Wednesday, December 7

In one Ohio city, the Pride flags went up. Then were removed. Then were restored. All in 24 hours.

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A whirlwind 24 hours in Medina, Ohio saw the installation of 29 LGBTQ+ Pride flags around the Town Square, the removal of some of those flags by the city, and then their restoration.

“I was doing a happy dance. And then I wasn’t.” said Sandy Varndell, founder and president of OutSupport, a Medina-based LGBTQ+ support organization.

Varndell and members of OutSupport had been asking city administrators for years to approve the installation of Pride flags in their northeast Ohio municipality, 30 miles south of Cleveland.

“Our requests have always been denied as they told us that if they put up a Pride flag, they would have to put up the flags of anyone who asked,” Varndell said.

When they heard in March that Mayor Dennis Hanwell’s office had approved Juneteenth flags to fly in 2022, they saw an opportunity. Varndell reached out to Medina City Councilmember Jessica Hazeltine—a known LGBTQ+ ally—for an assist.

Hazeltine leapt into action.

“I called the Mayor and he agreed to flying the Pride flags as part of Medina’s commitment to being a welcoming place for all people,” Hazeltine said.

The only hitch: OutSupport would have to shoulder the costs for the flags and the spinnable poles needed to prevent the flags from getting tangled.

Varndell went online and purchased 29 flags and 29 poles.

“We spent around $1,000, which is a lot for our little nonprofit, but totally worth it,” Varndell said.

On June 1—the first day of Pride Month—the city installed the 29 flags and poles around the Medina Town Square.

Varndell said the experience watching the flags being raised was incredible, particularly as they provided visibility for the LGBTQ+ people who live, work, play and pray in Medina. She said the feedback she received was overwhelmingly positive.

Pride flags in Medina

“People were calling and posting and gushing about how they suddenly felt welcomed and seen in the city,” Varndell said.

That excitement proved short-lived as she received a voicemail the next morning on June 2 from the Mayor’s office informing her that the flags needed to be removed and that the Juneteenth flags would no longer be installed either.

The explanation provided was that the law director had consulted with other Ohio city law directors who were advising that specific flags not be flown given the recent Supreme Court decision.

On May 2,  the Court ruled unanimously in favor of a Harold Shurtleff, a petitioner whose application to fly a Christian flag on Boston city property was denied. The Court ruled that the flags raised on city property as part of the program did not constitute government speech, but rather individual free speech. Therefore, the City of Boston violated the First Amendment rights of the petitioner by denying his application to fly a religious flag.

As had recently taken place in another Ohio city, some municipalities are interpreting that decision by choosing not to fly any LGBTQ-related flags for fear of not being able to deny the petitions of flags the city might find questionable.

As Medina city employees began removing some of the flags, Varndell posted an update on social media. The mayor’s office was soon flooded with calls and e-mails calling for a reversal.

Councilmember Hazeltine was one of those calls.

“I immediately called the law director and I spoke it through with him,” Hazeltine said. “There was an issue of using government employees and putting the flags on government property. Right now, the city of Medina has nothing in place for this regarding who can and who cannot fly flags.”

With the citizen outcry and a previously agreed-upon commitment to fly the Pride and Juneteenth the flags, the mayor’s office changed direction a few hours later.

Employees restored the Pride flags that were removed and the Mayor articulated his pledge to fly the Juneteenth flags.

Pride flags in Medina

“Part of our mission statement is to support diversity and we want to honor and respect the diversity in our community. The law director will be looking into the flag policy.” the mayor’s office said in a statement to The Buckeye Flame.

As promised, the Pride flags will fly until the morning June 13th, will be replaced by American flags for Flag Day, and then the Juneteenth flags will be installed.

For Varndell, the next few weeks of seeing those rainbow flags fly in Medina will continue to be joyous.

“They’re so much more than pieces of fabric,” Varndell said. “These flags say, ‘You are welcome here.'”  🔥

Additional reporting by H.L. Comeriato

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About Author

Ken Schneck is the Editor of The Buckeye Flame. He received the 2021 Sarah Pettit Memorial Award for the LGBTQ Journalist of the Year from the NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists. He is the author of "Seriously, What Am I Doing Here? The Adventures of a Wondering and Wandering Gay Jew" (2017), "LGBTQ Cleveland" (2018), "LGBTQ Columbus" (2019), and "LGBTQ Cincinnati" (2020). In his spare time, he is a professor of education at Baldwin Wallace University.

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