Positive Living: Ruby slippers, raising a flag and serious questions

By : Greg Stemm
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I recently had the wonderful experience of participating in the inaugural Gulfport Friends of Dorothy march, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. It began a month-long whirlwind of events sponsored by the award-winning LGBTQ Resource Center of the Gulfport Public Library, of which I am privileged to serve on the board of directors, to celebrate Pride season.

As I was marching up Beach Blvd. in a rainbow wig, ruby slippers and with several hundred members of my Gulfport “family,” I couldn’t help but reflect on the significance of what Stonewall started and what it has meant to the LGBTQ community in the past 50 years. I was most moved by the fact that the carriers of the lead banner were an openly gay vice mayor and an openly gay state representative. That would have been unthinkable in June of 1969.

In fact, life for gay people in 1969 was mostly about what we couldn’t do. We couldn’t openly teach school, practice law or a doctor. We couldn’t openly serve in the military, adopt children or work for the federal government—and marriage was something we never thought we’d see in our lifetimes. Remember, at the time homosexuality was still illegal virtually everywhere in the country. It wouldn’t be until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. We might have been Americans, but in many respects we certainly weren’t free.

The pace of change and acceptance for the LGBTQ community has been nothing less than remarkable. Can you imagine telling one of the drag queens rioting at Stonewall that there is a very real chance that when we swear in a new president in January 2021, he may turn and kiss his husband?

At the end of the march we raised the rainbow flag over the library, which houses the LGBTQ Resource Center. It’s prominently located at the entrance to our community’s historic waterfront district. You would think in a town like Gulfport, which prides itself on its inclusivity, that such a flag raising would be without controversy—but it has prompted a discussion about our community’s commitment to diversity at all levels.

Some Gulfport residents who expressed support for us raising the rainbow flag over the library have also expressed sentiments that Black History month, Hispanic Heritage month, Native American History month flags and more should also be presented. We are finding that any conversation about this inevitably leads to feeling like we are marginalizing other people.

Dear reader, I got in trouble with the editors of Watermark because I didn’t have that conversation very effectively in my first draft of this perspective. It’s a hard one to have and you may make mistakes like I have. I know the easy way is for us to try and ignore this, but it is an issue that is coming up in various locations around the country—and we as a community need to be prepared to address it. My concern is that there will be some elected officials who refuse to raise the rainbow flag at all because it’s just too complicated to include other groups.

As the only man to serve on the steering committee of the St. Pete Women’s March, I have some experience in putting my Quaker values to work for equality even if it doesn’t directly impact me. Honestly, my activist gut says I don’t think there should be a problem with raising other flags representing other groups. The more inclusion the better.

For example, a black history flag hoisted above the library would make as much of a statement of our community’s commitment to diversity as the rainbow flag does for us. My only remaining concern is that what kind of policy do you put in place to say who gets recognized and who doesn’t? If we just have a blanket policy of inclusion, couldn’t the KKK or a Neo Nazi group request we raise the swastika for a self-proclaimed “white power” month? Clearly the answers to these questions are not easy ones.

As we celebrate Pride and as we march in huge parades like St Pete Pride, let us remember there are other groups who are being marginalized in Donald Trump’s America. We can’t always address discrimination and hate at a huge national level, but we can understand and appreciate where our own communities are and what we can do no matter who we are.

What I can do is speak out about local LGBTQ issues and lead by example, building what a truly inclusive community looks like here in Gulfport and in St. Petersburg. If we all do what we can, where we can, we can make the underlying theme of acceptance for all that we demonstrate in Pride a reality.

Greg Stemm is a 37 year resident of Pinellas County. He is a founder of St Pete Pride and currently sits on the board of the LGBTQ Resource Center of the Gulfport Public Library. He is an outspoken activist on many issues including HIV/AIDS education.

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