The rainbow flag: Flown, banned and raised again

When Adm. Rachel Levine, assistant secretary of health, declared 2023 the summer of Pride, she rang a clarion bell but also delivered a challenge in our hate-filled era because, as per the ACLU, LGBTQ communities have recently seen close to 500 anti-LGBTQ pieces of legislation proposed across the nation .

Yet LGBTQ communities persist in celebration, resistance and resilience. Over 30 cities from Silicon Valley, Calif., to Atlanta are scheduled to commemorate Pride from July to November. Tragically, many communities face homophobic legislation that now bans flying the rainbow flag.

I was dismayed to learn this trend of hatred had reached my home state of Michigan — because it’s a reflection of a broader effort to disappear our flag and disenfranchise our communities.

I am a proud native son of Michigan, a graduate of the Lansing public school system, an alumnus of Michigan State University. My state taught me to respect neighbors from all walks of life. It’s a lesson I keep close to my heart I was profoundly disappointed to learn of the recent ban on flying the rainbow flag in Hamtramck. Since the shocking June 13 vote banning flying the flag, compassionate citizens have protested this legislation. They held a large rally on June 24. Many businesses and citizens proudly flew the rainbow flag in defiance. And, in an act of civil disobedience, a brave soul raised the flag on July 9.

The injustice in Hamtramck reflects a larger trend of rising bigotry.

Make no mistake; these bans and attacks on the rainbow flag are not in Michigan alone. Across the country we are seeing a wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation: They include bans on LGBTQ-inclusive school curricula, on books and on lifesaving trans healthcare needs. Suppressing speech and removing our cherished symbols is part of a larger mission: Relegating the LGBTQ community to permanent second-class citizenship.

As bigotry and violence increase, we must unite and push back against the bullies.

I’ve committed my life to social justice. That is why I founded the Gilbert Baker Foundation. Our group honors the legacy of artist and activist Gilbert Baker, who created the rainbow flag in 1978. Through art and education projects, we confront the haters.

The rainbow flag offers LGBTQ+ people a message of hope and sanctuary. Small wonder right-wing extremists want to destroy it. In the past two years, they’ve had the rainbow flag banned from flying in more than 40 American towns.

In response to this alarming trend, the Gilbert Baker Foundation launched a counter-offensive: Save The Rainbow Flag. Working with the ACLU, we‘ve created a toolkit to help you confront and stop bigotry in your hometown.

Hamtramck, like so many other towns, uses faulty thinking in banning the rainbow flag. Their residents and all-Muslim town council said that the Pride flag — and homosexuality — clash with their religious beliefs. Hamtramck’s new policy also bans flags with racist and political views. To identify the rainbow flag this way is a smokescreen for bigotry. The rainbow flag is not a political flag. It is a flag for sexual and gender minorities from all parties, from all races.

To deny public display of the rainbow flag is to place a target on our back. Studies show that when communities remove our flag from public property, there is a concurrent rise in anti-LGBTQ hate crimes. This past January, federal legislation to ban the rainbow flag was submitted to the U.S. Congress — with 30 Republican sponsors.

Public officials are elected to decide between right and wrong. Instead of shirking from these civic duties, leaders of towns like Hamtramck should stand up and state publicly that there is a difference between a bad symbol like the Confederate flag, which celebrates racism, and the rainbow flag, which offers a message of hope and acceptance.

This is my plea to elected officials everywhere: Embrace our founding values of inclusion and justice. By removing the rainbow flag, you send a message of support to our persecutors. Upholding bigotry will be your legacy.

Fighting back against bullies is an American value. And it works. Citizens have already reversed rainbow flag bans in cities in Oregon and New York. Every state needs an energetic community response to end this wave of hate. Let’s prove that America supports all of its people.

Charles Beal is the president of the Gilbert Baker Foundation.