Despite brouhaha, Wilkeson proudly flies LGBT flag

Despite an act of vandalism, the town of Wilkeson is still flying the LGBT Pride flag this month, officially celebrating the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

The flag’s raising, which town leaders agreed to last month, has not been without a stir-up in the small town of about 500. After a few weeks of spirited conversations and the flag briefly changing poles, a group of vandals took to pulling down the six-strip rainbow flag altogether on Saturday night, according to several local residents.

Daryl Dinwiddie, who owns and is renovating the historic hotel just across the street from Town Hall, caught the apparent theft on a set of security cameras he owns facing Town Hall.

A pickup truck pulled into the parking lot at 11:32 p.m., with a passenger in the bed of the truck holding an extension ladder. The two figures used the ladder to remove the flag before speeding off, Dinwiddie said.

Buckley PD, with which Wilkeson contracts for police services, has taken a report of the flag’s theft, said Buckley PD Chief Kurt Alfano. The department is working to identify suspects, Alfano said.

“Right now, we have a theft of property crime,” Alfano said in a Monday email describing the possible criminal violations at play. “We will be checking to see if there are any other possible criminal charges as it relates to the flag bearing LGBT.”

The flag wasn’t down for long. Felisha Ford, local resident and co-owner of the Nomad PNW cafe, asked the town to put the flag up in the first place, and she has plenty more in storage. She and a couple other city officials put a new Pride flag up around noon the following Sunday.

“They can take as many as they want down, but I have backups,” Ford said.

The rainbow flag is the most widely used and well-known flag representing the LGBT (also called queer) community. The flag was designed in 1978 as a symbol of hope and a representation of the diversity of people across the community.

This month marks the first time it’s been raised at town hall in Wilkeson’s history, town clerk Marie Wellock confirmed. It may be the first time — or at least the first in a long time — the town has even deviated from its typical flag setup.

Ford asked the town council on May 11 to fly the flag on the city’s flag pole during June, which is LGBT Pride Month. The council agreed. But at the next meeting — May 25 — Mayor Jeff Sellers brought up a concern: The town doesn’t have a flag policy, and should have developed one before agreeing to deviate from their existing flagpole, which ordinarily flies the American flag, the State of Washington flag and the Prisoners of War / Missing in Action flag.

“That opens the door for anybody who approaches this council (to request their flag be flown),” Sellers said at that meeting. “What we need is a policy.”

At that meeting, council members Bill Summers and Rick Sellers moved to rescind the earlier motion to fly the Pride flag, but the other three members — Krista Farmer, Ashley Murphy and Bambi Thawsh — voted it down.

So the flag was still on to fly all month, with one already agreed-upon exception: It would have to come down and be replaced by the POW/MIA flag on 6/14 for Flag Day. In the meantime, the POW/MIA flag would be taken down and stored.

The Pride flag went up the morning of Wednesday, June 1, with a “tremendously positive” response Ford said: People drove through town and stopped to say ‘thank you.’ Parents recounted their kids noticing the flags on the way to school and feeling appreciated.

“It means a lot to lot of people,” Ford said.

But to others in town, the decision to hoist the flag in place of the POW/MIA flag seemed unfair or even disrespectful.

“I got other people calling me, and they were upset, big time,” Mayor Sellers said.

The pole by Town Hall is a three-flag pole, Sellers said, and running both flags would have been improper.

So that Saturday, Sellers installed a new pole across the parking lot from town hall near, and with the help of two other men, moved the Pride flag onto the new pole the following Sunday so the POW/MIA flag could go back up on the main pole full-time.

“I personally thought I was doing something right,” Sellers said. “There was no malice involved. What I thought was, ‘I could fix the problem.’”

Sellers said he’s got nothing against the Pride flag and acted out of a desire to keep his community happy.

“First thing I do, is I check my opinion at the door when I walk in (to city hall),” Sellers said. “I represent the town.”

Sellers didn’t get the council’s official approval to make the change. That’s part of why the decision frustrated Ford, who pointed out that moving the flag went against the town’s original pledge to raise it on the main flag pole.

“This goes against what the council had previously agreed on … and what was communicated to the community,” Ford said. “I did go through the proper process and protocol twice, and so my question is how come they’re not doing the same.”

Dinwiddie said he believes that the mayor was trying to do right by his constituents.

But “my concern is that none of those people went through the process Felisha did,” Dinwiddie said. “She came to Town Hall, made her request. It was discussed, voted on.”

Concerns over the flag situation were, clearly, not assuaged.

So town staff, under Seller’s direction, moved the Pride flag back to the main pole, where it will stay for the rest of the month (sans Flag Day). The POW/MIA flag will stay on the new pole.

“I’m just trying to make things right,” Sellers said.

Wellock has been researching the details of drafting a flag policy and the Town Council may eventually put it to a vote. Sellers pointed out that Wilkeson is currently looking at getting its own town flag — so they’ll have to figure out where to put that one, too.

Wellock also confirmed that the recent theft of the flag is unrelated to any actions by town leadership.

The matter came to a head at the town’s June 8 council meeting, which saw the small council chambers packed with around 30 or 40 people eager to speak or spectate on the town’s flag discussion.

Dinwiddie and Ford shared their disappointment in the herky-jerky moving of the flag, and several others also shared perspectives on the flag situation.

“In my family, in my inner circle, I live, breathe, celebrate and enjoy the life of many LGBTQ people,” said Jack W, a veteran and retired member of the U.S. Coast Guard, during the public comment period. “They are people who deserve to live a life free of persecution. That being said, where do those rights come from? … Who fought for them, oftentimes side by side? … One group would happen to be our veterans, and the MIAs and POWs who laid down their lives. … Those POWs, those MIAs, deserve constant recognition, and one specific way we do that is flying the POW/MIA flag.”

Meghann Stansberry, a teacher in Buckley whose children attend Wilkeson Elementary, said the Pride flag is “incredibly important” for children in the area.

“I have veterans in my family,” Stansberry said. “My great-grandfather was a POW. I respect those flags. I want them up as much as possible. But I will tell you that our youth need to feel important. They need to know that in their community, they count. … When we put that flag up there last week, you told those kids ‘You’re important to us. We care about you.’”

Halfway into its tenure on the town flag pole, plenty of dust has been kicked up around the Pride flag.

But in an interview after the June 8 council meeting, Dinwiddie pointed out an interesting — and poetic — fact about that flag’s history.

The rainbow flag was originally designed by Gilbert Baker, an artist from Kansas. The LGBT community at the time had used the Pink triangle, originally a symbol used by the Nazi party to identify gay men in concentration camps, and reclaimed it as a symbol of self-identity. But the community was ready for a new, optimistic symbol free from the dark memory of the Holocaust.

Gay rights leader Harvey Milk challenged Baker to come up with a new symbol, and he chose the rainbow; the colors of the modern design stand for Life, Healing, Sunlight, Nature, Serenity and Spirit. The flag, which Baker refused to copyright, has now become a modern-day symbol for the LGBT community.

But Baker, who died in 2017, was more than just an artist and activist: He was also a U.S. Army Veteran, drafted during the Vietnam War and serving as a medic and nurse in San Francisco as an openly gay man.

Baker admitted in a 2008 interview for the University of Kansas that his time in the military was “horrible,” and that he was subject to abuse and violence as the gay guy in the barracks.

“And even though everybody else was giving me a hard time, I was the one that’s showing them how to have a good time, how to enjoy life and get into the groove,” Baker said.