MADISON – Democratic Gov. Tony Evers on Monday condemned a hate group’s use of Nazi salutes and swastikas to protest a peaceful LGBTQ+ Pride event in Watertown over the weekend.

Photos from Saturday’s “Pride in the Park” event depict a dozen men dressed in black tops and khaki pants brandishing semi-automatic rifles. The group waved flags with swastikas on them and hurled homophobic language at people gathered for the LGBTQ+ event, the Watertown Daily News reported.

“This is a disgusting and direct attack on our state’s LGBTQ community, communities of color, and Jewish Wisconsinites,” Evers said in a statement Monday. “Nazis, swastikas, and any other anti-LGBTQ, white supremacist, or anti-Semitic messages, symbols or groups are unacceptable and unwelcome in Wisconsin. Period.”

Rep. Barbara Dittrich, R-Oconomowoc, was criticized over the weekend after she appeared to not condemn the hate group in since-deleted Facebook and Twitter posts, which she updated to say she later learned of the neo-Nazis’ presence.

“How shamefully far things have descended in our communities between sexualizing kids & disturbing hate groups,” she said.

Rick Esenberg, the president and chief counsel of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, defended Dittrich on Twitter, saying that criticizing the event does not equate to supporting the neo-Nazi group.

Dittrich put out a statement Monday afternoon saying she was unaware of the hate group’s presence and hopes “the community can heal from this entire incident that was upsetting to many people of a variety of beliefs.”

“At the time of my original statement, I was unaware that there were masked members of a known hate group that were also protesting and intimidating people with vile language. I find that loathsome, disgusting, and condemned it the minute I learned of it. One can both find adult performances unsuitable for children at the same time they find hate groups to be vile,” she said.

In his statement, Evers said the group’s behavior should be condemned by elected officials, including “those who continue to push radical rhetoric, divisive legislation and litigation, and falsehoods and disinformation about the LGBTQ community — those words, those actions, and those policies have real and harmful consequences.”

Dittrich joined Sen. Dan Knodl, R-Germantown, earlier this month to introduce a pair of bills that would bar transgender girls and women from participating in women’s sports at every grade level and in college. She proposed similar measures in 2021 that passed the Assembly but not the Senate. 

High school and collegiate sports officials at the time said the bill would directly affect very few — if any — athletes.

LGBTQ+ advocates worry requirements for students to participate in sports based on their sex assigned at birth could result in real harm to transgender children and young adults by sending a message that they have different rights.

LGBTQ+ youth in Wisconsin disproportionately suffer from mental health challenges. According to the Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health’s 2022 annual report, LGBTQ+ youth “seriously considered” suicide at a rate 2.5 times higher than the entire youth population.