This little tourist town in the Santa Ynez Valley is best known for its Danish windmills, aebleskivers and Viking-themed tchotchkes.
In the self-described Danish Capital of America, friendliness is part of the brand, with Solvang so outwardly idyllic it was the setting for the saccharine Lifetime TV movie “A Very Charming Christmas Town.”
As one city councilman declared: “This is the friendliest goddamn town I’ve ever been in.”
But lately — if you’re queer — something smells rotten in this wannabe outpost of Denmark.
For the last several months, the townsfolk of rural Solvang, population 6,000, have been waging an ugly battle over just how visible its LGBTQ+ community should be.
The City Council shot down a proposal to hang pride-themed banners downtown — and both critics and supporters now say they’ve received death threats.
The husbands who proposed the banners were harassed online, called groomers and pedophiles. People posted the names and photos of their four young children.
This spring, prosecutors filed charges against two young men for stealing a pride flag from a church a few miles outside town and burning it. Then high schoolers walked out of class in protest after school administrators ordered rainbow-colored crosswalks to be painted over.
And the councilman who acclaimed Solvang’s friendliness — Robert Clarke — made some of the most heated and unfriendly comments of all.
In now-public text messages, he called his critics “Chardonnay Antifa” and wrote that “for every butt hurt person” who spoke out at a City Council meeting, he would donate $10 to Gays Against Groomers, a far-right group that protests drag queen story events.
It got so ugly in this land of Scandinavian pancakes and sausages that the mayor of Copenhagen stepped in, admonishing the U.S. town for bragging about its Danish heritage while snubbing its LGBTQ+ community.
The uproar in Solvang comes at a time when LGBTQ+ rights are center stage in the U.S. culture wars.
Walt Disney Co. is suing Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, alleging a “targeted campaign of government retaliation” for lashing out at the company after it spoke out against the state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law. Bud Light sales tumbled amid right-wing furor over its marketing campaign involving a transgender influencer. Conservative politicians nationwide are trying to ban drag shows where kids might be present.
In Solvang, much of the fury revolves around streetlight banners.
Earlier this year, husbands Kiel and Matthew Cavalli came before the City Council with a proposal to display LGBTQ+ pride-themed banners downtown and paint some crosswalks rainbow colors for the month of June.
They figured it would be no big deal. The City Council last year officially declared June to be Pride Month in Solvang, and the town, just a few years ago, had a gay mayor.
But in February, the City Council rejected the Cavallis’ banners by a 3-2 vote.
“I’m going to get called a bigot tomorrow. I’ve been called a bigot before. I don’t care,” said Clarke, who voted no.
In an email to The Times, Clarke, who has described himself as “a redneck Republican,” said he voted last year to approve the town’s first pride parade — but a whole month of banners and painted crosswalks went too far.
“It is not Solvang’s brand. … I would not want MAGA or NRA banners in Solvang either,” he wrote.
This strait-laced hamlet of thatched roofs, wine tasting rooms and chocolatiers is obsessed with its image as a charming Danish village.
But the feuding has prompted LGBTQ+ people in and around Solvang to speak out about how difficult, lonely and, sometimes, dangerous it feels to be queer in rural America.
At the February City Council meeting, Kiel Cavalli said that, growing up gay in Solvang, he never saw “anything that resembles who I am,” which “leaves a pretty sad void in one’s heart.”
The comments infuriated Clarke.
“When people want to disparage anything about this damn town, I take offense to it,” he said.
It was just last June when the newly formed Santa Ynez Valley Pride put on the town’s inaugural pride parade, with unanimous support from the City Council.
Organizers prepared for pushback. But the rainbow-colored floats rolled down Copenhagen Drive without a hitch.
Then, in July, two teenagers stole a rainbow flag from St. Mark’s-in-the-Valley Episcopal Church in Los Olivos, a 10-minute drive north. They posted a video of the flag burning on social media.
“Oh, wait. This fire’s a little gay,” one of them said.
“Clearly their future, bro,” the other added with a laugh.
“Ash to ash,” the first said.
The Santa Barbara County district attorney has charged Avi Stone Williams, now 19, and Joshua Jerome Eligino, 20, with misdemeanor counts of petty theft and violations of civil rights.
Williams and Eligino, who pleaded not guilty, could not be reached for comment.
Hundreds gathered outside the church to re-raise the pride flag.
Leaders of Santa Ynez Valley Pride are planning their second parade, and “those in opposition are now feeling the need to push back at our visibility, our success and our presence,” said the organization’s president, Lauren Lastra, who moved to the area from Santa Barbara with her wife and children in 2020.
“We really want to ensure and communicate that we’re doing positive things in the community,” said Alyce Barrick, the organization’s vice president, who moved here in 2020 from Glendale. “If that could be highlighted in bold and written in clouds across the sky … we’re here to celebrate the community.”
Members of Santa Ynez Valley Pride were in communication with organizers for Copenhagen Pride — who eventually reached out to the mayor when things took a dark turn in Solvang.
Denmark is “one of the most progressive countries in the world,” Lord Mayor Sophie Hæstorp Andersen wrote in an open letter to Solvang’s mayor.
Solvang’s “opposition to Pride does not reflect the genuine warmth and acceptance of Pride that can be seen across Denmark and especially in Copenhagen,” she said.
In a statement to The Times, Andersen added: “I was informed that the local opposition to put up Pride flags around town was justified with regard to Danish values and traditions. That’s why I think it was incredibly important to kindly make aware that these are not values we can answer for in Copenhagen.”
For Kiel and Matthew Cavalli, the vitriol has been terrifying.
“There’s a culture here that you need to fit in,” said Kiel, 41, who grew up in the Santa Ynez Valley and didn’t come out as gay to his family until he was 25. “It’s that white cisgender culture that everyone kind of expects you to just fall in line with. Being out wasn’t something that I could do.”
He and Matthew, 43, have been together for 15 years. Their four children are ages 4 to 11.
They opened ONEderChild, a Solvang toy store, in 2017. They hung a rainbow flag out front. It’s been stolen several times. People have spat on the windows.
Last year, the Cavallis started the Rainbow House, a nonprofit that will provide counseling, workshops and other resources for LGBTQ+ people and their allies.
In December, the Rainbow House planned to host a teatime event for families, with drag queens reading storybooks to children. It was to be a week before Christmas. They didn’t sell enough tickets, so they canceled.
But they stepped right into the culture wars.
When the husbands went before the City Council in February, Clarke grilled Kiel Cavalli from the dais about the drag event.
The event, he claimed — incorrectly, according to the Cavallis — wasn’t canceled because of scheduling issues, but because of “a lot of heat from the GOP.”
Two weeks ago, a man with an unlisted phone number called the Cavallis and told them, “Watch your back, or you’re going to get hurt,” they said.
The couple revised their proposal and pitched it again. The banners — which would read “Solvang Pride / All Welcome” with a rainbow-colored windmill — would hang for two weeks instead of a month. They nixed the rainbow crosswalks.
He wrote that he was “getting hammered by the woke left” and that “50% of these assholes would not stand for the pledge to the flag.”
In a March 10 email, Clarke wrote: “When I voted to approve the Pride parade last year, I received many angry comments from the far right. Now I deny a month long banner and sidewalk painting and the far left is going nuts.
“The difference was the far right were civil. The left want me ‘gone’ and want to damage my home.”
On April 24, the banners were back before the City Council. A sheriff’s deputy monitored an overflow crowd. Supporters held signs with rainbow-colored letters: “We See You / We Hear You / We Support You.”
Detractors’ signs read: “Go Woke Go Broke” and “Keep Politics Out of Solvang.”
Jessie Bengoa, a brand marketing executive and fifth-generation Solvang resident whose grandfather was mayor, told the council that “anyone who dares voice an opposition to pride banners or the denied rainbow crosswalks is vocally harassed as a bigot and a homophobe.”
She said that after speaking against the banners earlier this year, she was flooded with profanity-laced text messages.
“Vote this proposal down,” she urged, and “protect the brand of our town.”
One man used his two minutes of public speaking time to read Bible verses and said, “Pride is a celebration of sin.” In the crowd, someone muttered: “Jeee-sus” in annoyance.
Maria Belle, 37, who is gay, choked up as she addressed the council.
“My family is not a political matter … and having those banners up shows, for us, that this valley is an accepting place, when there’s so many loud voices, especially sitting on this council, that are not.”
Belle, who owns a Solvang art studio with her wife, said that when she moved here 17 years ago, she was hospitalized with suicidal ideations because she could not accept that she was gay — something she hid in town for a decade.
Aria-Vue Daugherty, 17, a junior at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School who is queer, said that although people claim to be protecting young people, they should talk to them more often.
At her school, “a vast majority of them are absolutely unbothered by rainbows and would really appreciate representation for everyone and inclusivity for everyone,” she told the council.
Aria-Vue was part of a student leadership team at the high school that — with the principal’s approval — arranged to have four crosswalks on campus painted rainbow colors for a week as part of an anti-hate campaign this spring.
But school administrators had the crosswalks repainted white several days early after hearing complaints, sparking a student walkout.
After nearly two hours of public comment, the banners, again, came to a vote.
Councilman David Brown said he didn’t want another “Budweiser fiasco” and voted no, along with Clarke.
Mayor Mark Infanti, who previously opposed the proposal, flipped his vote. The banners passed, 3-2. The crowd gasped — then many people broke out in cheers.
Infanti told The Times he voted no the first time mostly because local equestrians told him the rainbow-colored crosswalks could spook horses pulling carriages because they do not see colors like humans do.
If they passed the banners, he figured, “we’ll get past this and can go back to running a city.”
And back to its brand.