A tale of two flags: Even small towns are increasingly welcoming to LGBTQ people like me

Pride flags in Hillsborough, North Carolina, in June 2021. (Photo: Tom Stevens)

HILLSBOROUGH, N.C. — Early on the first of June I walked my dog out the front door, made a sharp right at the corner, and saw – entirely to my surprise – a majestic Pride flag billowing in the morning breeze. Later in the day I walked downtown, where I witnessed a total of the 30 multi-color flags hoisted high overnight on lamp posts at the direction of our town council.

As a gay man, I was overwhelmed by the ubiquity of the Pride flags – gently casting their shadows over the pet store, the pharmacy, and our local chocolate shop. Our town’s most famous gay man, Allan Gurganus, who wrote the novel “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All,” told me he “felt moved, surprised, and – oh yes – proud. After all, this is not San Francisco but a southern village of 7,000 souls.”

Indeed, we are not West Hollywood, the Castro, or Provincetown. If anything Hillsborough, which dates back to the Revolutionary War (and that doesn’t include the history of the Occaneechi Tribe, who settled the area in 1676), is best known as the quiet neighbor of Chapel Hill (home of the University of North Carolina), our annual Hog Day, and our reverence for historic preservation.

Desperately needed support

Suddenly, Hillsborough, a small dot on the North Carolina map, felt truly welcoming, dare I say and even safe, to LGBTQ people. A few days later our local newspaper, the News of Orange, ran a front-page story, making clear the meaning of the parade of Pride flags: “Not only is the LGBTQ community seen, it is celebrated, defended, and welcomed.”

The mayor, Jenn Weaver, voiced her unequivocal support, telling the paper, “I think policies are the most important thing, but symbols are also really meaningful and powerful and this certainly is one.” Matt Hughes, a town commissioner, who is both gay and African American, says he felt “proud” to live in a community “that is visually saying ‘all are welcome.’” 

Until 2018, we hadn’t even officially recognized Pride Month here. And in 2019, we made national headlines when members of the KKK rode into town, displaying their white robes and Confederate flags emblematic of white supremacy and racism. One of the banners I saw read: “Loyal White Knights. Yesterday, Today, Forever! Ku Klux Klan.” The invasion was frightening for many, especially my Black and brown neighbors, coming face to face with the hatred of what many white people thought belonged to another time.

But Hillsborough locals responded with a determination of their own, letting them know their message was not welcome here.

Pride month: On coming out … and coming out … and coming out …

A few days after our Pride flags went up on the street lamps, I perused a local Facebook page. While most Hillsboroughians openly supported the flags and concluded that they showed how great our town can be, others were not so sure and suddenly another skirmish in the culture wars broke out. One post compared our town to Sodom and Gomorrah. Another queried the group about putting up heterosexual flags. Thankfully, these comments were quickly rebuffed by several others, and folks pointed out that heterosexual people do not lack equal rights. 

A crossroads through small towns

Proud of our town, I invited my friend Vicki to visit so I could show her how everything’s up to date in Hillsborough. We had dinner at the recently restored Colonial Inn, which has been described by a state magazine as a “mix of classic and contemporary,” and then went for a postprandial walk.

I wanted Vicki to see the flags. We got to the epicenter of town and stopped at a red light; in every direction we could see the Pride flags (which are the more inclusive design, incorporating brown and black stripes to represent brown and Black people), against the darkening sky. As we waited, a black Ford F-150 pickup truck, occupied by two young men, also came to the stop light. Out of the blue, the driver began shouting aggressively enough for everyone in earshot to hear. It ain’t raining, he said in an expletive-laced rant, get rid of the rainbow flags.

Vicki and I froze.

Finally, the light turned green and the pickup roared off, making a sharp left. The driver continued to voice the same refrain through his open window as he raced down the main thoroughfare and out of town.

Unfortunately, that scene is not the end of this particular chapter. A few days later, a handful of cars pulled up to the courthouse. Our sheriff’s office told me there were about 10 people with confederate flags at the historic county courthouse, which is town property.

They didn’t stay long. They didn’t need to; they’d made their point. As Jenn Weaver, the mayor, told me, “The confederate flag connotes the legacy of white supremacy and racism.” Or what others in town refer to as “hate.”

Confederate flags in Hillsborough, North Carolina, in June 2021. (Photo: Elizabeth Matheson)

Still, friends and neighbors also made their point by rushing down to the courthouse with Black Lives Matter signs.

The debate then returned to Facebook, with Hillsborough residents taking different positions. 

As Jenn Weaver reminded me, “We live at the crossroads of progressivism and conservatism.” Indeed. Still there’s no mistaking the symbolism of our town’s Pride flags, which will grace our streets through the end of the month. Matt Hughes, the town commissioner, summed up that symbolism when he told me, “I think the response (here) shows that even small towns are very welcoming places.”

Steven Petrow, a writer on civility and manners and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is the author of five etiquette books. His new book, “Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old,” is being published this week. Follow him on Twitter: @stevenpetrow

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