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Column | Sue Carlton

Flag fracas tells a lot about St. Petersburg's relationship to gay community

Could we get any better illustration of the layered relationship between St. Petersburg's gay community and its city government than in this week's fracas over flags?

Which, by the way, turned into a nonfracas?

It went like this: The folks who put on the St. Pete Pride festival, the city's biggest one-day event, planned to hang festive 2- by 3-foot rainbow flags around the Grand Central District for gay pride month.

But hold the phone.

Turns out the flags — the kind you see fluttering from light poles promoting places and events around town — did not include actual words, just the colorful rainbow that has come to symbolize inclusion and support for gays and lesbians.

Problem: City policy specifically says banners should identify an area, or welcome people, or promote an event, or publicize a cultural venue.

But Pride organizers worried that making custom banners would make the whole thing too expensive. They likened the flags to yearly holiday decorations. Some spoke of a potential constitutional violation were the rainbow flags banned.

Did somebody say free speech? Even the American Civil Liberties Union was called in to have a look.

Now why would anyone think the city could have a reason other than an across-the-board policy for banning this particular flag?

Well, it would be fair to say Mayor Rick Baker hasn't exactly embraced the idea of gay pride even as his city has reaped the benefits. He does not sign the proclamation for Pride Month, and his mayorship most definitely does not show up for the big event. He is oft-quoted as having said he does not support its "general agenda."

"It is kind of the quandary we've lived with for a while," says Brian Longstreth, a founder of St. Pete Pride. The City Council and city departments are supportive, he says.

"But we know at the top, there's kind of that roadblock."

Also, Pride attendees have over the years had to contend with sign-wielding, bullhorn-blaring haters determined to wreck the day, which could tend to make you feel some people don't much want you around.

But before the flag clash could morph into an all-out battle, something really cool happened: People talked to one another.

Good for city officials who reached out to Pride officials for a meeting. After the Times' Cristina Silva reported on the potential trouble, they worked out a plan for slightly modified flags with "St. Pete Pride" affixed to them.

They shook hands, even.

"We're okay with adding St. Pete Pride, and they're okay with the rainbow flag," Longstreth said.

"We're very, very pleased it was worked out," said the city's marketing director, Beth Herendeen.

Now about that mayor who has so steadfastly skipped St. Pete Pride. He's term-limited out, and the race to replace him is on.

The candidates are being invited to a debate hosted by St. Pete Pride at King of Peace Metropolitan Community Church, 3150 Fifth Ave. N, on June 22. It's scheduled for 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Hmm. Think those candidates might be questioned on their individual attitudes toward the Pride event as well as St. Petersburg's thriving and integral gay community in general?

"I'm pretty sure," Longstreth says, "that will come up."

Flag fracas tells a lot about St. Petersburg's relationship to gay community 05/28/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 29, 2009 10:24am]
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