The hate that inspired love in Frenchtown

Pride+flags+seen+along+Bridge+Street+in+Frenchtown+after+the+anti-LGBTQ%2B+attacks.

Richard Epstein

Pride flags seen along Bridge Street in Frenchtown after the anti-LGBTQ+ attacks.

Frenchtown is still healing from the hate crimes that targeted the LGBTQ+ community and shook the small river town throughout the month of August.

In the early morning hours of Aug. 27, pride flags were found, torn and shredded, in the shallow sections of the Delaware River. This was not the first overt act of hatred in the Frenchtown community. On Aug. 7, the vandalism of similar Pride flags and other LGBTQ+ positive signage took place in the front yards and on the porches of almost a dozen homes throughout the borough.  

According to a 2020 FBI report, which compiled statistics from law enforcement agencies across the U.S., approximately 20 percent of reported hate crimes targeted sexual orientation, while 2.7 percent resulted from a bias toward gender identity.

While crimes of bias against LGBTQ+ individuals might not send shockwaves through every community across the nation, Frenchtown Borough, which encompasses just over one square mile and a population of just over 1,300, has always been known for its messages of love and acceptance.

When these incidents were first reported to the Frenchtown Police Department, Patrolman Kevin Coletta was shocked.

“It was very disturbing, especially since we have a beautiful community here,” said Coletta.

Recent Del Val graduate, Lucy Nugent, was equally surprised that crimes like these could happen in her hometown.

“I think everyone was sort of horrified about what was happening, including me,” said Nugent. “I have always known Frenchtown to be such a safe space and loving community for any person living there. It was shocking and disappointing that a hate crime such as this could happen in this town.”

In the wake of the attacks, many community members banded together to ensure that those within the LGBTQ+ community would feel supported and safe, with many offering messages of love and reassurance on social media. The community worked together to restore the flags which had been damaged and stolen from the targeted homes.

Pride flags seen in front of The Junto Emporium in Frenchtown. (Peter Mantell)

Peter Mantell, pastor of Frenchtown United Methodist Church, was one of the many who stepped up to counter the message of hate by delivering his own message of love to the community.

“My initial reaction was to log on to my Amazon account and purchase five Pride flags to replace the ones that were damaged,” said Mantell. “Within 24 hours, I had delivered several flags to community members who had experienced vandalism.”

Frenchtown residents also wanted to send a loving message to the LGBTQ+ community. Even after the damaged flags were replaced, more flags continued to pour into the town. Kathy Bernhardt, owner of The Junto Emporium, is one of the small shop owners who contributed to this cause.

“I ordered the small Pride flags to give away as another show of support,” said Bernhardt. “I am very proud to be a small business owner in Frenchtown. Most of the business owners here also live in town, so everyone is completely invested in the community. That is what makes Frenchtown feel so different from other small towns.”

Mark S. Gantner, director of the Frenchtown Police Department, was not at all surprised by the town’s response.

The diversity in the borough is really the hallmark of what this community represents”

— Mark S. Gantner

“The diversity in the borough is really the hallmark of what this community represents,” said Gantner.

Patrolman Coletta was quick to agree, calling Frenchtown’s response “incredible.”   

“It was just wonderful,” said Coletta. “You had the local church giving out flags to people, the businesses getting donations of flags and distributing them. The support from everyone was overwhelming.”

In addition to restoring the flags, Pastor Mantell looked for opportunities to open a dialogue with others on the importance of LGBTQ+ inclusion.

Flyer sent out to the Frenchtown community by Pastor Mantell. (Peter Mantell)

“So many who live here are committed to all forms of social justice and equity for marginalized people,” said Mantell. “I have no doubt that this community will continue to be a beacon of hope.”

While community members were working together to support the LGBTQ+ community, the Frenchtown Police Department was busy following up on the crimes, going door-to-door collecting evidence and establishing a tip line to aid in the investigation. 

According to Gantner, his department takes these incidents very seriously. 

“The crime itself is called bias intimidation, and it doesn’t have to be an act of overt violence to be very troubling,” said Gantner. “It’s not just a flag. Rainbow and Pride flags represent a movement. It took a lot for people to come out and be transparently themselves, and for that to be attacked is, of course, very troubling. It instills fear and has a psychological impact where people aren’t sleeping at night, and that’s why we were so motivated and worked so hard to bring this to a conclusion.” 

Residents of Frenchtown, like Mantell, understand the power a Pride flag holds.

Displaying a Pride flag is really a small gesture, but for someone who needs an advocate, it can be huge for them to see that not everyone is against them… there are friends, and it can get better”

— Peter Mantell

“Displaying a Pride flag is really a small gesture, but for someone who needs an advocate, it can be huge for them to see that not everyone is against them. There are friends, and it can get better,” said Mantell.

Members of the Frenchtown community, like Nugent, seem to recognize that they do not have to be personally targeted or a member of a specific group in order to care about issues like these.

“Hate has never been something I have witnessed or felt in the 18 years I lived here,” said Nugent. “However, I hope that the community response ultimately made Frenchtown members of the LGBTQ+ community feel loved and accepted, and know that they have the full support of their town.”

Although it has been nearly three months since the attacks and the suspect has since been apprehended, Pride flags can still be seen flying from the businesses on Bridge Street and up and down every single street in Frenchtown. This riverside town’s love and support of the LGBTQ+ community has not dwindled. In fact, it is stronger than ever.

“The message people should take away from this is that the Frenchtown community did not let hatred win,” said Gantner.

Though it is impossible to say events like this will never happen again, Frenchtown has sent an unmistakable message that hate will have no home there.

“The choice we all face is whether we will turn a blind eye to those situations in which others are living in fear because of the hatred they face, or whether we will display the courage to stand up for those people,” said Mantell. “We should do everything we can to ensure that our LGBTQ+ siblings are living without fear and are free to be who God made them to be.”