Flags are a constant source of pride in our United States, but also of discord. They’re fraught with meaning: depending on who you are, American flags are instant signifiers of belonging or exclusion, sacrifice or privilege, the magnificence of the law or rugged individualism, allegiance or “freedom.”
Poulsbo, like other smaller cities in the US, finds itself in the middle of a rainbow flag controversy. City Council member Britt Livdahl had the beautiful thought to celebrate Pride Month (June) 2023 by flying rainbow flags on Front Street for the month. The City Council agreed with her and approved the display of rainbow flags along Front Street, and that was that. Or so everyone thought. Then some citizens objected. Here are their arguments:
1. “There is only one flag that should be flown downtown—the U.S. flag,” one resident said: “We are all Americans.” This is an understandable position, which ostensibly promotes a sense of unity. But that idea of a “we”—a notion that sanctions obliterating difference--has led to some bad things in history. Notable among them: the Holocaust (1940-45), slavery (17th-19th century America), and Russian aggression (right now). And these have all been in the name of national pride, that tricky “we.”
2. Displaying Pride flags sets a dangerous precedent. Couldn’t all manner of different flags then fly on public property in Poulsbo? No! The Council votes on such things. They will not approve the display flags of entities that advocate hate or division or violence. The City Council knows the difference and exercises authority with wisdom and humanity.
3. Two members of the Lions Club reminded the City that it was the Lions Club that had the holes for American flags created on Front Street many years ago. “THEY’RE OUR HOLES!,” they cried.
First of all, if you make a gift to the City, they’re the City’s holes. Second, Lions Club president Patrick Osler has stated firmly that individual members should not claim to represent the Lions Club, which is strictly nonpolitical in its policies and statements.
4. Poulsbo has a unique Nordic heritage which is diluted or ruined by the display of pride flags. Go check out the Nordic countries. Stockholm hosts a huge Pride festival in early August, Copenhagen a bit later; and not to be outdone, Norway goes all out too. This year’s Oslo Pride festival runs ten days (June 23-July 1) and includes concerts, art exhibits, debates & panels, movie showings, and a gigantic Pride march enjoyed by all.
Solvang, CA is proud of its Danish heritage, much like Poulsbo with its Norwegian identity. When it voted to ban Pride flags, the mayor of Copenhagen, Sophie Hæstorp Andersen, scolded the California town. “The Lord Mayor stated she was surprised and shocked…. ‘This opposition to Pride does not reflect the genuine warmth and acceptance of Pride that can be seen across Denmark and especially in Copenhagen.’"
5. Pride flags will have a negative effect on the tourist economy. Quite the opposite. In the aforementioned Scandinavian countries, Pride festivals are huge moneymakers, filling hotels and restaurants, their attractions bringing life, variety, and fun to straight and queer visitors alike. Seattle’s annual Pride march attracts many thousands to the business area where it happens. Poulsbo’s flags will bring festive color and a warm welcome to all.
You think flying some rainbow flags downtown for a few days is a big bold move? Many cities now have beautiful permanent rainbow crosswalks. Just a sampling: Seattle has eleven; you can also find them in Taipei, Los Angeles, Tel Aviv, Sydney, St. Louis, Vancouver BC, Minneapolis, Albuquerque, San Diego, Toronto, Philadelphia, Paris, Atlanta, Canberra, Milwaukee, Vienna, Chicago, and Dublin.
Why should displaying the rainbow flag matter? The civic gesture of celebrating LGBTQ residents and visitors indicates that Poulsbo is a welcoming city, giving visibility and a sense of belonging to gay and transgender people, their families, and their friends. LGBTQ people live in danger and exclusion all the time—just read the headlines about anti-LGBTQ violence and legislation sweeping across the US.
According to the City attorney and legal precedent, displaying flags on Front Street with the Council’s approval constitutes government speech, protected by law. The good citizens of Poulsbo who have stepped up to the mic at City Council meetings to argue against Pride flags are not just arguing for the 20th century status quo; whether they intend it or not, their statements are signaling to LGBTQ people that they’re not welcome.
A personal note: a project currently has me reading more about Nazi Germany than I ever wanted to know. I can tell you that there is an eerie and strong resonance between the way Germans in the mainstream were speaking about their society in the 1930s, and the way my well-meaning neighbors speak now. An unthinking nationalism, a wish for certainty and for returning to an ideal past, and an irrational fear of the unknown (gays and/or Latin(X) or Blacks or Jews or indigenous people are “taking over”) increasingly threaten American democracy. In Germany, these tendencies grew bolder and bolder in the 1930s, eventually justifying violence, and finally the systematic killing of millions of people in the name of racial and national purity and superiority—in the name of that “we.”
Arguments against flying the Pride flag are a first step. Failing to respond as kids of color in North Kitsap schools are experiencing bullying and threats is another. Sitting idly by as “innocent” rhetoric becomes coopted by hate groups (there are many in Kitsap) into something more poisonous puts us well on the way to repeating the worst that History has to offer.
Finally: one of the most popular T-shirts from Oslo Pride simply says with a shrug, “Some people are gay.” Enjoy!