Martha’s Vineyard in general and Oak Bluffs in particular have always had a proud history of being a welcoming and inclusive community.
Last week, that history took a blow — an unnecessary blow.
It was one of those situations where the Oak Bluffs select board took an easy decision, made it look like a struggle, and in the end came out looking bad even though they ultimately made the right choice.
What were they thinking?
The Martha’s Vineyard branch of the NAACP and the Oak Bluffs Business Association presented plans to celebrate Pride month in June. The groups requested an agenda item to seek the town’s permission for the Progress Pride flag to be flown on town flagpoles during the month of June, and that they be allowed to have a parade on June 11.
After the agenda item was requested, the select board decided to amend its already published agenda to include a flag policy discussion ahead of the item seeking approval of the Pride flag and parade.
Unsurprisingly, the NAACP felt that the select board was attempting to create a policy that would render the flag request moot.
That resulted in the NAACP issuing a press release that drew attention to the new agenda item. They asked the LGBTQ+ community to attend the select board meeting and let their voices be heard. They also urged participation in a parks commission meeting the day prior to the select board meeting. The parks commission was asked to consider allowing the use of Ocean Park for the flag-raising ceremony, as well as a starting and ending point for the parade.
While a majority of the select board and the parks commission ultimately did the right thing and allowed the requests, their words didn’t necessarily match their actions — particularly on the select board.
“While as an individual, I personally do not agree with third-party flags being flown,” select board member Brian Packish said ahead of the vote. “I’m not serving as an individual.”
Meanwhile, select board member Jason Balboni voted against the flag being flown, saying, “Third-party flags don’t belong on the American flagpole.”
Unfortunately, it’s debate and discussions like these that empower some people. It’s no coincidence that once this debate erupted in Oak Bluffs, a Progress Pride flag was stolen from the Unitarian Universalist Church in Vineyard Haven.
We hope the select board heard the words of Jo Orr, a 2019 graduate of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, who spoke in support of proudly displaying the Progress Pride flag, and took issue with remarks that it doesn’t belong flying on the same pole with the American flag. “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,” they said. “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.”
Oak Bluffs has always been considered an inclusive and welcoming community. Unfortunately, the way these requests played out tarnished that reputation. In the words of NAACP president Arthur Hardy-Doubleday, Oak Bluffs and the Island community need to “do better.”