A Catholic school board in Ontario, Canada, has decided not to allow schools to fly LGBTQ+ Pride month flags, following a controversy over which of two competing designs should be allowed to be used. The board has promised further discussion on the topic for next year.
The Waterloo Catholic District School Board (WCDSB) had rejected requests from students in at least two of the district’s schools last year to fly the traditional rainbow Pride flag. This year, the school board designed an alternate flag which displays a group of multicolored figures standing underneath the open arms of Jesus.
Students, some trustees, and members of the local LGBTQ+ community criticized the alternate flag, arguing that flying the traditional flag would have been a clearer and greater show of support for the LGBTQ+ community. As a result of the controversy, the school board decided not to fly any flag at all, saying in a statement:
“After receiving feedback from the broader community – but, more importantly, also from some of our students — it is clear that the WCDSB’s decision to fly a provincially developed image on a flag during June, to mark Pride month, which was intended to send a message of unity and support, has instead led to division.
“Out of sincere respect for all viewpoints shared, the school board will not fly any flag during Pride month.
“The proposed flag will be displayed in school foyers throughout the 2020-21 school year, as the school board consults with the LGBTQ community on next steps leading to Pride Month 2021.”
The school trustees were divided over using the alternative flag. Trustee Melanie van Alphen stated in a board meeting, “You have spent a significant amount of time meeting, discussing and designing a flag that you feel represents Pride month, but there is already a flag for that and it’s the rainbow flag.” She continued:
“With all due respect. I feel putting this design up as a symbol for Pride month is disrespectful and insulting, in my opinion, to the LGBTQ community.”
Yet Trustee Greg Reitzel, strongly defended the school board’s choice not to fly the traditional rainbow Pride flag. “If it came to us flying the Pride flag, with my belief that pride is the deadliest of the deadly sins, I honestly would have to resign because I could not support a decision to actually fly a Pride flag,” Reitzel said in the meeting. After receiving intense push back for these comments, Reitzel released a statement saying that his words were taken out of the original context of the meeting and that he supported the alternate flag designed by the board because “it is truly inclusive of all.”
LGBTQ+ community members did not support the alternate flag. Alan Quarry, a well-known entrepreneur in the Waterloo region and the founder of Heart Beats Hate, a pro-diversity group, drew attention to petitions submitted to the school board by the students in the community. “That’s what the students want, and I would say most of the parents would be fine with that — but to deny putting the flag up there because ‘oh..well.. you know’ — that isn’t 2020 talking, that’s more like 1920,” Quarry said.
Cait Glasson, president of Spectrum, the Waterloo region’s LGBTQ organization, called the alternate flag a “step” given the history between the Catholic Church and the LGBTQ+ community. She elaborated:
“There’s nothing sinful about the rainbow flag, none of the colours stand for anything (except for) things like love, sunlight, and health, and the colours are meant to represent values of our community, not the people. . . .
“I don’t want to slap away a gesture extended … that’s what it feels like to me … and that’s something I want to encourage, not smack away. . . .
“We have to recognize what an incredible step it is that they’re willing to recognize that there is such a thing as pride (week).”
In response to the school board decision, James Parrott, the executive director of Spectrum, published an open letter to the school board, explaining the history and symbolism of the traditional rainbow Pride flag. Parrott wrote in the letter, “While we commend the values espoused in the proposed flag, it does not have the same powerful and positive symbolism and meaning of the Pride flag.” He also said that “Choosing not to fly any flag is choosing to erase queer people and queer culture in your schools.”
The controversy in Waterloo highlights many of the issues surrounding inclusion in the Catholic Church today. Catholic organizations often show an institutional unwillingness to explicitly support the LGBTQ+ community in ways that will be recognized as signs of respect and affirmation. The good part here is that the controversy over the flag has sparked continuing dialogue between the Church and the LGBTQ+ community. This dialogue is necessary for the Church to live out its aspirational ideals of truly welcoming all persons.
–Madeline Foley, June 4, 2020