voting from a biblical worldview,” DiBella told me. “They were mad,” he added later, “but they didn’t know what to do about it.”

Pastor Greg Fairrington speaks at Destiny Church.
Pastor Greg Fairrington speaks at Destiny Church.

Morgan Barr / Destiny Church

Partnering with the leader of Jessup University, a local religious college, and following a template promoted by a national conservative organization called the Barna Institute, DiBella created the American Council. Initially, the focus was on educating local conservatives about what the Bible says about particular policy issues — and, then, how voters can get officials to make decisions consistent with those teachings.

“Our first class had 1,700 people in it,” DiBella said. “We walked away from that with a realization that, hey, we really hit a nerve here.”

Looking back, DiBella says, he shouldn’t have been surprised. Discontent had already been simmering among the community’s conservatives, thanks in part to a 2017 controversy in Rocklin over a kindergarten teacher’s decision to read aloud two children’s books about being trans (“I Am Jazz” and “The Red Crayon”) because a child in the class was socially transitioning. “That quickly became a focal point in the school boards ― books, material, curriculum, what’s being taught, and the lack of transparency and accountability to parents,” DiBella said.

A year later, this anger erupted when the school board in Rocklin took up proposals to update its sex ed and social sciences curricula. The new framework highlighted the role of LGBTQ+ figures in state history (like former San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to win election in California), or, in some cases, mentioned the sexuality of figures whom students were already studying ― like Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space, who was a lesbian. The new lesson plans also characterized legal milestones, like the recognition of same-sex marriage, as civil rights victories.

The outlines of the new curriculum came from a state law called the Fair Act, which former Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown signed in 2011 and which was designed to teach kids about marginalized communities that had been important in California history. The LGBTQ+ provisions represented the culmination of decades’ worth of efforts by progressive activists to promote equality and to combat bullying and bias crimes, which researchers had linked to higher rates of mental health problems and a greater propensity for self-harm.

“It becomes very clear to people that bias crimes are being committed by youth, and bias crimes are a product of what it is that these children know,” Marie-Amélie George, a Wake Forest Law professor who is writing a book on efforts to promote LGBTQ+ equality, explained to me. “They have been taught to fear and hate gays and lesbians, and so the idea is if schools can start counteracting that message, we can see a reduction in violence.”

But the conservatives in Placer County, including a group who were calling themselves Informed Parents of Rocklin, were furious. Some argued that the new curriculum would promote views on topics like same-sex marriage with which they did not agree. Others said that it would introduce the topic of sexuality before children were ready for it.

Most educators speaking out about the Fair Act were on the progressive side of the debate. Julie Hupp, a teacher in the neighboring district of Loomis and a longtime Rocklin resident and parent, is among the exceptions. She’s a conservative, and says she viewed the proposed changes as a distraction from teaching the basics.

“That is not what’s important to our children,” Hupp told me in a recent interview, recalling what happened in 2019. “They need math. And better language arts. They need to read critically, they need to be critical thinkers. It’s ridiculous to let political ideals take over.”

Julie Hupp (right) and Tiffany Saathoff at a Rocklin Unified School District board meeting in September.
Julie Hupp (right) and Tiffany Saathoff at a Rocklin Unified School District board meeting in September.

Xavier Mascareâ via ZUMAPRESS.com

Rocklin’s school board had a 3-2 liberal majority at the time, mainly because those elections hadn’t been especially politicized and the people most interested in school board service tended to be educators. After the board approved the curriculum, voting along party lines, hundreds of parents protested by keeping their kids out of school for a day.

They also began clamoring to oust the liberals who’d voted yes. The American Council wanted the same thing. The group endorsed slates of local candidates across the county, including Hupp and a part-time pastor at Destiny named Tiffany Saathoff. Both ran for Rocklin’s board.

DiBella says that “trying to get conservative Christians elected” has become one of the American Council’s central goals because “from a pastoral standpoint, we have a biblical mandate to get involved.” And he’s not shy about defending that stance from critics who see it as a violation of church-state barriers.

“To me, one of the biggest misconceptions with this whole separation of church and state is this idea that because you have a religious worldview, that you somehow are less qualified to have a discussion on things that matter in the community,” DiBella said. “It’s like, ‘OK, because I’m a pastor, I have less of a right to speak out against injustice than you do?’ That doesn’t make sense to me … I’m not forcing my god on people. I have a moral conviction, and so do many people. And they have the same right to attempt to persuade their neighbor that that’s the right moral conviction, and be represented in that discussion on public policy.”

But in 2020, it wasn’t just religious belief that fueled the American Council’s campaign. Widespread anger over pandemic-related rules and closures in the schools played a big role too. The causes essentially merged, becoming a campaign to take power away from state and local officials whom conservatives saw as hostile, and put it back in the hands of local parents.

“I just think a lot of parents felt like it was time for some accountability and transparency, about what was happening in the schools and who was making all of those decisions,” DiBella told me.

Hupp, Saathoff and the other American Council candidates won in Rocklin, giving conservatives a 4-1 majority. Conservatives seized control of some other districts too. In the elections two years later, the conservatives held on to their majorities, putting them on a collision course with the area’s growing progressive population ― and setting up the clash over the Landing Spot.

The Landing Spot’s history with the local schools traces back to the 2018-19 school year, when Cristina Dobon-Claveau, who at the time worked for the Roseville schools, approached Pastor Tinnin. She thought the program could provide extra support for LGBTQ+ teens, and thought meeting kids on school grounds would make it possible to reach those who couldn’t get to an off-campus meeting. “It was just one more barrier for these kids who really needed the help,” Dobon-Claveau said.

Once the program got going in Roseville, word spread and invitations from two neighboring districts followed. (In at least one case, it was in response to an anti-LGBTQ+ bullying incident.) The program itself included two types of sessions ― one open just to the kids, and one that welcomed parents as well. Dobon-Claveau, Tinnin and other participants told me that in accordance with school rules, the meetings included at least one counselor or other adult employee.

The meetings themselves were relatively low-key, according to both the leaders and students I interviewed. Mostly the kids would chat about what was happening in their lives and how they’d been spending their time, though inevitably, discussion would turn to the challenges they were facing in a community that they perceived to harbor a lot of hostility toward them. Sometimes that meant being bullied by other students, or at least being afraid of bullying. Other times, students said, that meant problems at home.

“Pastor Casey would always come in with a huge bag of food, just in case anyone was going hungry,” Alex Houston, a recent graduate who was part of the Landing Spot while in high school, told me. “I met quite a few who weren’t allowed to have dinner with their family unless they used a specific name with them, especially trans students.”

Kate Phelan, a Rocklin High School senior who said many of her friends went to the Landing Spot, described it as “a place where just everybody could gather, and there was no judgment. For people who had issues with sexuality and parents, where home life wasn’t the most accepting, it was a place you could go and not have to worry.”

In addition to the Landing Spot, the Loomis Church held dances, Pride month celebrations and annual field trips to the Castro, a San Francisco neighborhood famous for its LGBTQ+ culture. At one point in 2019, Tinnin told me, he smugly asked some of the teens what more they could possibly want. It turned out they did still have one request: somewhere to go when school wasn’t in session, because they felt ostracized at the band and sports camps they’d attended previously. “That’s something that they miss,” Tinnin said, “feeling like a normal kid going to summer camp.” Within a year, Loomis was offering a summer program called “Camp Fruit Loop.”

These programs required more money than the church alone could provide. When some of the kids suggested a drag show fundraiser, Tinnin agreed, stipulating that it be “family-friendly” and student-produced. The first show, in early 2020, sold out quickly, filling every seat ― and most of the standing room ― inside the small Loomis Church meeting space. There was no show in 2021, due to the pandemic, but Loomis staged the 2022 show in a more spacious community theater. That one sold out too.

What Tinnin remembers about that production is not the crowd, but the effect it had on the performers. In particular, he remembers one gay teenager whose parents had pulled him out of school after multiple bullying reports, including an incident when he came home with ranch dressing on his clothes because, he said, somebody had poured it on him.

The teenager had come to some Landing Spot meetings, saying little until the drag show planning began and caught his interest. He ended up performing, singing a song while wearing tall white platform boots. Backstage, he told Tinnin that for the first time, he felt like people were really seeing him.

After the show, Tinnin says, the teen’s mother told him: “Thank you for giving me back my son.” The teen’s mother ― who asked not to be identified here, in order to protect her family’s privacy ― confirmed the story to me, adding that “there was no vulgarity, nothing inappropriate” about the performance.

For 2023’s drag show fundraiser, Tinnin and the students got permission to use an even larger venue: the auditorium at Roseville High School. They advertised the event on social media. That’s how DiBella says he first learned about the show: Somebody sent him a screenshot of the invitation. When he got more information and learned about the Landing Spot’s work with students, he protested directly to school officials.

“As a Public School, you have a responsibility to teach and educate our students ― and allowing political and hyper-sexual organizations to cater, educate, and target students on your campus is inappropriate,” DiBella wrote in a February email to Roseville HIgh’s principal that HuffPost reviewed.

DiBella did more than contact the school on his own. He also activated the grassroots. The American Council emailed its list, which includes 9,000 names in Roseville alone, informing community members about the Landing Spot and the drag show and urging them to file their own objections if they felt the same concerns as he did.

“The biggest thing was that there was no parental knowledge,” DiBella told me. “We sent this out to parents, basically saying it’s wrong because… you were never notified that your student was being invited to these things, and there was no notification that this organization was even on school campuses.”

Tanner DiBella speaks at an American Council event.
Tanner DiBella speaks at an American Council event.

Caleb Santos / American Council

Roseville’s district got more than 2,000 calls, according to a detailed account of the controversy by Chrissy Stroop in Religion Dispatches. As officials reacted, they discovered that while Tinnin had gone through the standard volunteer vetting process, including fingerprinting, the church had not filed a separate memo that was required when outside programs work with students. It was apparently an oversight ― nobody at Roseville had requested the form. But before Tinnin and Loomis staff could finish dealing with the new paperwork, the Project Veritas video appeared, setting off an even more furious reaction.

At a raucous school board meeting to discuss the future of the Landing Spot, a local resident and self-described member of the far-right Proud Boys warned that “the LGBT cult is taking over everything in this state … It’s disgusting to see these pedophile groomers that have infiltrated our schools.” He then went to Tinnin’s house, where he made similar remarks outside with a bullhorn and livestreamed the whole thing to his followers. (When police showed up, he said was trying to “make [Tinnin] uncomfortable.”)

Another resident reacted to the Project Veritas video with a post of his own, in which he said Tinnin is “talking about grooming children. He’s talking about how they have multi-generational relationships ― a.k.a., pedophilia, let’s just call it what it is.”

There were threats, too. At one point, a caller to the Loomis Church left a message about a bomb supposedly planted at the congregation’s building. (The caller was never identified.) Another suggested it might be a good idea if Tinnin started wearing a bulletproof vest. Loomis decided to hold services virtually until it could hire private security. “We literally had to do Easter in hiding,” Tinnin told me.

Tinnin eventually responded with a video in which he introduced himself — he talked about his husband, how they walk their dogs and make dinner for neighbors — and addressed questions and criticisms about the program. “I am not a pedophile, I am not a groomer,” Tinnin said. “There are no facts to even suggest these heinous false statements, and they would not make such statements against me if I were not gay.”

The appeal didn’t work. Roseville, which had canceled the drag show even before the Project Veritas video came out, severed ties with the Landing Spot. Two other districts that had arrangements with the Landing Spot did the same, and one hired a law firm to investigate whether Tinnin, or anybody else associated with the Landing Spot, had acted inappropriately toward students.

At that point, Tinnin decided to proceed with a previously planned sabbatical, thinking the furor might die down. But the anger of local conservatives didn’t subside. It simply shifted to another controversy ― and this time, as in the 2019 fight over the Fair Act curriculum, the venue would be the Rocklin school board.

The first hint of that controversy came at the board’s August meeting, when Dereck Counter, one of the four conservative members, suggested they take up a proposal to recognize and protect “parental rights.” Hupp, who was now serving as the board’s president, endorsed the idea and said she would work with Counter, as a two-person committee, to craft language.

Under the proposal, which they released in late August, teachers had to notify parents when a trans or nonbinary student requested to use a new name or pronoun, or to use a bathroom for a gender that’s not listed in school files. The only exception was if a teacher thought such a report would lead to abuse. In that case, under the proposal, a teacher instead had to notify child protective services.

Similar proposals were already on the books or under consideration in communities across the country, including one in Southern California that the school board had passed just a few weeks before. Rocklin’s version quickly picked up endorsements from Fairrington and leaders of the local chapter of Moms for Liberty.

The line wraps around the building as Rocklin teachers, community members, parents and students wait for several hours to comment during the Rocklin Unified School District board meeting on Sept. 6.
The line wraps around the building as Rocklin teachers, community members, parents and students wait for several hours to comment during the Rocklin Unified School District board meeting on Sept. 6.

Xavier Mascareâ via ZUMAPRESS.com

As proof of its value and necessity, many supporters cited a recent controversy from a San Jose-area school. A parent at that school had filed a lawsuit claiming teachers had encouraged her child to use a different name and pronoun, and to use a gender-neutral bathroom reserved for teachers, after the child came to school counselors seeking help with emotional and mental struggles ― all without saying a word to the parents. The school settled the lawsuit with a $100,000 payment that stipulated no admission of liability by the school or its staff.

That story came up a number of times when Rocklin’s board met in September to debate the parental notification rule. Supporters of the proposal cited it as proof that “straight children are being targeted and being groomed.” One parent accused progressives of trying to interfere with parental autonomy. “I’m not stepping into anybody’s home and telling them how to raise their children, and I expect the same treatment,” the woman said, adding “never have I hated on anyone.” When an opponent of the proposal in the audience accused her of bigotry, she said “Pipe down.”

Other supporters adopted a more conciliatory tone, saying they thought the proposal would bring families together by forcing conversations and eliminating misunderstandings. They said this wasn’t a matter of rejecting kids who identify as LGBTQ+, or even teaching that it was wrong to do so. The issue, they said, was about who is positioned to know what’s best for their kids, especially if their kids are in some kind of distress.

“I love my kids more than any other person will,” one parent said. “No other human being, besides their father, has made that commitment, and this policy will validate that.” Added another, “This regulation change helps give parents a seat at the table in their child’s life, and that’s all we really want.”

“We believe that the relationship between parents, students and staff should be open,” Hupp said in her remarks. “It shouldn’t be a relationship where people are holding secrets and hiding things.”

The spectrum of emotion and argument sounded a lot like what Rocklin’s conservatives were saying in 2019, during the Fair Act debate. But this time the conservatives in the room were clearly in the minority. That didn’t happen by accident.

Progressive parents had started organizing early in the summer. They grew even more angry ― and determined to act ― after Hupp wrote a Facebook post seeking volunteers to advise on curriculum issues and specifying that “we need as many Christ centered, family focused parents as we can get.” (After that post went viral, eventually drawing some national attention, Hupp said she was not trying to exclude or discourage anyone from stepping forward.)

Among those expressing outrage at the post was Price Johnson, 34, who is the father of a first grader and a third grader in the Rocklin schools. Johnson runs a game publishing company. Growing up in Southern California before moving to Sacramento in 2008, he’s had openly LGBTQ+ friends and family for as long as he can remember. When he and his wife moved to Rocklin three years ago, he said, it was because their new family needed more space ― and good schools. “We were just two young parents working our asses off, trying to find the best district,” he said.

Johnson said he first became aware of the politics around the schools a few months into the pandemic, as community sentiment turned sharply against mask rules and other public health measures. “This was still early, mid-2020, much too early for my comfort level,” Johnson said. He and his children have asthma, which made them high-risk for serious COVID-19 complications. But, he told me, it was debates about curriculum and parental rights ― and Hupp’s post about seeking Christian volunteers ― that convinced him to get involved.

“If it’s your priority to put more emphasis on certain demographics of people, or certain types of marriages or relationships, that’s your prerogative to contextualize that for your children in your own home setting, and with your own religious beliefs,” Johnson told me. “But if you’re trying to form how the school talks about recognizing real-world people, that shouldn’t be up for debate.”

Johnson started a Facebook group called Rocklin Parents for RUSD Board Accountability & Integrity, a reference to the Rocklin Unified School District. Like-minded parents quickly joined and, together, they organized a big showing at the September meeting.

They began arriving three hours before the meeting started. Working with some teachers and union members, they set up a tent for making signs, sharing food and distributing pride flags. Inside, when they got their chance to speak, they focused on the possibility — and consequences — of outing kids to parents who might not accept them. One educator, who introduced herself as the mother of two teenagers, described the proposal as a “targeted attack on a group of LGBTQ students I am bound morally and legally to protect.”

Rex Carpenter, a Rocklin resident with a granddaughter in middle school, kicked off the hours-long public comment period at the Rocklin Unified School District board meeting.
Rex Carpenter, a Rocklin resident with a granddaughter in middle school, kicked off the hours-long public comment period at the Rocklin Unified School District board meeting.

Xavier Mascareâ via ZUMAPRESS.com

I’d heard similar things from Jen Brookover, a veteran teacher who’d worked in Philadelphia schools before moving to California several years ago. In 2022, Brookover ran unsuccessfully to serve on the Rocklin board. “You’re putting kids in harm’s way, because most parents who are supportive and caring and loving would already know that their kid identifies as LGBTQ+ ― or at least have an idea already ― and be supportive of it,” she said. “So what problem are you trying to solve here, other than targeting an already marginalized group?”

But the most impassioned pleas came from the students who showed up at the meeting, sharing stories ― their own, or from friends ― of being bullied or ostracized, and of relying on teachers for support they couldn’t get at home. “We’re supposed to be safe here. And we won’t be safe,” said one student. Another warned: “You are selfishly taking away a child’s chance to thrive in a world that is already so actively against them.”

At one point, the student body presidents of Rocklin’s two high schools stood side by side, giving a joint statement about why the proposal would “jeopardize the safety” of students and “diminish the trust they have” in teachers and staff. “It is astonishing that the board members think they have a right to dictate such an intimate part of students’ lives,” they said.

Near the end, a recent graduate of Rocklin schools reflected on their experiences growing up trans while hiding it from a disapproving parent ― and their knowledge that other LGBTQ+ students were going through similar experiences now.

“I have seen too many parents who love the idea of who their child should be, and not the actual child they have,” the recent graduate said. “Their idea of helping their child is to force that child to be someone the child is not, but who the parent wants them to be.”

The full debate went on for more than six hours, even with the board limiting each speaker to two minutes ― and cutting off microphones whenever anybody went over. The board livestreamed the meeting on its website, and every few minutes, it was possible to hear delayed cheers or jeers from more than a hundred partisans who were watching from outside because the room was at capacity.

When the speakers were finally done, board members took one final turn at comments. Michelle Sutherland, the lone progressive, pushed back on the idea that teachers were secretly trying to “groom” students: “They are not encouraging secrecy, they are just accepting students at face value.”

She voted no on the proposal. The four conservative members voted yes.

Among those celebrating the outcome was Fairrington, who the next day posted a video message on his Facebook page: “We elected the right people … Well done, Rocklin school board. You did a great job last night. Keep it up.”

The rule hasn’t actually taken effect, even though more than three months have passed, and it’s not clear when it will. The union has appealed to the state agency with jurisdiction over labor agreements, asking it to block the new rules as a violation of state labor laws. And there’s still a possibility of court challenges. California’s attorney general sued to block a similar initiative that passed in a district in the southern part of the state, though he hasn’t taken similar action against Rocklin’s ordinance yet.

The prospect of litigation came up in the Rocklin debate, with defenders of the proposal saying the notification rule would survive legal scrutiny, and opponents warning that it violated the relatively strong protections for the privacy of minors that already exist in California law. In reality, nobody can be sure.

Legal doctrine in this area is not especially well-defined, according to Maxine Eichner, an expert in family law at the University of North Carolina. American law generally defers to parents when it comes to the well-being of children, she told me, but that’s because the law presumes parents will act in their children’s best interests. When the law doesn’t assume that ― in cases of abuse, for example ― the state can limit parent rights.

Most likely, court rulings on these measures would depend, as they often do, on who’s issuing them. It’s easy to imagine the progressive judges on the California Supreme Court striking down a parental notification law. It’s just as easy to imagine their conservative counterparts on the U.S. Supreme Court ruling the other way, whether on Rocklin’s ordinance or some other, similar rule that makes it to their courtroom for consideration.

While Rocklin residents wait for clarity on the parental notification rule, the law firm hired by Western Placer to look into Tinnin and the Landing Spot has wrapped its investigation. That effort included soliciting public comments, and the firm discerned a distinct pattern, as it explained in its final report: “All of the criticism and commentary… we received and read is based upon ideological differences and beliefs about the LGBTQIA+ community in general, and about a school’s role in LGBTQIA+ community in particular, and not personal knowledge about wrongdoing by Pastor Tinnin towards students or against parents … The only reports we had from those students and parents with personal knowledge… praised [Tinnin’s] efforts and conduct.”

The comments were consistent with what the firm found through its own inquiries, leading it to conclude that “there is a complete absence of evidence that Pastor Tinnin engaged in any conduct that was inappropriate towards youth, including pedophilia.”

Despite that finding, none of the three districts has renewed ties with the Landing Spot. A Roseville spokesperson told me students could still invite Landing Spot representatives to appear at other club meetings, as they would any other guest or speaker. The spokesperson declined to answer why the district hasn’t considered restoring the organization’s old role.

Tinnin and his allies say they take comfort knowing that teens can still find their way to Loomis programs by coming directly to the church. But it’s not the same, they say, and it means LGBTQ+ youth in Placer County have one fewer source of support than they did a year ago.

“It’s heartbreaking because I saw firsthand the great work that Pastor Casey did at our school and provided to our students,” said Dobon-Claveau, the former Roseville school official who now works in another district.

Tinnin says he has been particularly disappointed that conservatives see him and his allies as working to drive parents and children apart, because bringing them together is one of the Landing Spot’s stated goals. Several teens made a similar point to me, arguing that the presence of more trusted adults in their lives ― whether through a program like the Landing Spot or confidential conversations with teachers ― ultimately made it easier, not harder, to talk with their parents.

“I came out to my sixth grade teacher before I came out to my parents, because she was the only other adult in my life that wasn’t family that I felt I could talk to,” said Kai Gavin, who grew up in Placer County and who is now 19. “I came out to her, to sort of test the waters and see what coming out felt like, and I am so blessed that she was kind and accepting and affirming … And then a little later that year, like four months later, I was able to come out to my parents, because I had such a good experience with that.”

Phelan, the Rocklin senior, said something similar to me: “I came out to my theater teacher months before I came out to my parents. It felt like a safe space. It felt like somewhere I could test-run it.”

It’s difficult to know whether anyone can really change anyone else’s mind in these debates, at least in the current polarized environment. That’s all the more reason to think they will have to be settled at the ballot box, where the possible outcomes are far from clear.

Nationally, some of the most outspoken conservative advocates for “parental rights” and other, similar causes have suffered major public setbacks. There’s the story about the co-founder of Moms for Liberty telling police that she had consensual sexual activity with another woman. And there are the political struggles of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who positioned himself as the most outspoken “anti-woke” warrior in the 2024 Republican presidential nomination campaign and has seen his poll numbers flatline.

But the Republican Party still has plenty of leaders ready to fight the political left over issues tied to gender and sexuality. The list starts with the 2024 front-runner, former President Donald Trump, who has attacked “left-wing gender insanity.” Next is House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), the most powerful elected Republican in Washington. Before coming to Congress, he was the senior attorney and national spokesperson for one of the nation’s best-known and most influential groups fighting to roll back LGBTQ+ rights.

State and local politics also have plenty of leaders carrying on the conservative fight, with well-funded organizations behind them. That’s certainly the case in Placer County. In 2022, conservatives retained the majority by holding off a set of progressive challengers, thanks in no small part to supporters who accused those progressives of being anti-family or anti-religion, or of trying to bring San Francisco values into places like Rocklin and Roseville. Nobody would be surprised if conservatives hold or even expand majorities in 2024, a goal DiBella has already identified as a priority for his organization.

But there are signs of change, too. The Facebook page for progressive parents that Price Johnson helped start has more than 1,000 members. Brookover announced in November that she’s running for school board again. She told me she’s already collected thousands of dollars in donations, roughly half of it coming from donors (mostly from Rocklin) whose names she doesn’t recognize as previous supporters.

Whatever happens in 2024, the demographic trend lines appear to point in one direction. Between the adults moving into Placer County and the teenagers aging into voting status, it may only be a matter of time before local politics ― and policies ― shift in a more progressive direction. The conservatives are doing everything to slow that transformation, if not halt it altogether. For the progressives, especially those LGBTQ+ kids, it can’t happen soon enough.

If you or someone you know needs help, call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org for mental health support. Additionally, you can find local mental health and crisis resources at dontcallthepolice.com. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention.

Comments are closed.