Although the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of Portland’s Pride parade for the second year in a row, Mainers are flying flags in solidarity with the LGBTQIA+ community this month and, thanks to widespread vaccine acceptance, have new in-person ways to celebrate and show their pride.
EqualityMaine has given away more than 2,000 pride flags across the state and raised $23,000 as part of an initiative that was more successful than organizers anticipated.
Christopher O’Connor, development director for EqualityMaine, said in an interview last week that he had the idea to give away Pride flags after realizing how difficult it can be to find the flags in stores.
Portland and South Portland city councilors encouraged residents to hang the flags on their properties in January after several homes in the cities received anonymous letters containing homophobic slurs. Two of the homes that received letters had Pride flags on display; another home did not have a flag flying but has a gay resident.
O’Connor said, however, it can be tough to find Pride flags for purchase when it’s not June, so he posted on the EqualityMaine social media channels in January that his organization would be giving away Pride flags to anyone who wanted one. The post also stated people picking up the flags were invited to make donations to EqualityMaine if they wanted to.
Within a day of the post, 100 flags were gone. The next day, 250 more flags had been given away.
“Two weeks (later) we had given away 500 Pride flags and people donated just around $9,000 to support our work and it was phenomenal,” O’Connor said. “It was overwhelming.”
In addition to supporting the anti-hate resolutions in Portland and South Portland, EqualityMaine has also actively opposed three pieces of legislation at the state level that O’Connor described as “anti-trans” bills.
Two of the bills proposed this spring, LD 926 and LD 1401, would ban transgender youths in Maine from participating in school sports; the other, LD 1238, proposes eliminating trans girls’ and women’s access to private emergency shelters.
All three of the bills remain in committee, according to the Maine Legislature website.
Matt Moonen, executive director of EqualityMaine, said via email on June 7 it is not clear when legislators will vote on the three bills, but the Legislature is set to adjourn next week.
Once EqualityMaine realized how strong the demand for Pride flags was, staffers at the organization began brainstorming how to replicate the initiative on a statewide level. O’Connor reached out to Central Maine Power Co., which is one of EqualityMaine’s top-level annual sponsors, and asked if the electricity provider would provide funding for 2,000 pride flags to give away.
CMP agreed, and soon EqualityMaine successfully set up 54 flag pickup stations. It enlisted the help of different organizations around the state and pledged to give part of any proceeds raised to their local equality efforts.
O’Connor said the success of the statewide initiative was also staggering.
“I initially ordered 1,000 flags because I was like I don’t know how this is going to go,” he said. “Once we hit the day before Pride month and then Pride month, (we were giving away) more than 200 flags per day.”
Flags were distributed in areas as far away from Portland as Presque Isle and Fort Kent, thanks to people in those areas who volunteered to help, O’Connor said. He added he hopes to revive the initiative next year.
The flags were a revamped version of the Pride flag, redesigned in 2018 to feature not only rainbow stripes but also the light pink, blue, and white of the transgender flag and two brown and black stripes to represent people of color in the LGBTQIA+ community.
According to online magazine Them, the redesign of the flag went viral on Twitter last year after the murder of George Floyd. British journalist Chris Godfrey suggested the flag become the “mainstream, default symbol” for the LGBTQIA+ community.
The magazine also said others advocated for the use of the flag during Pride month’s 50th anniversary in June 2019, in honor of activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, transgender women of color who were instrumental in leading the 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City.
Promoting more awareness and visibility of the LGBTQIA+ community through flags, O’Connor said, is a small way to make sure all Mainers can live authentically and free of bias. Having not come out as gay until he was in his mid-20s, he said he cannot imagine what seeing those symbols in his community while growing up would have meant to him.
“We (want) to send messages to kids,” O’Connor said, “(and make them think) ‘I may be being bullied right now, my parents might not understand my gender identity, but there’s a bigger and better world waiting for me.’”
With the annual Portland parade postponed again, O’Connor said it was also important to EqualityMaine to help facilitate some small-scale in-person events this year, including two drag brunches on Peaks Island.