Community members take sides in Town Council discussion over Pride flag removal at Gypsum Rec Center

Ali Longwell
Vail Daily
For members of the LGBTQ community and their allies, the Pride flag represents inclusion and acceptance.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily archive

GYPSUM — On the evening of Tuesday, Dec. 13, 30 members of the community — representing a diverse cross-section of race, age, gender identity and sexual orientation — spoke in front of the Gypsum Town Council on how the recent removal of the Pride flag from the local rec center made them feel.

The opinions and experiences shared represented both those who supported the Town Council’s decision as well as those who felt disappointed in the flag’s removal.

The town of Gypsum requested the removal of the Pride flag from the Gypsum Rec Center in late October. In March, Mountain Recreation put up the flags at all three of its facilities as part of its efforts around diversity, equity and inclusion. However, unlike the Edwards Field House and the Eagle Pool & Ice Rink, Mountain Recreation does not own the building that houses the Gypsum Recreation Center.

Since the town of Gypsum owns the building, the rec district was required to get permission from the town to display the flag at the Gypsum facility. According to a Vail Daily column signed by all members of the Gypsum Town Council, when Mountain Rec sought approval from the town, it was not given it.

“Mountain Recreation displayed the flag in spite of not being granted permission to do so. At no point did anyone from Mountain Recreation inform the town staff or the Town Council that the flag was displayed in the town’s building,” the column reads, adding that town officials were not aware of the flag’s display until it ran on the front page of the Vail Daily in March.

Eddie Campos, the rec district’s marketing and communication manager, confirmed to the Vail Daily in October that the flag had been removed because “we made a mistake in not getting the proper approval from the town of Gypsum (who owns the Gypsum Rec Center) to put the pride flag in the lobby.”

At the Tuesday Town Council meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Tom Edwards, read from this column, stating that “the primary thing that we believe all patrons should universally think when they go to the Gypsum Recreation Center is, ‘I feel welcome here and I had fun.’”

The column stated that the decision was based on town policy that holds that any taxpayer-funded facility, such as the rec center, “should be devoid political, ideological or religious symbols so that all can approach its services without any preconceived notions.”

Following the town’s October decision, local LGBTQ advocacy and education nonprofit Mountain Pride hosted a community session at the rec center to discuss the flag’s removal and the impact it had on the local LGBTQ community as well as forge a path forward. This meeting was well-attended by nearly 70 members of the community, including Eagle County commissioners, Mountain Rec leadership and numerous allies. No one from the Gypsum Town Council attended this meeting.  

And so, in order to share the importance of ongoing support, visibility and advocacy, Mountain Pride arranged for members of the community to attend this week’s Town Council meeting and have their voices be heard.

Prior to public comment and the discussion of the Pride flag, Edwards requested that all individuals in the room spend five minutes getting to know one another, before sharing their opinions on the Pride Flag’s display and subsequent removal.

Not political, ideological or religious

At the forefront of the discussion on Tuesday evening was the Pride Flag itself. And for the members of the LGBTQ community (and its allies) that spoke, they stated that this flag is a symbol of inclusion and acceptance.

“We are not, and the flag is not a political symbol, it is not a source of division,” said Madison Partridge, Mountain Pride’s executive director. “If a facility has a Pride flag, what it means is everyone is welcome here. That hardly seems like a partisan statement, unless your political identity is staked on the fact that certain people are not welcome in certain places.”

Many community members spoke directly against the Town Council’s statement that the flag shouldn’t be displayed as it is either a political, ideological or religious symbol.

“The mere existence of people for whom LGBTQ is an adjective, is not a political stance, it’s not an ideology, and it’s not a religious tenant, it’s a normal state of human being that is part of the richness of the human experience,” said Danise Cardona. “The Pride flag simply acknowledges and welcomes that existence.”

“I agree in general, public facilities shouldn’t be a place to push particular ideologies or campaign, however, simply being queer is not a political campaign. It’s a recognition that a place or a group of people is accepting,” said Grace Anshutz. “If that’s political to you, I’d urge you to consider if your problem is with the existence of LGBTQ people, not their ‘politics.’”

In citing this policy, some community members that spoke called out the council for hypocrisy, citing the existence of Christmas and Easter decorations in the same facility where the Pride flag was removed.

“The town of Gypsum does not seem to have a problem with ideological, political or religious symbols such as Christmas decorations, so long as they’re ones that make them feel comfortable,” said Megan Carter.

This representation and meaning behind the flag is one that goes back to its origin in the 1990s.

“A Pride flag is more than a colored fabric, it represents a safe space, an assuredness that you are safe and it represents love. It dates back to the late 1990s Stonewall Riots when our community was tired of being disrespected. That Pride flag represents the safety we have fought for,” said Emit Brown. “I am tired of being labeled as a political figure because I want to love or present myself otherwise.”

Several community members that spoke shared why having safe spaces, visibility and acceptance matters so much to the LGBTQ community, particularly for its youth members.  

“Many LGBTQ youth lack access to affirming spaces, with only 55% reporting that their school is an affirming space, only 37% say that their home is an affirming space,” said Shelby Nosal. “The Trevor Project’s research consistently finds that LGBTQ youth report lower rates of attempting suicide when they have access to affirming spaces.”

Nosal added that “hanging a Pride flag is a fairly low-effort task that clearly shows exponential impact.”

Several speakers also emphasized that the removal of the flag gives validation to a national movement of anti-LGBTQ activity and hate.

“On Nov. 30, just two weeks ago, the Department of Homeland Security declared that the LGBTQ community is now in a heightened threat environment in our country and subject to the threat of violence and domestic terrorism,” said Dwenna Holden, then posing a series of questions to the Town Council.

“Do you want to be responsible for leading the way in creating unsafe spaces and exclusion or do you want to lead our community in acceptance and inclusive spaces? Do you want to continue to mask your homophobia with bureaucracy or do you want to use bureaucracy for the powers of good and stand for equality, acceptance and saving lives?” Holden asked.

While the Town Council stated in its column and opening remarks on Tuesday that the removal did not detract from its desire for everyone to be welcome in the town’s facilities, several residents said that the flag’s removal had the opposite effect. 

Kim Spalding, speaking directly to the council, stated “Like you, I value a community that focuses on our common values and is one that is welcoming to all people. The procedural excuse for the removal of the flag, while it’s convenient to appease both sides, does little to further the goals of this community.”

“We know that the simple actions of visibility, and the symbol, do a lot to welcome someone into a space,” Spalding later added.

The value of this visibility for many individuals that spoke, and as Anshutz put it, is that “Visibility literally saves lives.”

More divisive than unifying

There were also members of the Gypsum community that spoke in support of the Town Council’s decision to remove the Pride flag, with their underlying message being that the flag was more divisive than unifying.

“It is ideological, it represents a certain idea that everyone isn’t comfortable with,” said Anna Brosius, later adding, “My argument against putting up an ideological representation in a public place is that it puts me as a parent in a position to have to deal with questions from my children that I don’t think they need to deal with.”

Several individuals that spoke shared differing views of what the Pride flag means and represents.

“The Pride flag is in fact a divisive symbol that divides people along ideological lines, rather than uniting them in love. This flag, which is promoted as a symbol of love and pride for the LGBTQ+ community, rather has the effect of not being a symbol of unity and is not a symbol of the love of God,” said Stephen Monroe, a Gypsum pastor. “Christians often view the Pride flag as a symbol of a lifestyle contrary to what the Bible teaches.”

Many who spoke said that the decision to not display the flag allowed for the rec center to remain a neutral community space. 

“Having a Pride Flag up is offensive to me, and it makes me uncomfortable, so I will not be at the rec center working out because it’s uncomfortable for me,” said Tony Martinez, the chair of the Eagle County Republicans. “The purpose of coming to the rec center is to come together as a community, regardless of what your beliefs are or otherwise. And so, I go to the rec center to be with people, meet people and enjoy the opportunity to come together and have relationships with them. I applaud the Town Council for remaining neutral on this and for being open to everybody all the time, period.”

In speaking about her personal experience moving to Eagle County, Pamela Chapman said “I didn’t attempt to bring Orange County, California, to Gypsum. I assimilated into the community. I didn’t need an affirmative action plan, I didn’t require a BLM rug to be laid out, to be raised for me or to be laid out to be accepted and affirmed.”

“Why am I speaking to ethnicity when this is about the LGBTQ community? Because I want you to know, if you want to be a part of this community, simply assimilate,” Chapman later added. “You don’t call for special attention or privilege because you have a certain belief, because you feel unwanted, unloved and unwelcome. That is not the truth: you are welcome.”

Nick Carlton said that “If flags were on display for every value system and interest held by the patrons of our rec center, there wouldn’t be enough space on the walls combined.”

“Instead, I’m thankful for the one flag that represents us all, the American flag, hanging in the Gymnastics area that communicates all are welcome, all are free.”

Moving forward

No decisions were made regarding the flag at Tuesday night’s meeting, with Edwards setting up the public’s comments as an opportunity for the Town Council to listen.

“The Town Council will listen to your input and take everything said under consideration. The council may have questions but will more likely listen and absorb what is being presented. Lack of response does not mean we have not heard you,” Edwards said.

However, several individuals that spoke on Tuesday referenced the value of these types of opportunities to listen and come together amid differing opinions.

“I know it’s easy to say that the taking down of the flag created more division. I’m here to say that I think that this sort of conversation is what promotes true unity,” Spalding said.  

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