Earlier this year, Marshall Middle School in southwestern Minnesota put up a small cultural display in the cafeteria.
It included a few flags from nations around the world, as well as a rainbow pride flag.
Cut to Tuesday night, when a large crowd of tense community members crammed into the school board chambers to give their two cents at a public forum on the display. You can guess which flag they wanted to talk about.
Resident after resident took to the mic and said they had a problem with the flag appearing in a public school. Many quoted scripture, claiming being gay or trans went “against God’s preordained purposes and order," and the rainbow flag might “confuse” or demoralize students who feel the same way.
Some brought up conversion therapy – the debunked practice of trying to turn a queer person straight or a trans person cis -- in a positive light. Some were just generally upset.
“What’s next? Curriculum? Teaching this lifestyle in our classrooms?” parent Mohammed Ahmed asked.
This was the second meeting in a row the district turned out for a massive debate on the pride flag. Despite the strong feelings present, there seemed to be some disagreement in the room about what queerness actually is. More than a few residents speaking out against the flag referred to it as a “lifestyle” or a “belief.”
Then there was this guy, who cryptically claimed the “lifespan of a homosexual” was around 42 years.
One eighth-grade Marshall Middle School student said he’d circulated a petition against the pride flag, and that a teacher had taken it away and given it to the principal. Later, he said, he and his fellow students had put up their own flags on their lockers -- including the “Don’t Tread on Me” snake design, according to the Marshall Independent -- only to see them taken down over recess. He said he heard a teacher had removed them.
“If that young boy accurately described what happened to him, some teacher in your school district violated his constitutional rights unequivocally,” Minneapolis attorney Bill Mohrman told the crowd. Mohrman said a few residents had retained him for a possible lawsuit against the board if they failed to craft some kind of policy around what flags can and can’t be displayed in the schools. (He didn't respond to interview requests.)
Plenty – some of them pastors themselves, and some of them students – spoke out in favor of the flag, and have been for weeks. Marshall High School GSA advisor Karrie Alberts bluntly told the assembly to stop treating queer and trans students like their identities are “controversial.” The kids, she said, are watching.
“Kids can only hear so many times the public shaming and these hurtful online comments,” she said. “They are absorbing these words. They cannot hear that they are ungodly, or they are second-rate, or that they should be hidden away in some other room.”
Marshall resident Stephanie Streeter had a sick kid at home and couldn’t attend that night, but she was one of the several hundred people who watched the YouTube recording the next day. She says she’s disappointed, but not necessarily surprised.
“This is a very conservative area,” she says. (Marshall’s Lyon County went hard for President Donald Trump in 2016 with about 60 percent of the vote.) And she’s concerned. She has a lot of friends who are “still in the closet,” and that flag, she says, is a symbol of love and support for them. She worries what will happen if the town’s outcry is enough to take it away.
“It’s so hard knowing the suicide rate among LGBTQ kids,” she says. “That kind of stuff does happen around here.”
She and her fellow moms have convened via Facebook to discuss what to do. Some suggested reaching out to queer advocacy group Outfront Minnesota for advice, or protesting outside the school, or decking out the whole town in pride flags.
But at this point, it’s not certain what the district administration will do. Marshall Superintendent Scott Monson wasn’t available to comment, but previously told the Independent that he’d have to consult with the school district’s attorneys if there really is a lawsuit on the horizon.