The Three Rivers Community Schools (TRCS) Board of Education voted unanimously Monday to lift the district’s temporary Pride flag ban and return to business as usual following a pre-meeting protest, a lengthy public comment period, and an even longer closed session.
After spending the better part of two hours discussing the matter behind closed doors, the board announced teachers and staff could once again hang Pride flags in their classrooms but that a classroom display policy will be formulated over the next few months with community input and third party facilitation. The ban garnered both national and international attention when former Three Rivers Middle School teacher Russell Ball resigned after school staff was asked to remove Pride flags from their classrooms in response to an “external threat” lodged against the district.
Students, teachers, parents and community members gathered in protest outside of Three Rivers High School (TRHS) two hours prior to Monday’s meeting, braving strong winds and inclement weather with handwritten signs and Pride flags of various sizes to voice their displeasure.
100 Allies for Acceptance organizers Andrew George and Riley Mains, and Three Rivers High School teacher Kristin Garwick spoke to Watershed Voice about why this issue matters.
“This piece of fabric, this flag represents so many things,” George said. “It represents acceptance, it represents pride but it also represents safety for students. When some of these students go home they don’t have that support, and whether or not it’s politicized or it’s polarizing, people are born the way they are born, this is an identity. The only thing we do by banning flags that show support is show that we don’t support these students, and that’s not what we want to do. We want to show love and acceptance.”
Mains, a junior at Three Rivers High School, said every child that is a member of the LGBTQIA+ community who attends TRCS deserves to “have a safe place” where “they are welcomed no matter who they love, what they look like or what their race is.” Mains said she was “furious” and “ashamed to be called a member of (the Three Rivers) community” when Pride flags were banned from classrooms, and even more ashamed of the outpouring of hate online.
“I know how diverse and different everyone in this community is, and just seeing how much hate people are putting into it, especially on our youth, I do not agree with that at all, that is absolutely disgusting to me,” Mains said. “I feel as if a child is able to wake up in the morning and put on their clothes correctly, and brush their teeth correctly, then they should be able to decide (what they can and cannot handle), and not have adults come in and decide for them what they can and cannot do.”
Mains added that parents and adults also shouldn’t assume a child’s identity at any age, regardless of what they may perceive their child’s gender or sexual preference to be.
Garwick, who teaches 11th and 12th grade language arts at TRHS, said she was encouraged by Monday’s turnout, and that society “has come a long way as far as accepting each other but we still have a long way to go.”
“The fact that these kids are speaking up for themselves is wonderful, and the fact that we have a lot of community members behind them is great as well,” Garwick said.
Since the story of TRCS’ Pride flag ban went “viral” not much has changed at the high school, according to Garwick, who says she has always tried to make “everyone comfortable” in her classroom “no matter what.”
“That’s really what this is all about,” Garwick said. “It’s just showing support for all of our students, the LGBTQ students don’t always have a voice to speak of, they don’t always have somebody to go to, to talk to, and as teachers we just want them to know that we do support them and they can come to us anytime they need anything, which is part of a teacher’s job.”
George said it’s important for members of the Three Rivers community to recognize that this isn’t a political issue, that “love isn’t political.” “This is not a MAGA flag versus a Biden flag, this is a flag of acceptance and that’s it. There are only two sides of this coin and they are acceptance or nonacceptance.”
The local online reaction to this issue has been mixed, and a variety of opinions have been shared, some of which suggest that having a Pride flag in a classroom is “promoting a gay lifestyle” or “sexualizing students.” George said that is simply a matter of being “uneducated.”
“You cannot influence somebody to be gay, just like you cannot influence somebody to be straight, it is the way that they are born,” he said. “This has nothing to do with influencing, it has nothing to do with a ‘gay agenda.’ We have two options here, we can show the LGBTQIA+ community and the students that we love and accept them or we can say, ‘hey, you’re not accepted here’ and that’s it.”
As an alumnus of TRHS and a member of the class of 2006, George said he was proud to see so many students, teachers, and former teachers come out in solidarity because the “dynamic (in 2006) was a lot different from what it is today (for gay students).”
“I was an LGBTQ student and at that time it was a secret,” George said. “Everything was different back then, all the way to the point where homophobic slurs were used more often, the idea of having something that showed pride and somebody’s identity of being in the LGBTQ community was unheard of, it just didn’t happen. I remember back then how that affected me and my mental health, and the battles I had to go through at that age, and not knowing where to turn for acceptance. And in the year 2021, I cannot think of one damn good reason why a student should have to go through that.”
Alek Haak-Frost is executive editor of Watershed Voice.