For a second consecutive year, the Merced City Council has agreed to fly the rainbow flag — also known as the gay pride flag or LGBT Pride flag — over Bob Hart Square in downtown Merced for the entire month of June.
The flag is a symbol of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer pride and LGBTQ+ social movements. In Merced, supporters have asked that the “Progress Pride Flag” version of the rainbow standard be flown. This flag also highlights transgender pride, communities of color, and the fight to end racial discrimination.
Merced leaders approved the flag as part of an annual schedule that opens up the community flag pole area to local groups. The pride flag will fly alongside the U.S. and California flags.
The decision on Monday night was 5-1, with Mayor Pro Tem Kevin Blake voting NO. Councilman Fernando Echevarria was absent.
The flag was first approved to fly last year through efforts made by the Merced Pride Center, a nonprofit group located on the second level of the Multicultural Arts Center in downtown Merced. The nonprofit focuses on uplifting LGBTQ+ voices, providing safe spaces for the community, and helping them achieve a state of personal wellness.
Jennifer McQueen, the executive director at the center, said many community members “started to come out into the open” after the flag was first displayed over Main Street.
“Immediately, they started to feel comfortable being downtown,” she said. “Downtown should really be a popular and inclusive spot for everyone in this town to come to. As soon as that flag went up, it encouraged more folks to be like, ‘This city accepts me. … This city is safe for me.’”
However, there are Merced residents who oppose the idea of flying the pride flag in the town square, and some have brought their comments to City Hall.
“I want to discourage you from doing that, and any other flags besides the United States flag,” Sarah Thomas told city leaders. “I mean are we going to start doing Catholic and Muslim, and all these other groups’ flags?”
Merced resident Rick Wendling took to the public comment podium on Monday night and started saying: “Homosexuality has been part of humanity forever; however, our society is going to be destroyed when our …”
Wendling was then interrupted by Mayor Matthew Serratto who cautioned Wendling about using “abusive language.”
“How is that abusive?” Wendling shot back.
Serratto mentioned to Wendling that he had used the word “destroyed,” and then Wendling revised his comments by saying: “OK … It will deteriorate if that agenda is promoted. And I admonish the council to not fly the flag that promotes that particular kind of behavior. It doesn’t help our society by promoting it by flying that flag. Do not do that.”
Resident Jose Herrera got up next and had a different perspective.
“The raising of this flag does not take anything away from anyone else,” he said. “It shows me that I have a city that is willing to accept me for who I am. The raising of this flag shows me that I have a community here who is willing to accept me, take care of me, and willing to help me thrive. The raising of this flag is important for people like me who are looking for a symbol of hope — for a community, for a better future.”
With such a heated topic that has many community members divided, the Merced Pride Center leadership is guiding members to focus on engaging and encouraging community members to participate in conversations.
“For me, what I told my staff really is that the visibility is working.” McQueen said. “Let’s not focus on the negativity, let’s focus on the fact that now the community at-large is being brought into the conversation, and even if they’re coming with toxicity and negativity, at least they’re coming to the table and they are engaging in conversation.”
Said Adam Lane, president of the Merced LGBTQ+ Alliance: “This flag being flown in Bob Hard Square has nothing to do with us vs any other people or group because we are indeed in every facet of humanity and society. We are in your neighborhood, we are in your school, we are in the healthcare system that is helping you. … This flag not only includes the traditional rainbow colors, but also a black and brown stripe for people of color, and the trans colors of white blue and pink to highlight the inter-sexuality at play.”
Before voting Monday night, Mayor Pro Tem Blake voiced his opinion on why he was voting ‘NO.’
“Like I mentioned last meeting, I generally support the community,” he said. “But I am a firm believer it’s taxpayer funded property, and therefore the American flag, California flag, and military flags should be the only flags flying on taxpayer property.”
Councilwoman Perez rebutted his argument by stating that members of the LGBTQ community also pay taxes.
Several residents inside the council chamber clapped after the final decision.
The flag will fly over Bob Hart Square through the month of June beginning with a flag raising ceremony on June 1.