The Oak Bluffs select board approved the raising of the Progress Pride flag on town property in a 4-1 vote on Tuesday with select board member Jason Balboni casting the lone dissenting vote. The lengthy meeting was the board’s first in-person session since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and was attended by dozens of Island LGBTQ+ supporters.
Arthur Hardy-Doubleday, president of the NAACP of Martha’s Vineyard, and Jenelle Gadowski, a member of the NAACP’s executive committee, made the initial request to fly the Progress Pride flag on the town’s flagpoles for the entirety of the month of June. After some pushback, an agreement was reached to display the flag from June 1 to June 14th.
The approval of both the Progress Pride flag raising and Pride parade requests on Tuesday followed a 2-1 vote approval on Monday by the Oak Bluffs Parks Commission to hold a flag raising ceremony on June 1 contingent on the select board vote, and a Pride Parade and celebration on June 11. Both events will be held at Ocean Park.
On Friday, when the select board amended its agenda to include discussion about a flag policy, concerns were raised about how that would affect the requests about flying the Pride flag.
The discussion and possible vote of the implementation of the new flag policy immediately preceded the discussion and possible vote to approve the request to fly the Pride flag.
Select board member Brian Packish said the intent of including the flag policy discussion was not to exclude the LGBTQ+ community but to avoid any possible lawsuits by other groups who may be denied their request to fly a chosen flag. “While as an individual, I personally do not agree with third party flags being flown,” he said, “I’m not serving as an individual.” He said as a representative of the town he supported the request, but not for the full month.
After discussions about how the flag policy can possibly be altered, Hardy-Doubleday, who is also a practicing attorney, stated his unease about any policy. He responded to the various board members’ comments about how this particular use of the flagpole may set a precedent, possibly allowing any group to apply for their chosen flag to be raised. Changing the policy to allow for an application to raise a flag, said Hardy-Doubleday, could open it up to anyone. “You need to lead here,” he said. “Use your discretion. We voted for you, we chose you, we trust you.” The solution, he said, is simple: ”Do your job.”
“If the majority of our citizens aren’t happy with it,” said newly elected select board chair Ryan Ruley on the policy as written, “it’s not a good policy. It doesn’t make sense.” While he understands the risks of a lawsuit, he added, “we, as policy makers, have to do what’s right for the town moving forward.”
After much discussion, the board chose to postpone a vote on the policy and instead, work with members of the NAACP and Island LGBTQ+ members to form a “five- to seven-person subcommittee” in order to create a more inclusive flag management system. When determining how to navigate accurate representation, the board decided that the subcommittee should consist of mostly Oak Bluffs residents, but will be open to members of the community who may want to serve on the newly formed group.
The board heard testimonies from the community. Among the speakers were LGBTQ+ elders and youth along with parents and friends who came to the meeting to support loved ones.
Doug Pease, one of the first to speak, asked the board, “Has town counsel done any sort of research on what the actual liability would be? Has anybody else in this country been sued for flying a Pride flag?” He added, “It’s 2022. It’s time to do the right thing.”
Referring to numerous statements by Balboni, Packish, and Ruley about not wanting to put the Pride flag on the same pole as the American flag, Stephen Power of Tisbury said: “This is a community that’s been hurt, been abused, and I think the town needs to make a statement that that hurt needs to stop.” Power continued, quoting JFK, “None of us are free as long as one of us is not free.”
Of the overall societal progress regarding acknowledgement of the LGBTQ+ community, NAACP member Susanna Sturgis said, “We’ve come a long way.” One of the reasons is due to “people making an effort to be visible,” she said, “which is part of what flying this flag is about.”
Referring to the board’s comments of the legal risks, Kathleen Cowley said, “The one thing you are risking by not flying the flag is the risk of alienation,” or “being like Fairhaven. Fairhaven is the only town in Massachusetts that has refused to fly the flag. I would really hate to see Oak Bluffs tarnished with that reputation. I just think we can do a lot better than that.”
Jo Orr, MVRHS class of ’19, began their testimony reading the definition of the word pride: “A reasonable or justifiable self-respect.”
“That’s something I think that my community has a hard time finding because of the decades of shame,” they said through teary eyes. ”Pride, especially the Progress Pride flag, is a symbol for all the trans youth on the Island to feel connected and loved.”
Orr added, “I’d like to take issue with the comments about putting it on the American flagpole. I was born in America, I consider myself an American. Most of the gay people that I know consider themselves also to be American. It is not a third party, we are a part of America. And to disqualify gay Americans from the flagpole is very exclusionary … The Oak Bluffs flagpoles are the most visible ones to tourists; it tells them what kind of town they’re entering. It tells queer people, especially ones that have never come here before, that they don’t need to fear for their safety,” they said. “LGBTQ youth are more than four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers,” citing the an estimate from the Trevor Project, “more than 1.8 million LGBTQ+ members between ages 13 and 24 seriously consider suicide each year in the United States.” “LGBTQ youth are not inherently prone to suicides because of their orientation or gender identity,” said Orr. “It is because of how they are mistreated and stigmatized in society.”
Hardy-Doubleday said when he appeared before the select board last year, they made a promise: “A number of select board members reached out to me and stated they wanted to do better in 2022. I cannot understand how doing better is prohibiting the Progress Pride flag on any town-owned flagpole.”
Packish explained why his vote would be different from his personal views. “While as an individual, I personally do not agree with third-party flags being flown,” said Packish, “I’m not serving as an individual.” He said as a representative of the town he supported the request, but not for the full month. “The wheels of progress turn slow,” he added.
Among options considered by the board were erecting a third-party flagpole. All select board members were in support of the concept as a solution to resistance of allowing the Pride flag on the American flagpole. “I am bending tremendously against my own personal beliefs to try to find a middle ground for today,” said Packish, noting that the third-party flagpole would be ideal, but due to time constraint, will be a topic for the new subcommittee to discuss and determine in the future.
In a surprising move, despite various objections by the board, including Barmakian noting her preference for having the flag on just one flagpole — the one at Ocean Park — Packish stated, “Personally, if we’re going to put [the Pride flag] on one [flagpole], I don’t have an issue on putting it on all of them.”
In other business, select board vice chair Ryan Ruley was appointed by the board as the new chair in a 3-2 vote as well as a unanimous decision to appoint select board member Gail Barmakian as vice chair. Upon nominating Ruley for chair, Barmakian stated her interest in the position, adding that as a senior board member who was “overlooked” for the position last year.
A vote had Barmakian and select board member Emma Green-Beach in favor of Barmkian, and Ruley, Packish, and Balboni in favor of Ruley. Green-Beach expressed her interest in vice chair but “deferred” to Barmakian, saying that perhaps she can nominate herself in the future.
Also, the request to serve beer and wine at the Martha’s Vineyard Sharks baseball games this upcoming season has been approved by the select board, with an agreement with Sharks President and General Manager Russ Curran to notify the police department ahead of particularly busy games, for monitoring. The original beer and wine license request being 30 days, the select board agreed with the condition of appearing before the board for an assessment preceding the team’s 14th game to ensure compliance with the town.