The small community of Frenchtown, on the Delaware River in Hunterdon County, woke up Monday to signs of hate. Several of the many LGBTQ+ Pride flags in town had been stolen, torn or otherwise vandalized overnight.
“I woke up on Monday morning and … I was out of coffee, so I went to walk to the grocery store, and I noticed this scrap of cloth in my neighbor’s garden,” says Al Leigh Sotold, who lives in Frenchtown. “I picked it up and it looked like it was from a Pride flag. That was really weird. And then I noticed that [my neighbor’s] Pride flag was missing and then I said, ‘Oh shoot, let’s walk back to our house and see what’s up with our house,’ and it looked like [our flag] had been sheared.”
Sotold walked back to the grocery store, and noticed police gathered at a house across the street. Grace Fiorito lives there with her husband and kids, and also had two Pride flags stolen overnight and awoke to an ominous, hateful message on her doorstep.
“In [one] flag holder, we had a trans flag. That flag holder, it’s really difficult to get the flag out of so what ended up happening was they cut it,” Fiorito says. “We had a statue of the Virgin Mary in my goddess garden, and the Virgin Mary was taken out of the garden and placed facing the front door of our house.
“It’s so hateful.”
At least five homes in a two-block section of Frenchtown had flags stolen or vandalized, 11 in all, according to the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office. Concerned residents handed out replacement flags for those that were stolen. Sotold left her tattered Pride flag up, but inserted a sign on her lawn on Monday, reading, “This is a hate crime.” On Monday night, she says, the sign was stolen.
Fiorito says other replacement flags were stolen from other homes on Monday night , so her husband secured their extra Pride flags to the banister with rope.
On Tuesday, Sotold found her sign, a Pride flag, and a Black Lives Matter sign in the Delaware River.
The Frenchtown Police declined to give NJ Indy specifics about the incidents, citing an ongoing investigation, in which the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office is involved. Police placed an electronic sign on the north end of town asking anyone with information on these “bias crimes” to call the police station. There is currently a $2,500 reward for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators.
Both Fiorito and Sotold say the Frenchtown Police have been responsive and empathetic in the aftermath of the crimes, expressing that the officers themselves were visibly upset by the actions. It is, indeed, surprising that such bigotry would occur in a town like Frenchtown, a small town that hosts an annual Pride parade, organizes queer kickball events, and which has Pride flags in various forms all over town.
But that’s the sinister thing about bigotry—it happens everywhere.
“It honestly doesn’t surprise me at all. I have been sitting on my porch under the Pride flag and people honk at me aggressively or give me nasty stares,” Sotold says. “This town is kind of fucked up in that people think it’s a perfect, quaint town and there’s a lot of hate and bigotry here.”
Sotold’s lived in Frenchtown for five years, and has had a Pride flag up for the whole time. Fiorito has lived in town for 15 years, and has had Pride flags “up at our house forever,” but nothing like this has happened before, she says. Though she wonders if the offenders could have come from out of town, she too believes there is an element in Frenchtown that belies its welcoming, progressive image.
“There are people around this area that are hateful and bigoted, and it sucks,” Fiorito says. “And one of the things that people have said—and I don’t mean this negatively, I grew up in New Brunswick, Highland Park, so I understand racism and homophobia and all that stuff—but people think, ‘I can’t believe that this happened here.’ Some people think we’re in this lovely bubble, but we’re not. It happens everywhere, and here we are with hate and racism and homophobia right in our backyard and our front yards.”
The Frenchtown Council released a statement this week, writing in part: “The entire governing body condemns these acts of bias-based vandalism in the strongest possible terms. We must not be silent in the face of attempts to instill fear and intimidation in our community.
“Frenchtown is a welcoming community and embraces our friends and neighbors within the LGBTQ+ community. We are stronger because of our diversity and for the creativity and individuality that each and every person brings to our town.”
Frenchtown is not alone in New Jersey—nor pretty much everywhere else—from this type of crime. Just this year, a man was caught on a Ring camera stealing Pride flags from two homes in Bloomfield; a Pride flag was damaged then stolen from a church in Oceanside; and someone burned a Pride flag outside a church in Sparta.
It’s hard to say, at the moment, whether the vandalism was personal; that is, it’s clear the criminal was specifically targeting LGBTQ+ people and allies, but it’s unknown if they knew the people inside the houses from which the flags hung. Unfortunately, those are the people, until the criminal is caught, who have to deal most acutely with the ramifications of hateful speech and actions.
“So many houses in town have been affected,” Fiorito says. “My youngest child is trans, so is now feeling kind of attacked but not really processing it the same way I’m processing it. It’s our house. It’s violating.”
We’ll update this story as events warrant.