I once read a story of a man, feeling left behind by America because he was, perhaps, a different color, spoke a different language, or had a different sexual orientation, who stood on a sidewalk and talked about feeling left out.
No one cared; the passersby simply went on their way, refusing to hear him.
But he returned the next day to that same street corner, hoping to once again spread the message of his disenfranchisement, but this time he carried an American flag. And this time, while he spoke about being thought of as less than, being thought of as, perhaps, not a true American, he burned the flag.
This time people listened. But this time the man was arrested and charged with desecrating an American flag. He was found not guilty because his flag burning was called Free Speech, but sometimes, sometimes, you have to shake things up to get people’s attention, even if you’re not trying to do so.
Now I hear about another flag that has folks are riled up and talking about being un-American, about desecrating Old Glory. But this is a flag made up of stars and stripes—rainbow stripes—as part of a display put together by MT Lambda, the Middle Tennessee State University LGBT student organization.
Within days of the group installing the display — marking the 25th anniversary of MT Lambda and LGBT History Month — complaints began pouring in to the dean’s office. Joshua Rigsby, president of MT Lambda, says he’s surprised by the reaction:
"It's really caught us by surprise that this flag has caused so much controversy, because in essence it's not an American flag, it's symbolic of that."
Other people disagree, including one anonymous viewer's complaint to the local news station that reported the story.
"This is just un-American and against the law. They removed red white and blue replaced with the rainbow."
Rigsby also explained that this iteration of the Rainbow Flag has been around for decades and is not a desecration of the American flag.
"Desecrating an American flag would entail ripping, or shredding, or burning an actual 13 red and white strip American flag, and that's not what this is."
What’s even more interesting is that this is not the first time that MT Lambda has used this particular flag; they have marched in homecoming events every year carrying this flag, but after this year’s complaints were brought to the Dean's attention, university leaders not only contacted MTSU counsel, but also the Tennessee Attorney General's office.
And the news was good, according to university spokesman Andrew Oppmann:
"And their advice to us, since they are a registered student organization, and that this is constitutionally protected free speech, that their right of expression is protected."
Still, the controversy has the school divided, with some students expressing distaste for the installation:
"It's kind of like a new kind of America that people are trying to present. I don't agree with it, but America's always been like that. I don't agree with it because I have my own Christian views, but I think in a sense, I mean it's not like you could go around hanging a flag that has a cross on it in the library."— MTSU freshman Laura Short
It’s not a new America, Laura, it’s an America that should be representative of all of its people, and it has nothing, nothing, to do with your Christianity. The flag is for all of us, gay, straight, black, white, Christian, Jew, Muslim, atheist. And this flag is not an American flag, but an iteration of that flag; a way of bringing attention to a group of Americans that for many years, many years, has been treated as less than, not counted, disenfranchised.
And, if it got you thinking, wondering about the world outside your own limited view, maybe that’s a good thing? Just like that man on the street corner.