Throughout the month of June, pride flags have fluttered in front of many Utah homes and businesses, symbols of support for the LGBTQ community and celebration of its perseverance in an often-unfriendly world. Project Rainbow, a local nonprofit, delivers and plants these pride flags across the state, helping LGBTQ Utahns stand proud and providing their allies with an “opportunity … to show love and support for their LGBTQ-identifying neighbors, friends and family members.”
Yet there are those who wish to remind the queer community that they are not welcomed by all. Despite increasing LGBTQ acceptance nationwide, cities throughout Utah have been the locations of backlash against these flags. During Provo Pride week last year, a congregational church sign announcing special celebratory services was vandalized and pride flags disappeared across the city — some later turning up again with messages such as “being gay is a sin” and “screw the f***” scrawled onto the colorful fabric. During Pride Month this year, flags were stolen in Saratoga Springs, Herriman and South Jordan. Earlier this year, a pride flag was shredded outside a restaurant in Salt Lake City, a liberal bastion in this deep red state.
The intent behind these acts is often willfully ignored or rationalized — what if it is just kids being kids? Whatever harm these thefts have caused is immediately downplayed and the perpetrators are shielded by the benefit of the doubt. This behavior cannot be excused as the impulses of youth, even if it is teenagers who are responsible for these crimes, as is often the case. Puckish teens are old enough to know what they are doing and who they are doing it to. I remember my own high school years quite clearly, specifically the cruel way students would target those who were different from themselves, jeering at them, with many accusing — as if the act itself were damnation — these outcasts of being gay. Many write off tearing a pride flag from a neighbor’s porch as playful vandalism, but these people are defiling these flags because they view LGBTQ people with suspicion and misunderstanding, if not latent bigotry.
This week, two students from Kearns High were indefinitely suspended from the school football team for posting a video of burning a pride flag. Choppy footage bounces as one student’s voice is heard slowly chanting “all gays die” as another student cackles excitedly. There is no way to read this video as innocent fun. Matt Rickards, the team’s head coach, said that “There’s no place for that in our program at all, and it won’t be tolerated … It’s potentially a hate crime, so it sickens me.”
Regarding other stolen flags, South Jordan Police Lt. Matt Pennington said, “If you are targeting a specific group of people, that’s a problem… We would call that a hate crime in Utah.” In that case, we ought to openly call these acts what they are — hate crimes — because vandalizing pride flags does target a specific group of people. The flags are a symbol of the LGBTQ community and destroying them sends a message of disrespect and hate to those same people.
These teenagers are not equal opportunity offenders. These are not crimes motivated by a youthful disrespect for authority and property, but by learned hate for a specific group of people. They do not run around ripping down the American flags, Blue Lives Matter flags, or Marine Corps flags that fly from many Utah homes. A contentious game between the University of Utah and Brigham Young University may inspire fans to mess with a rival flag, but that flag never returns covered with slurs, threats or scorch marks. It is only the pride flags that receive that treatment.
Earlier this week, KUTV 2 News shared a story of a note left on the doorstep of a lesbian couple by a child in their Texas neighborhood. “Seeing a pride flag waving so proudly outside your house every day has given me the courage to come out to my family and to be more comfortable with who I am,” said the note. How many more children might feel similarly seen and accepted if Utah’s pride flags were allowed to fly unscathed each June?
Do not permit these acts of violence against the LGBTQ community and the subsequent suppression of their free speech to be pitched as a motiveless prank or as kids being kids. The removal and destruction of a flag that signifies safety to the vulnerable is a collective shame. Acknowledge these hate crimes for what they are and do whatever possible to fight against them. Placing a pride flag in your front yard is a good place to start.
This article was updated to clarify the author’s opinion on the differences between the treatment of pride flags and other flags.