Rainbow flags hung in classrooms can send a signal that it’s a 'safe space.' Now schools are banning them.
In-person school is back, and with it, various bans — on the obvious weapons and drugs, but also the more questionable ripped jeans, brightly dyed hair, certain backpacks and, in a few districts, mask mandates.
But now a surprising number of schools — along with some small-town governments — have been banning something meant to symbolize safety and freedom: the LGBTQ pride flag.
"The rainbow flag is like an old-school 'safe place' sign — LGBTQ youth are able to see it and say, 'OK, I can be me here, I can be accepted and loved and safe without fear,'" says Carla Sue Castro, a mental health counselor and mom of two kids in the Bluffton, Ind., school district — which banned rainbow flags (and anything else not directly related to official lessons) after a mom said that one displayed in an eighth-grade classroom may have prompted homophobic bullying towards her son.
But that signal of acceptance, Castro tells Yahoo Life, "is huge for our kiddos."
Still, reports of similar incidents have come at such a fast clip with the start of this school year that it's been hard to keep up: Other school districts proposing or instituting pride-flag bans (with some also suppressing Black Lives Matter flags) have included those in Newberg, Oregon (currently being fought); Westfield, Indiana (prompting protests); and Davis County, Utah — not to mention incidents in Winterset, Iowa; Neosho, Missouri; and the Newport-Mesa Unified School District in California that have resulted in teachers being placed on leave, resigning or being fired for displaying pride flags (or, in the California case, jokingly suggesting students pledge allegiance to one) in their classrooms.
Reasons given by administrations have often been vague, sometimes blaming the flags for "significant disruption" or being too "political," with some critics equating the rainbow flags to Confederate or Trump flags. However, noted a parent protesting the ban in Westfield, Ind., recently, "There’s a difference between flags that promote hate and flags that promote inclusion. The actual idea of removing a flag that promotes inclusive and that sense of value to me is just really sad."
Small towns and villages, meanwhile, that have restricted or proposed banning the flying of rainbow flags — either for Pride Month or all the time — have included Clayton, N.Y.; Suffield, Conn.; Arlington Heights, Ill.; Minot, N.D.; and Taunton and nearby Dighton, Mass., where openly gay Selectman Brett Zografos had originally proposed flying the flag in response to a homophobic rant of an email sent to town officials. "I think it's very important to the LGBTQ community…because violence against LGBTQ individuals is up, and our work didn’t end when SCOTUS legalized gay marriage in 2015," Zografos tells Yahoo Life.
Town officials' reasons for removal or banning rainbow flags have been similar to those of the schools — not wanting to show "favoritism" to any particular group chief among them.
But proponents of the pride flag say that critics are missing the point.
"Displaying an LGBTQ pride flag is an inclusive and harmless way to show LGBTQ people they are welcome and safe," GLAAD rapid response manager Mary Emily O'Hara tells Yahoo Life. "Pride flags and Progress flags are symbols to others in towns and schools about a community's values, to represent and support the most marginalized in the community."
Bans on the flags, and attempts to ban them, O'Hara adds, "are harmful messages that youth and adults alike recognize as hurtful discrimination, when the message should be that we include, protect and value the most vulnerable among us."
"The rainbow flag is different than any other flag," Charley Beale, board president of the Gilbert Baker Foundation — protecting the legacy of Baker, who created the flag — tells Yahoo Life. "As homosexuals, we start our lives invisible, we start in the closet and it's something you have to proclaim… The flag we consider to be a beacon with people struggling with the closet, and the first step into the light of freedom."
As that beacon, Beale adds, the flag is meant to be flown, not hidden. "It's a visibility tool. It only works as a 'visibility action,' as Gilbert would call it," he explains. "So, some are saying, 'we don’t fly this or that flag,' but these other people are not having trouble being visible as Americans."
Roots of the rainbow flag
Baker, an activist and vexillographer (flag designer), created the original rainbow flag in 1978. He believed that the dawning of the gay-rights era deserved a more positive symbol to replace the long-used pink triangle, which had a dark, stigma-based history rooted in Nazism. And the idea of a rainbow hit Baker when he was out dancing "in a swirl of color and light" with a friend one night.
"A Rainbow Flag was a conscious choice, natural and necessary," Baker, who died in 2017, wrote in his memoir. "The rainbow came from earliest recorded history as a symbol of hope. In the Book of Genesis, it appeared as proof of a covenant between God and all living creatures. It was also found in Chinese, Egyptian and Native American history. A Rainbow Flag would be our modern alternative to the pink triangle. Now the rioters who claimed their freedom at the Stonewall Bar in 1969 would have their own symbol of liberation."
Originally eight colors, with each having its own meaning — sex, life, healing, sunlight, nature, magic, serenity and spirit — it was switched to six when demand increased and the flag became mass-produced.
The new symbol was embraced around the world, with notable moments including Baker's record-setting mile-long rainbow flag, carried by 5,000 people along Fifth Avenue in New York City in 1994 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, largely seen as the birth of the gay-rights movement.
So what might Baker say today in response to the banning of the flags? "Gilbert would say the flag is political for sure, and that… with art, we can change the world," Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, who leads the New York City's LGBTQ synagogue Congregation Beit Simchat Torah and was a close friend of Baker's in the years leading up to his death, surmises for Yahoo Life. "He would say, 'Hang more of them!'"
The pride flag, she adds, "has this incredible power with its beauty — it's full of joy, it's an expression of all we want the world to be, and it says, 'you're welcome here.'"
Beale notes that the reach of that message has expanded significantly since 1978.
"In the last probably 10 years of his life, we noticed it became a flag of sanctuary… It actually became bigger than the LGBTQ+ community…and I think that's sometimes why teachers use it, as a signifier of safety — not promoting or trying to call out one group or another, but actually to say, 'This is a safe place for people who are sexual and gender minorities or any other minority, frankly,'" he says. "It's amazing how the rainbow flag's meaning has grown."
That's exactly what spurred longtime eighth-grade science teacher Bev Balash to hang the rainbow flag on the wall of her Bluffton, Ind., classroom a few years ago — leading a parent to complain, and sparking this year's controversy and subsequent rainbow-flag ban.
"I put the pride flag up in the fall before the pandemic because one of my students asked me to. It is as simple as that," Balash tells Yahoo Life. "I told her that I would be happy to put it up. I thought it was important because it meant a lot to her and I knew there were other students that it would send a signal to say that my room is a safe space and that I support them."
She says that "since the hullabaloo over the flag, I have had numerous current and former students…reach out to me through email and telephone to thank me for hanging it. The flag wasn't hanging up when many of them were in my class, but they told me they always knew I supported them regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. That is what I have tried to do for 27 years and will continue to try to do."
In fact, in the wake of the ban, she's gotten clever with her classroom's decor, hanging the rainbow-and-prism Dark Side of the Moon album art and rainbow-hued signs declaring "Everyone is welcome" and "Everyone belongs."
"I also have a small sign on my door that is a rainbow with a quote by Maya Angelou," Balash adds. "It says, 'Try to be the rainbow in someone else's cloud.'"
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