What has become an annual controversy over gay pride took a new twist this year in my adopted hometown of St. Augustine, Florida. First, a little background.
The Bridge of Lions, so named for the giant marble statues at its base, flies flags from lightposts across the two-lane structure, which carries people to and from Anastasia Island. The flags – sometimes American, sometimes with the city crest, sometimes a custom design – commemorate such events as federal holidays and our city’s founding in 1565.
In recent years, flags have been flown for less historic and patriotic reasons, such as to make things look nice for Bike Week visitors from nearby Daytona, or the annual big-bucks kingfishing tournament.
For the past couple of years, gay pride organizers have petitioned the city to post rainbow flags on the bridge during June. This request triggered a long-overdue discussion of a policy for the theme of flags, determining what would or wouldn’t “fly.”
After two years of rejections, the gay rights activists of St. Augustine Pride thought this was their year.
Their request to fly rainbow gay pride flags on the Bridge of Lions during their pride event in June had been turned down the last two years because the city requires that “the message on the banners or flags shall relate directly to a not-for-profit event that is in direct correlation to a historical landmark or event in the City and has historical significance associated with the City.”
You want history, the group asked? We’ll give you history.
This year, their argument was based on what they call the first American hate crime, committed more than 400 years ago in this area. They contend that in 1566 a Spanish governor secretly ordered the murder of a gay French interpreter of the Guale Native language.
They attached this and several other stories of historical gay citizens and presented them with this year’s application.
Commissioners and the city’s special events coordinator, who is in charge of flags on the bridge, listened to the group’s arguments and gave the old thumbs-down yet again.
“I sincerely hope we don’t have to keep meeting like this,” said Rev. Ruth Jensen, pastor at First Coast Metropolitan Community Church, addressing the commissioners and the mayor. She was one of 11 citizens who addressed the commission on behalf of the organization.
“This is historically significant,” said Jensen. “It can not be more so.”
I know many of the participants and don’t believe homophobia is the prime motivator. Even the Super Bowl, held in nearby Jacksonville this year, was not allowed to put up its Roman numeral flags. And yes, a gay pride festival is licensed in the city’s municipal exhibit areas.
Paul Williamson, director of public affairs, said the issue is more about the rules than rights. He turned downed an application from the Super Bowl Host Committee, citing the policy that was enacted in October of 2002.
“It has to be associated with an event that has historical significance,” said Williamson. “We’re denying their flags, not the festival. I hope they’ll continue to do it because it’s a good event.”
Still, it’s hard to parse out the fine distinction here, flag-wise.
The city has approved the flying of flags on the bridge celebrating Flagler College, the Lighthouse Festival and the civil rights movement.
“They were talking about civil rights, and we, in essence, are talking about the same thing,” said Jensen.
The lawyer who handled my divorce, who is one of the city commissioners, made me proud.
Vice Mayor Susan Burk said she would like to see the decision come from citizen support, a system similar to how license plates are chosen.
“I want to change the code to allow a group like this to fly their flag,” she said…
It isn’t over yet, though.
After the decision, Jensen spoke to those who had come to support St. Augustine Pride. She promised they would still be walking flags over the bridge during the event. Their next move will be legal action, said Rev. Jensen.
“We really didn’t expect anything to be different than it had been in the last two years,” said Jensen… “We were very pleased with the diversity of our supporters and with support we’re getting from all over the country. We’re going to keep trying.”