Battle for Herber City gay pride flags is fueling national debate about Utah but how far can this really go and if it does gets support, what happens next in this complicated situation?
Hyber City, Utah, is one of a growing number of municipalities in the United States that has sparked controversy over public display of LGBTQ pride flags.
Over the past two years, residents of a small Rocky Mountain town of Heber City, Utah, have seen their main street be decorated with rainbow banners in celebration of Pride Month in June.
However, after the city council voted in favor of a controversial banner regulation, LGBTQ supporters fear colorful displays will be a thing of the past.
“It looks like a slap in the face,” said Allison Phillips Belknap, 47, a local real estate attorney who raised $ 3,553 through a GoFundMe campaign to buy and install banners on city lampposts.
A new ruling, passed in August, requires banner ads to be reviewed by a city manager and appeals to the city council for review. Any event or message advertised on a sign must be sponsored by Heber City, Wasatch County or the Heber Valley Chamber of Commerce, and must be both non-political and non-commercial.
With ongoing community debate over whether the pride banners are “political,” and because the new ordinance bans political banners, it is unclear if the city will approve them next June. City Mayor Heber Kellin Potter, a mother of two LGBT teenagers, opposed the ruling.
“This has largely eliminated the ability of private citizens to fund banners and ask them to hang on Main Street if they cannot get sponsorship from the city, county or house, and that sponsorship means some financial sponsorship,” she said.
Prior to the ruling, Potter said residents could apply to place banners on city lampposts for a fee of several hundred dollars if the banners were non-commercial. Banners were approved by the public works department, and if public works had doubts about the application, they sent it to Potter for approval.
Typically, the banners advertise holidays and local events, such as Veterans’ Days and Heber Valley Shepherd Competitions, Potter said. No one questioned this process until June 2019, when residents first saw their city center, decorated with rainbow banners.
The day after they appeared on Main Street, residents gathered at a city council meeting to voice their divided opinions on them. While many were ecstatic, Potter said others saw the rainbow banners as government-sanctioned “political speeches.”
City officials have begun to receive phone calls and emails from people wondering if they could hypothetically be used to plant flags with anti-abortion or anti-porn messages, or Koi Klux or Nazi symbols, she said, although no one really does not apply to the installation of such banners.
However, the investigations sparked controversy among city officials over whether a regulation was needed to regulate them.
“No one has ever given me concrete examples, other than those we could easily dismiss as hate speech,” said Potter, who has endorsed Pride posters for the past two years.
“Are we the silent majority?”
Hyber City, home to some 16,000 people, is a microcosm of how small towns across America are adapting to changing attitudes about gender and sexuality.
Last year, Mayor Wally Scott of Reading, Pennsylvania, canceled the Pride flag ceremony, calling the flag a political symbol. After criticism, he reversed his decision, and last June a rainbow flag flew over the city.
In June of this year, debate erupted in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, a city of about 42,000, after the first flag of Pride City was moved to a location that many residents considered less visible. In the same month, officials in Foster City, California, a city of about 34,000, refused to raise the pride flag outside the city’s Pride Month municipal building. Councilor Sam Hindi told the Bay Area Reporter that this would open the door for hated groups to post banners in the city.
Just last month, after some residents of Minot, North Dakota, voiced anger over the rainbow flag that was temporarily hoisted outside the city hall, a lesbian councilor publicly spoke out in furious defense of the flag.
Rainbow flags are common and controversial across Utah.
Last year, Project Rainbow, a small nonprofit in Salt Lake City, rented rainbow flags for $ 14 that Utahuans could display on their lawns during the Pride celebrations in their city. The group has delivered about 1,400 flags and raised about $ 20,000, which they donated to local LGBT centers.
Not all flags were well received: The group sparked backlash on social media from people accusing it of “imposing their beliefs” on local communities, according to group founder Lucas Horns. Horns estimates that about 10 percent of last year’s flags were stolen or defaced.
This month, on National Released October 11, the group has delivered 3,000 pride flags.
“It looks like there was a spike in stolen flags and especially vandalized flags,” Horns said in an email to NBC News. “Some people found that their flags were torn, written or even lit, which I think indicates even more hatred. But with that said, more people signed up for the flags than ever before and were more excited to show love and support for the LGBTQ community than ever. ”
Heber City, Utah, Jeff McLean
When Pride banners were installed on main street in Heber City this June, Mayor Potter said there was less controversy than a year earlier. However, residents of the city went to the local Ask (Heber, Utah) Facebook group to discuss them. One mother expressed frustration at having to explain the meaning of the rainbow to her young children.
“As a Christian, our family believes that marriage is between a man and a woman. I would like to think that there are other people in this valley who think the same way. Are we the silent majority? If you still believe in Christian values, please report it, ”the woman wrote.
In August, after a second wave of backlash, the city council voted to pass the banner decree. City Councilor Ryan Stack on the Ask (Heber Utah) Facebook group explained why he voted in favor of the measure.
“By playing favorites and choosing only those banners that it wants to see, the governing body is engaged in illegal discrimination of points of view,” he wrote. “I supported the removal of the discretionary element by allowing only government speech on banners. Yes – this prohibits private banners on the main street. But it also protects the city more from potential lawsuits when it comes to banner placement decisions. ”
Heber City Councilor Mike Johnston, who also voted in favor of the ordinance, told NBC News that it doesn’t ban pride banners, but rather a way to avoid potentially hateful and divisive messages.
“If we decide – and I hope we do – we want to support Pride, then we will do it as a city council, as elected officials who are elected to make decisions and withstand criticism,” Johnston said. “I think we are big girls and big boys and we can make these decisions, but it’s difficult when you let someone in the public send banners to post, and essentially they are making a free speech statement:“ You I have to let me do it because that’s what you do, you let everyone do it, so you have to let me do it. ”
Political speech or inclusion symbol?
Phillips Belknap said Heber’s city councilors passed a decree to appease a religious minority that opposed the posters. She said the ordinance would likely prevent her from installing them next year, as she would need to organize an event, such as a pride festival, with financial support from the city, county, or chamber of commerce.
“We will not be able to convince this council to sponsor a pride festival or get the district to sponsor a pride festival,” she said, referring to the ongoing debate over whether the banners are “political”.
She has rejected criticism that her banners are political symbols. A lesbian who left The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly referred to as the Mormon Church) after several suicide attempts, Phillips Belknap said the posters were intended to reduce suicide rates among local LGBT youth.
“We have a large number of people who are closed and at high risk of suicide because they feel that leaving home is tantamount to ruining their lives and destroying the life of their family,” she said.
In Utah, where about 60 percent of the population identifies as Mormons, the state has tripled youth suicide rates since 2007, according to state figures.
This reflects a national epidemic, where the suicide rate among young people aged 10 to 24 increased by 57 percent from 2007 to 2018, and suicide was the second leading cause of death among people aged 10 to 34 in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC recently found that lesbian, gay and bisexual teens are more than four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers.
Ben and Jamie Belknap with their son Luke, courtesy of Jamie Belknap
Heber City resident Jamie Belknap, 41 (not affiliated with Phillips Belknap), whose 14-year-old son Luke is openly gay, said the banners “made us feel great” in a city where few LGBTQ people feel prominently.
“Children who do not yet feel comfortable going outside, at least they know that our community is working to become a hospitable place for them, and that they are seen and appreciated, so I know how my son felt this, ”Belknap said.
Deeply conservative Utah has begun to take LGBTQ issues fervently. In 2015, the Republican-dominated state legislature passed the Utah Compromise, a law that made Utah the only firmly conservative state to take some housing and employment protections for LGBTQ people.
Two years later, Utah became the first of eight conservative states to repeal the No Promo Homo law, which banned the discussion of LGBTQ issues in schools.
And in January of this year, it became the 19th state to ban conversion therapy for minors, a controversial practice aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. It was the most politically conservative state. One reason for this shift may be the growing tendency of Mormon parents to accept their LGBT children.
In recent years, Mama Dragons, an online support group for Mormon mothers for LGBT children, has grown to thousands of members. The group, which Mayor Potter joined after one of her own children stepped out, fostered the adoption of LGBT youth among families in Utah.
Despite the progress, Potter said many LGBT teenagers still feel isolated in Heber City.
“In a survey conducted by ourselves, 12 percent of our students in our high school reported that they are somewhere in the LGBTQ community — that’s a lot of kids.
And one of the three main issues they identified was mental health issues, and so when we all bang our heads against the wall about how to help these kids, it really helped because it created a more inclusive and acceptable feeling. she said about the Pride banners.
According to the 2020 National LGBT Youth Mental Health Survey, LGBTQ adolescents with high levels of social support are “significantly” less likely to commit suicide than those without such support.
“Quite a strong message”
Three hundred miles southwest of Heber City, a similar controversy has erupted in the small desert town of St. George, Utah, where rainbow banners fluttered from lampposts along the city’s main street last September.
Pride of Southern Utah, a local LGBTQ advocacy group, raised $ 6,100 to install banners in St. George, as well as in Cedar City and Hurricane. Banners advertised the group’s annual Pride Week festival, which usually takes place in mid-September. After collecting the money, the group received permission to install banners.
Since their inception, the city has received at least two unofficial requests from a white supremacist group and another group that wanted to display banners with President Donald Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” according to St. George’s Mayor John Pike.
In an email circulated on social media that year, a St. George councilor called the banners of rosy pride “political statements,” sparking a debate over whether the current public signage ruling should be revised. In response to the backlash, St. George has imposed a moratorium on applications for posting banners on lamp posts until officials revise the city’s existing ordinance.
Since the Covid-19 pandemic forced the annual Pride festival to be canceled, the group has not applied for the resurrection of the banners this year, according to Pride of Southern Utah director Stephen Lambert. But Lambert said he was confident that St. George’s officials would approve the banners in 2021.
Speaking about Heber City, Lambert said he understands the urge for the ruling, but also expressed concern.
“I think there will be real damage if Heber [City] says, ‘Well, we’re just not going to do it because we passed a law that forbids you to do it,” Lambert said. “They need to find a way to keep people who need it.”
Despite the backlash against the Pride banners, Phillips Belknap said the awareness they created has helped many in the small LGBT community of Hyber City get together. The local LGBT Facebook group she founded now has about 150 members, and local middle and high school students have formed the Gay-Straight Alliance, she said.
Jamie Belknap said her son was “very disappointed” with the ruling, but was also not surprised by the ruling.
“I think it’s almost worse when the flags are hoisted and everyone feels seen and everyone thinks, ‘Oh, this is such a move in the right direction’… and then you see the backlash,” she said. And then, to see how the city succumbed to this backlash, she added, “This is a pretty strong signal – almost more so than if the flags hadn’t been raised.”