ITHACA, N.Y.—An effort to grant historical recognition to Firebrand Books, a small lesbian and feminist publishing house, has, in part, become entwined with the will of the Ithaca chapter of the Twelve Tribes, a religious group that believes homosexuality is “immoral and can be mortally dangerous,” according to their own website.
Ithaca’s Common Council unanimously designated 143 E. State St., commonly known as the Home Dairy Building on the Commons, as a local landmark in October partially because the offices of Firebrand Books had formerly been housed on the building’s second story.
Firebrand, founded in the City of Ithaca in 1984, can claim having published the two most influential works of queer literature since World War II on a list published by The New York Times, and igniting the career of Alison Bechdel, a recipient of the MaCarthur “Genius” Fellowship and the originator of the eponymous “Bechdel Test,” a quick measure of women’s representation in film or other story-telling forms. Firebrand published Bechdel’s first book editions of her comics like, “Dykes to Watch Out For.”
At the time city council designated Firebrand Book’s former offices a local landmark, it appeared that a plaque would soon be placed on the Home Dairy Building to commemorate Firebrand, and an application would be submitted to have the building individually relisted on the National Register of Historic Places.
But these efforts required the approval of the current owners of the building, and when progress stalled over the course of eight months, Firebrand’s founder, Nancy Bereano, 80, said she wasn’t surprised.
“It didn’t surprise me. I knew about the Twelve Tribes,” Bereano told The Ithaca Voice.
Since 2003, the Home Dairy Building has been owned by an affiliate of the local chapter of the Twelve Tribes, a religious group founded in the early 1970s. The Twelve Tribes espouses a “culture of love” and peaceful communal living, but has been characterized by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a Christian fundamentalist cult — a label the group rejects.
The Twelve Tribes count the membership of dozens of communities across the globe on their website. The communities operate farms, cafes, and other businesses.
In January, the Twelve Tribes reopened the doors of the Home Dairy Building on the Commons as a Yellow Deli.
The Twelve Tribes are known by their customers for their friendliness, but as the group’s global presence has grown over more than five decades, it has been found in violation of child labor law, and reports have surfaced of its members being required to give up their financial and worldly possessions upon joining the group. The Twelve Tribes has faced accusations of racist beliefs and exploitative labor practices by ex-members of the group.
The group openly condemns homosexuality. On a frequently asked questions page on their site, the Twelve Tribes stated, “We do not approve of homosexual behavior. We do not regard it as a genetic variation, a valid alternative lifestyle, or a mere psychological quirk. We embrace what God says on this subject without regard for political correctness. Homosexual behavior is immoral and can be mortally dangerous.”
In a page from the Twelve Tribes’ website titled “Signs of the End,” which was taken down in 2021, but was archived by the Way Back Machine in March of that year, the tribes characterize same-sex attraction as a “perversion” and homosexuals are portrayed as “pedophiles” and “child molesters.”
The Twelve Tribes wrote in the archived page, “This is what all who are in favor of civil rights for homosexuals are standing up for — their unhindered freedom to continue to seduce the children of America. Their condemnation is just.”
Bereano said it is these views that she feels are the real reason behind the reluctance to embrace a plaque memorializing Firebrand Books.
The explanation that members of the Twelve Tribes have maintained is that they want the Yellow Deli to be the purpose associated with the building.
In a letter to the City of Ithaca’s Historic Preservation Planner Bryan McCracken, Marcel Campbell, a member of the Twelve Tribes, declined to allow the plaque memorializing Firebrand Books on the Home Dairy Building, and declined to participate in the effort to get the building individually relisted on the National Register of Historic Places.
In the letter, Campbell wrote that the group wants to “keep things the way they are.”
“We are wanting to preserve the building for what it is and keep it as it has been, not under the registry or with the plaque.”
Dr. Jeff Iovannone, a historian and historic preservation planner who specializes in LGBTQ heritage and has been leading the effort to honor Firebrand Books locally and nationally, said, “I think the subtext of that message is plain,” referring to Campbell’s letter which was shared with him on June 27.
Iovannone said he shares Bereano’s view that the Twelve Tribes’ prejudice against the LGBTQ community is motivating the choice to block the installation of a plaque and the historic register listing.
The Home Dairy Building is already on the National Register of Historic Places as a part of the Ithaca Downtown Historic District, but the period of significance of the district ends in 1954. Iovannone wrote the Historic Register nomination in order to have the building individually listed and include the history of Firebrand in the register.
Having the building relisted does not change anything “legally” for the property owner, Iovannone said. “Because the building is already on the national register. It’s simply allowing Firebrand to be recognized. Which is why it’s so frustrating that they won’t let that happen.”
Charles Stow, a member of the Twelve Tribes who also goes by the Hebrew name Hushai, spoke with The Ithaca Voice while working at the Yellow Deli. He maintained that, despite the tribes’ publicly stated beliefs, the LGBTQ literature that Firebrand Books published has nothing to do with why they declined to allow the publishing house’s recognition.
“I met with the people who wanted to put up the national registry,” Stow said. “It was taken into due consideration. It has nothing to do with […] gay rights.”
Stow said the Twelve Tribes opened the Yellow Deli as a place where people can come to find “refuge in this crazy world.”
He said the group “just wants it to be remembered for what it is now.”
Iovannone said he had been in on-and-off communication with city staff and members of the Twelve Tribes for over eight months, in an effort to obtain permission from the group to apply for the national register relisting and plaque placement.
The slow pace the tribes took to come to a decision, and the eventual refusal to allow the plaque led Bereano and Iovannone to plan an appearance before Ithaca’s Common Council on July 5 to address what they felt was a lack of support for their efforts to honor Firebrand Books.
At the meeting, a tense exchange developed between Mayor Laura Lewis and Bereano.
Bereano had a self-described “outburst” after Alderperson Rob Cantelmo, Bereano’s representative on council, said he would “keep her in the loop” as he worked with colleagues to find an alternative solution to installing the plaque.
She criticized the council’s rules of procedures for not allowing a dialogue during the public comment section of the meeting as the mayor repeatedly told Bereano “this is not the opportunity for a back and forth.”
“I couldn’t believe that I did something like that. I was so frustrated, so angry,” Bereano said after the fact.
Following the meeting, officials at City Hall sprung into action.
Chief of Staff Deb Mohlenhoff wrote in an email to The Ithaca Voice that city staff are working with Bereano and Iovannone to have a plaque placed on city property to commemorate Firebrand.
“City staff and elected officials whole-heartedly support the installation of a commemorative plaque on the Commons,” Mohlenhoff wrote “We are all committed to making this happen as soon as possible and will be working on alternative solutions in the coming weeks.”
“I’m very glad that we’re finding a way to acknowledge and commemorate [Firebrand’s] work,” Lewis said in response to a request for comment.
Cantelmo wrote in a statement he was “deeply troubled” by the Yellow Deli’s refusal to honor Firebrand Books.
“Moreover, the alleged values and practices of the group that owns the Yellow Deli,” Cantelmo wrote, are “concerning to me and do not align with our inclusive values here in Ithaca.”
He said, “I firmly believe that [Firebrand Books] is an institution worthy of recognition and respect in the community.”
Lucas Hunt, a member of the Twelve Tribes, told The Ithaca Voice he didn’t “understand” the argument that the tribes’ views on homosexuality led them to decline the placement of a plaque commemorating Firebrand Books.
Hunt compared the desire to place a historic plaque on the building to someone trying to put up a “poster for a music concert” on the outside of the Yellow Deli. “We just don’t want to put a poster up […] I don’t understand the difference,” Hunt said.
“If anybody else wanted to come in and put their plaque on the building, I’m sure we would just say the same thing,” Hunt said.
The tribes’ views on homosexuality, Hunt said, are “some of our beliefs, but we just try to follow the Bible. The Bible teaches about different things. We serve every person that comes in here the same, and we treat everyone the same.”
Both Hunt and Stow emphasized a philosophy of love for humanity as a guiding belief of the Twelve Tribes while speaking with The Ithaca Voice.
“What I’ve come to understand about what is in the heart of The Creator for human beings, I’d say, yeah, I have all kinds of things about that — thoughts and opinions — but I don’t see how that factors into whether or not I’m gonna take care of people, like them, and love them,” Stow said.
But for Bereano, these messages of love pale next to the beliefs the Twelve Tribes hold.
“It’s not that they believe different things than I do and they are entitled to their beliefs,” Bereano said. “It’s that what they believe is evil. It’s evil to be homophobic.”