The photo from last weekend’s protests in Frederick looks almost predictable at this point: A man clad in a red MAGA hat and an American flag t-shirt shouts at a black woman wearing a mask and talking into a megaphone.
The rage in the man’s face, the tension of the air – we’ve seen all this before in other conflicts between Black Lives Matter supporters and pro-police advocates.
But in this case, the easy assumptions are wrong.
Heath Barnes, the man in the red Trump hat, says his rage had nothing to do with the Black Lives Matter movement. It was instead directed at a person not even in the photograph who he says called him a homophobic slur just before the picture was taken. For Barnes, a gay Republican supporter of President Trump, it was a trigger; yet another expression of intolerance from a political party he says portrays itself as being an inclusive group.
“I came out as a gay man in the backwoods areas of Missouri where I grew up,” Barnes said. “And it’s not the most accepting area. But I was accepted a lot more there than I’ve been at some of these [Black Lives Matter] events.”
The story of the protest
Barnes joined a protest to support police on July 13 in downtown Frederick — the same day and place that other protesters chose to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
Barnes brought a sign that read “this gay man supports the blue.” Barnes was met with comments from Black Lives Matter protesters that he, as a gay man, was not accepted or supported by Trump or the pro-police movement.
A video Barnes recorded at that protest showed several instances of protesters on both sides shouting at each other and arguing. Barnes said someone told him a homophobic slur was directed at him during the standoff, but Barnes never heard it.
A couple weeks later at a We Back the Blue protest, Barnes again was confronted with the Black Lives Matter protesters — only this time he claims he clearly heard a founding member of the Frederick March for Justice, Gabrael Moore, call him a homophobic slur.
That’s when he erupted in anger.
“That’s what makes this difficult. If we there interrupting a rally they were having, you know, come at us,” Barnes said. “We were there having an event, and they chose to come disrupt our event.”
Black Lives Matter protesters walked over to the We Back Blue event and began making noise to drown out the speakers. And when the We Back Blue group began to say the Pledge of Allegiance, protesters on the other side took a knee. Barnes asked a protester “what makes America such a bad place that you need to take a knee,” he recalled. The protester responded that it’s not about America as a country, but rather the injustices toward Black people in the country.
But Moore argued that America is the worst country on Earth, Barnes said.
“I can understand if you disagree it’s not the best, but [he] said it’s the worst country in the world,” Barnes recalled. “I’ve been to countries where I’ve been given warnings, even though I’m with my partner, not to partake in any homosexual behavior, and not to engage in any public displays of affection because I could be imprisoned or killed for being a homosexual.”
Barnes claims Moore’s response to his answer was “don’t be an [anti-gay slur].”
That sent Barnes into a shock, he said, and he began yelling at Moore.
“I grew up in a very conservative area of the country. and I can count on one hand how many times I’ve been called that name,” Barnes said.
Two founding members of one of the host organizations Frederick United said they heard the slur used toward Barnes. The group issued a public apology in Facebook, saying the group stands for equality for all.
However, the Frederick March for Justice group released a video on Facebook saying Moore never used the slur, but rather concurred with another person who used it, by saying “well, aren’t you?” when Barnes claimed he was called the slur.
The group went on in the statement to say it denounces hateful rhetoric toward the LGBTQ community, but that it would not be commenting further on the events of the protest.
Barnes recorded a video from later in the event where he told Moore he had no respect for him because of the slur he used, and Moore responded by saying “I don’t give a [expletive].”
A photograph with consequences
The photograph taken by a Frederick News-Post photographer never appeared in print edition until today. It ran on the website with the story and was published online late in the evening on Aug. 1.
The next morning, Barnes said he awoke to several messages on Facebook, including one from a fellow member of the gay community. The message said he was “despicable” for yelling at Black Lives Matter protesters at their event, Barnes said.
“But it wasn’t their event,” he said. “When I woke up, I had several messages from people asking what I was doing and why I was yelling. I was yelling because of what I was called.”
Barnes said the photo caused him “a lot of heartache” and he had to explain his actions to his place of work.
Although the News-Post tried to contact Barnes three times with phone calls that went unreturned, it later removed the photo from the web story, because it lacked context for why Barnes appeared to be yelling at the Black Lives Matter group.
“We’re living in incredibly tense times when it comes to the racial justice movement, and our responsibility to present events accurately has become more important than ever,” said News-Post Publisher Geordie Wilson. “After review, we decided the photo could be perceived as Barnes taking out anger on the Black Lives Matter movement rather, than one member of the group, who Barnes says called him a slur.”
Barnes insists he just wants to move on from the photo. But as a gay man who supports President Trump and law enforcement, he says his political ideology has made him a prime subject of attacks from the side he claims is supposed to be advocating for equality.
Being gay and supporting Trump
Barnes has always been conservative. But until the last couple of years, he kept his political beliefs to himself. He knew many members of the gay community sat on the different side of the aisle from him.
“But I decided I wouldn’t keep my beliefs to myself just because of my sexuality,” he said. “My sexuality should not have to determine who I am or what my political beliefs are.”
So he began to speak out about his support for the Republican party, and Trump, in particular. He was met with pushback.
“Coming out as a gay Republican has been harder than coming out as a gay man in the Midwest bible belt,” he said.
After coming out as a Republican, he received several messages from members of the community criticizing his political beliefs. He previously was involved in drag events in the gay community, and he says he spent $10,000 of his own money to support the events, but he was removed from the groups because of his political beliefs, he said.
It’s a small example of what he considers to be a larger problem: a lack of acceptance from the LGBTQ community if someone shares different political beliefs.
“I know [so many] people who say they’re conservative but are worried they’ll be ostracized by the community for being a Republican,” Barnes said. “I’m labeled a racist, self-hating gay simply because I’m Republican and I support Donald Trump.”
Barnes said he doesn’t think Trump is the best president, but he does feel he gets a bad reputation on LGBTQ rights.
He points to Trump being the first president to support gay marriage upon taking office, and his hiring of prominent gay officials such as Richard Grenell, who became the first openly gay man to serve in a U.S. cabinet-level position.
“People say Donald Trump doesn’t support the gays. Well, I would have to disagree,” Barnes said.
And while Barnes acknowledges his support of Trump is often what triggers negative responses, that’s not what he is protesting for. Instead, he’s protesting to support police officers, who he believes are being attacked by the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Do I agree with what happened to George Floyd? Heck no,” he said. “That man was murdered. But that was a bad cop. That doesn’t mean all officers are bad.”
But Barnes also isn’t entirely against police reform. He said he would like to see better training for police officers to help them de-escalate situations. But he’s not on board with a recent nationwide movement to defund them entirely, he said.
He also said he agrees with some of what the Black Lives Matter movement is fighting for.
“I’m not ignorant, I know we have some injustices,” he said. “I don’t believe America as a whole is a racist country. There are racist people in this country, and we do need some change.”
But he also won’t agree with protesters destroying property or taking over cities like what happened in Portland and Seattle, he said.
Despite his moment of anger last week, Barnes said there was some productive conversations that came out of it.
He says he’ll continue to support “We Back Blue” events, but he also he’ll try not to react the same way if he’s called a slur at future protests.
Most importantly, he said, there are positive conversations still to be had with Frederick United.
“I look forward to working with Frederick United,” he said. “I’d love to work with them. I’m not saying our movement is 100 percent correct, I’m not saying theirs is 100 percent correct. I want to find common ground and work with them.”