Along with the Stars & Stripes and state flag, should government agencies fly flags representing specific groups—say, the Muslim flag, Republican flag, Ukrainian flag, Christian flag, Confederate flag, Pride flag?
Across the U.S., government agencies such as public schools and city councils are now wrestling with this question.
In the tiny Bay Area town of Sunol, the recent school board meeting descended into chaos over the question of whether to fly the Pride flag on the school’s flagpole. The same thing happened in Hamtramck, MI; Temecula, CA; and elsewhere.
Some advocates of flying the Pride flag say it gives the message of “welcome.” Other advocates say that banning it (along with all other non-government flags) gives the message that gender-questioning kids are not welcome.
Let’s all agree that we want all kids to feel welcome at any school they attend.
Does that include a kid from a strict Christian home? A kid whose mom wears a hijab? A kid who thinks being gay is gross? I want those kids to feel welcome in public school (indeed, I want them to go to public school). I don’t want them bullied, and I don’t want them bullying anyone.
WHEN SCHOOL IS COMPLICATED
I am in total sympathy with kids who don’t feel comfortable in school because they’re conflicted about their gender or sexual orientation. I know that for some kids, everyday school activities involving clothes, gym class, and the bathroom are quite complicated.
But singling them out as a group that deserves official recognition and support deemphasizes the many ways in which many other kids struggle. What about a fat pride flag? An acne flag? An I-hate-my-brilliant-sister flag? A child of alcoholic parents flag? An unusual height (too short or too tall) flag? An early puberty flag (ask any girl who developed large breasts in 5th grade)?
I understand that the Pride flag is meant to signal acceptance of ALL kids. But that’s not how it reads to a lot of people in real life—which is one reason that some people object to it.
Unfortunately, the message many kids are getting today is that if you’re distressed around gender or sexual orientation, your struggles are somehow more important than other kids’ struggles. For a small number of kids, this attention is indeed life-affirming. But for many other kids, the whole LGBTQ movement is now an invitation to express common childhood angst using a sex/gender vocabulary. In some schools, kids now perceive being trans or other non-traditional sexual identity as cool, as a status to which an increasing number of kids aspire.
Identity issues have always been crucial to tweens and teens. In various generations, the language of this quest has been religion, drugs, music, hair, dress, and delinquency. In the 1953 film The Wild One, motorcycle gang leader Marlon Brando is asked “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” His nonchalant, disdainful answer is “Whaddaya got?”
Again, I sympathize with kids struggling over their sexual identity or orientation. But American society has now set it up so that talking about pronouns, names, clothes, and gender identity is an increasingly popular way for kids to push their parents away, assert their autonomy, express their fears, and talk about feeling alienated. And the more it drives adults crazy, the more they’ll do it. Kids always express their internal struggles with the vocabularies that get the most adult attention.
As a parent of a middle-schooler who insists they’re trans recently told me, “Dylan was born a girl, and insists they’re a boy. They’re so fundamentally oppositional that if they were born a boy, they would insist they’re a girl.” And this parent is extremely liberal.
Indeed, I know 10-year-old girls who claim they’re bisexual. When I’ve asked them what that means, they’ve invariably said some version of “I’m one of those kids who thinks everyone should be treated equally, and no one should tell me what to do.” For these kids, “bisexual” is about asserting an identity and feeling part of a community, not about sexuality.
Again, this does NOT deny that some kids are genuinely struggling about gender, feeling alone and misunderstood. And they deserve our attention.
ATTACKING–AND DEFENDING–THE PRIDE FLAG
But aren’t angry or frightened social conservatives just using the Pride flag as yet another front in today’s culture wars? Yes. And isn’t that a good enough reason to demand visibility of the Pride flag? No. It’s a tactical mistake to reflexively support everything that anti-humanist forces oppose—just like it’s a mistake to reflexively oppose everything they support.
At the Sunol school board meeting, opponents of flying the Pride Flag on the same pole as the U.S. and California flags brought a Christian Nation flag. While this flag does NOT stand for acceptance, inclusivity, or any other liberal secular value, it does stand for some values. They certainly aren’t my values. But if I don’t want my government promoting a particular group’s values, they can’t promote any (that’s Constitution 101).
If anyone wants to promote safety for children, for example, they need to find a universalistic language with which to do so, not the particularistic vocabulary of LGBTQ rights (which I do, in fact, energetically support). That’s one of the beautiful things about science, and one of the tragedies when science is mistrusted.
Our long-term political work is to ensure that the rights of gender diverse children and adults are enshrined in law. Legalizing same-gender marriage, for example, sends a powerful message beyond individual couples. Requiring all school counselors to have sex education training would benefit every kid in school, whether they’re counseled or not. Soldiers who are trans or gender non-binary may now serve openly in the military, giving their peers the lived experience that these are ordinary Americans.
Such practical changes are tangible support for all Americans. This is quite different than focusing on the needs of one group—and thereby glamorizing its vocabulary for a wide group of people (in this case, schoolchildren) who want and deserve attention.
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