Imagine you showed up to your job and were told that, because your gender made your coworkers uncomfortable, you’d need to start dressing differently or the police would be called to remove you from the property. That’s what happened to Nedra McNeil, the former Beechmont Open Air Manager, on June 16th, 2023.
McNeil, whose pronouns are they/she, managed the Beechmont Open Air Market for three years. During those three years, the market’s vendor count doubled, increasing from 20 to 40. McNeil championed the market’s participation in the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program, a social service program designed to get fresh produce into the hands of low income seniors, and the Kentucky Double Dollars Program, which gives SNAP participants access to fresh, Kentucky-grown food.
Despite their many contributions, McNeil was ousted from the market on July 5th, 2023.
McNeil had requested to move the market from the Beechmont Baptist Church, where the market has been held since 2006, due to ongoing harassment and discrimination from church leadership. When the board announced, after an unofficial private meeting held in McNeil’s absence, that the market would not be moving this season, McNeil resigned from their position.
As a religious institution, Beechmont Baptist has the right to discriminate on the basis of gender identity in a number of contexts. However, the Open Air Market is a public accommodation, and it’s run, not by the church, but by the Beechmont Neighborhood Association. Fairness Campaign Director Chris Hartmann states: “I’m not a lawyer, but I do have fifteen years of experience working with Fairness Ordinances, and this is my initial read. While yes it is true that churches are exempt from several parts of the Fairness Ordinance, at the point in time when the church parking lot becomes the site of a public accommodation, it needs to be accessible to all protected classes. And as the producer of the market, the Beechmont Neighborhood Association needs to hold firm and ensure that. The market should have just moved immediately.”
According to McNeil, Beechmont Baptist has a track record of pressuring market management to ban items and activities that conflict with their beliefs, such as hand-crafted Ouiji boards, artworks that incorporate wine bottles, and yoga. This was confirmed by both market vendor, Dylan Hogan, and by McNeil’s former assistant manager, PJ Ray.
The church makes no efforts to hide their transphobia. This statement is prominently featured on the church’s website under the banner “We Believe.”
With regards to McNeil specifically, Beechmont Baptist pastor Paul Mathenia made the following public statement in June 17th, 2023, in an interview with local livestreamer Tara Bassett: “We just ask that people on our property not publicize things that are clearly against God’s word…Is it proper for a man to dress in women’s clothing? The Bible says that is not proper.” He then clarifies that trans people are welcome to come to the market, they just can’t run it.
According to market vendor and queer trans man, Dylan Hogan, “The issue is no longer the church. The church has gone on record. They’ve said everything they believe. Now the issue is the neighborhood association, and the fact that the neighborhood association has been waffling back and forth….says more than their vague gestures at diversity ever will.”
On June 16th, 2023, McNeil learned from a fellow board member, Heather Graham, that conversations were taking place among board members about McNeil’s appearance. According to McNeil, board president Pitts had consulted the members after pastor Mathenia reached out to him with a request: to ask McNeil to “tone it down.”
McNeil reached out to Pitts to get to the bottom of it. “I tried to give him an out. I said, ‘Hey Don I’m so glad what you said is that the church was asking me to tone it down – not that you are – because that would be violating the Fairness Ordinance.’ Because the church can do whatever they want as a protected religious institution, but the neighborhood association can’t do that.”
A few hours later, McNeil received another call from Pitts. “He had talked with the Pastor again and asked what ‘toning it down’ meant, and the pastor said: ‘If he [sic] shows up in our parking lot in women’s clothing, we will have him [sic] removed from the property.’”
According to McNeil, a board member who is also a member of Beechmont Baptist, who tends the church’s booth at the market, and who consistently misgenders McNeil in front of other vendors, had sent the pastor this picture of them, describing their outfit as “disgraceful.”
The president allegedly told McNeil to keep quiet about the threat. “He said, ‘I obviously cannot tell you what to do. But if we tell our vendors we can’t have the market at this location, they will panic. So I can’t tell you what to do, but please don’t contact the vendors.’”
That same evening, McNeil received a call from Louisville Metro Councilperson Betsy Ruhe, who had previously served on the BNA board with McNeil.
“Betsy wanted to let me know that she had called Major Tatum with the police, and assured me that I would not be arrested tomorrow.”
“I’m a police abolitionist – Betsy knows that,” said McNeil. “But I said, ‘If you think this threat is credible enough, you can meet me at my partner’s place at 7am and escort me into the market.’”
According to McNeil, Ruhe was there at 7am the next morning, wearing a men’s tie in solidarity.
Neither Ruhe nor Pitts have replied to QueerKentucky’s request for comment.
On June 17th, McNeil attended her last market. A number of friends and allies skipped the Pride festivities taking place in Louisville that day to be at the market in solidarity. McNeil’s partner, a South End resident since 2016, and fellow trans person, Val Pfister, had invited them.
“I just wanted friendly faces there if things were to escalate,” Pfister said.
McNeil, who had carefully chosen a modest feminine outfit—a long skirt and t-shirt—to wear that day, was on edge. “As far as I knew, I was going to get arrested. I’d spoken to Chris Hartmann with Fairness the day prior, and he said that if the police showed up, I should step off of the property and call him immediately.”
Emory Hufbauer was one of the folks who came that day to support McNeil, and stayed from beginning to end. According to Hufbauer, who is intersex and nonbinary, they intentionally kept their distance from the church’s booth, but nonetheless experienced microaggressions.
“At some point I started to relax and feel more comfortable, and was just talking freely to my partner. I hadn’t realized that we were within earshot of [Beechmont Baptist’s] booth. My voice surprised them. It was deeper than they expected. And the energy shifted after that. We definitely got some looks.”
Despite all the pressure and scrutiny they were under, McNeil made their rounds and spoke to every vendor, apprising them of the situation.
“I asked all the vendors if they would be open to moving locations, and if they had any special requests or concerns. All but three vendors expressed support for moving ranging from tacit to enthusiastic. Two weren’t thrilled but would come along, and one said they would step away from the market entirely—so I offered to refund their dues for the whole season. As for the others, their primary request was that there should be a bathroom. The only plumbing at our current location is in the church, and we often don’t know if or when it will open. It’s not uncommon for me to not pee for four hours.”
McNeil said the police never came, and no one attempted to remove them from the property.
The next morning, Sunday June 18th, as Pastor Mathenia preached a sermon about gender roles, a BNA message thread called for an emergency private meeting at board president Don Pitts’s house. “I told Don I wouldn’t feel safe at the meeting,” said McNeil. “But Clare, the executive director of South Louisville Community Ministries, agreed to attend the meeting with me to mediate. So I’m literally having to be escorted around within the community.”
At said private meeting, McNeil told their fellow board members about the conversations they had had with the vendors at the market the day prior. They also stated that they wouldn’t step foot on the church property again, and that PJ Ray, their assistant and fellow board member, would fulfill their duties at the market until it changed locations.
The June 21st meeting took place at the Iroquois Public Library. At this meeting, vendor, Dylan Hogan, read a letter urging the board to move the market, which seventeen vendors had signed.
Queers from all over Louisville were in attendance that night, including South End residents who had moved to the South End, believing it was friendlier to queer people. Also present were a number of LGBTQ+ community leaders, including Alexander Griggs, a Black trans man who serves as the Community Outreach Coordinator for the Fairness Campaign.
Griggs got the impression that the board’s support of McNeil was conditional and performative: “They kept saying that they needed to wait until everyone on the board was there to vote, which seemed to contradict their claim that they supported Nedra. Also, I believe that there were enough people there to vote, according to the bylaws.”
According to Griggs, no one on the board was willing to make a motion until McNeil refused to do it. Griggs was not satisfied with the motion that was finally made, stating “It was essentially a motion to think about moving the market. Which they were already doing. Allegedly.”
South Louisville Community Ministries Database Specialist Micah Kavich was also in attendance that evening, accompanied by their trans kid.
According to Kavich, McNeil’s expectations were more than reasonable: “Nedra did not say ‘I want you to shut down the market and move it today.’ She said, ‘What I am asking is that you immediately take a public stance against transphobia, and that you make a motion to move the market as soon as possible.’”
This was the last meeting McNeil attended. Dylan Hogan, vendor and trans man, doesn’t blame them.
“There’s no way on earth if I were in [McNeil’s] shoes that I’d step into this piranha pit where it was clear that not everybody had my back,” he said. “And there’s so much gas lighting. It’s like, ohh, if only I could have just done a little less, whatever–. You were wearing fucking denim coveralls at a farmer’s market. There’s no more or less you could have done because the problem they had was with you, and with us, just our baseline existence.”
On July 5th, an unofficial meeting was held at a board member’s home, which McNeil was invited to, but declined to attend. Following that meeting, Pitts sent the following email out to the board members. After McNeil opened it, she began drafting her resignation letter.
The next day, the BNA made the following Facebook post:
According to the BNA’s bylaws, any member can call a special meeting if 15 dues-paying members agree to it, and anyone can become a member for $10. So McNeil’s partner, Pfister, rallied 15 allies to join the association and sign the petition. The special meeting was scheduled for July 12th.
One ally, Bob Crawford, said, “I had heard of the market because of my association with Nedra. And then I found out that anyone with $10 could be a member, so I joined specifically so I could sign in support of that meeting.” Crawford described McNeil as “the kind of person who would do anything for you. They are always going to someone’s house to help with electrical problems. Or if you need something built, they will build it for you.”
Less than a week later, McNeil’s resignation was made official. Their letter was read at the July 12th meeting, which McNeil did not attend. According to Val Pfister, Nedra’s partner, BNA President Don Pitts attempted to prevent them from reading the letter by relegating it to the “public comments” section of the meeting. “I had to jump in and read it before the meeting was called,” Pfister said.
According to Crawford, the board was not moved by McNeil’s resignation letter. He stated: “The argument from the board was ‘we just can’t do it now – we’re gonna more than likely move next season.’ The audience was really pushing for ‘you just need to shut it down and move now.’ Their concern about Nedra was maybe in their top ten, definitely not their top three “
The formal vote on the market’s relocation finally took place at the July 17th board meeting, which Pfister described as “the roughest meeting of them all.” One attendee repeatedly misgendered a trans youth in the audience, according to Pfister, and the erasure of McNeil reached new levels. According to Hogan, “the whole board was calling [Nedra’s] entire [resignation letter] a lie, but wouldn’t name any single untrue sentence in it.”
The board ultimately voted to pass a three-part motion, made by Pitts, to 1) keep the market at the church for the rest of the season; 2) do everything in their power to find another suitable location, and 3) withdraw the BNA’s name and support from any market if they were unable to find a suitable alternative by January 1st, 2024.
“It’s almost like the end of a hostage negotiation,” said vendor, Dylan Hogan. “It doesn’t feel like a huge victory in any way. Even the Neighborhood Association put out a statement and there’s no mention of transphobia or anything. It just feels very tepid, like the path of least resistance.”
PJ Ray, who was still serving as McNeil’s assistant manager when McNeil resigned, feels differently, stating: “The BNA has a responsibility to the community. You can’t please both sides. It’s hard for a board to do that.”
July 20 – present
In his interview with QueerKentucky, Ray acknowledged that he’d told McNeil that he would step down from his position if the board would not move the market. Instead of stepping down, though, he stepped up—into McNeil’s position. As of July 20, Ray was listed as the market’s sole manager in the Department of Agriculture’s records.
Addressing the inconsistency, Ray said: “Well, at one point I wanted to step down if things didn’t go accordingly, however […] there have been some things the board has been accused of that aren’t true. We have had no closed meetings without Nedra. So when I found out there were some things that weren’t true that Nedra had put out on statements, I just decided that it was for the betterment of the community.”
Ray clarified that the statement he was referring to was McNeil’s resignation letter, which was posted online, and then read at the July 12th meeting, and which states:
Last Wednesday, July 5th, while I was at work, the Beechmont Neighborhood Association convened a private meeting without me, in order to discuss the market that I run and the threat against me. Against their own bylaws, they announced after that meeting that a decision had been made not to move the market this season.
According to the BNA bylaws, no decisions can be made outside of a properly called meeting at which a quorum is present. A properly called meeting, according to the bylaws, is one where both dues-paying members and the general public receive at least five days’ notice. The bylaws also state that a closed session may only occur at a properly called meeting, after the meeting is called to order.
The public was not notified of the July 5th meeting. Nor were all dues-paying members. Though all board members, including McNeil, were invited to attend, they only received three days’ notice.
According to Ray, no voting took place at the July 5th meeting. However, it’s difficult to square this claim with the email that Pitts sent out to the board members later that evening, and the statement posted the next day on the BNA’s Facebook page, which once again states: “We’ve determined that…we will remain at the current location at the Beechmont Baptist Church for the rest of this season.”
Desmond Tutu famously said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Even if the bylaws weren’t broken, and just bent, they were bent to protect certain board members’ interests, and to exclude McNeil’s.
There are currently two vendors who have firmly sided with the oppressed: Dylan Hogan, and Donald Taylor. Taylor is a third-generation Beechmont resident who has been selling his soaps and pastries at the Beechmont Open Air Market for nine years. When the BNA decided to remain at the church for the rest of the season, Taylor initially felt conflicted. “On the one hand, I understand that some vendors rely on the market as their main source of income, and I want to support them. But we have to call this what it is: transphobia. And it’s an attack on Nedra, and on all trans people.”
He added: “The thing that really did it for me—one of my neighbors’ kids is transgender. I live right down the street from them. Every day I walk my dog past their house. What would I say to them if I stayed at the market after this?”
For Hogan, a trans man, neutrality was never an option. “I’ve been going through this grieving process, grieving my neighborhood. But then also, when I was a young trans kid I didn’t think I had anybody. I really could have used people actually showing up for me. And so I’m glad that I get to be that, but it also makes me sad that it’s not common sense for everybody, you know?”
Taylor and Hogan are now selling their products at Taylor’s center, the Stillpoint Wellness Center, also located in Beechmont, during the regular market hours. They welcome the other vendors to join them.
A Word on Violence
Safety and violence are two common themes that have emerged in the comment threads pertaining to the church’s threat against McNeil and the board’s response to said threat. Skeptics ask: What counts as violence? If McNeil did not experience physical violence, or threats of physical violence, is it fair to say that the neighborhood association has created an “unsafe environment” for trans people?
Let us first make clear that McNeil was threatened with physical violence: they were threatened to be removed from the church’s property. But more to the point: to ask whether an instance of transphobia “counts as violence” is to ignore the reality that trans people live in: a reality defined by systemic oppression, social alienation, and material insecurity; where 563 anti-trans bills have been introduced this year alone in the U.S.; where medical and housing discrimination is likely, and workplace harassment and discrimination is practically a guarantee; where trans people are four times more likely than cis people to experience violent victimization; a reality which, in 2019, the American Medical Association recognized an “epidemic of violence” against the trans community.
Every transphobic action, word, and belief contributes to this violent reality. And so does every person or institution who tolerates transphobic actions, words, and beliefs.
The best way to find out if an environment is safe for trans people is to ask a trans person.
The Last Word
“It really looks to me that in retrospect the church has won. Right? like—one of the main goals of transphobia is the systematic erasure of transgender people from the public eye—from public life. and, as far as the rest of this market is concerned, this aim has been successful. I’m also struck by how stark and clear it is that the market is dying, and this death is a purposeful, calculated one, instigated by the church and dutifully carried out by the neighborhood association. The steadily declining sales figures. Vendors bowing out. The prospects on the horizon of the market disintegrating for good next season. The scars that this leaves on Beechmont will be deep and lasting. This is what the world looks like when you let transphobia win.”
– Nedra McNeil, July 25 2023