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The Learning Council to "Color the Town" during Pride Month

A volunteer hangs a “Pride Flag” on a Town of  Paonia light pole in 2022.
The Learning Council
A volunteer hangs a “Pride Flag” on a Town of Paonia light pole in 2022.

Last year, the town of Paonia approved the flying of Rainbow Flags on Grand Avenue in commemoration of Pride Month. The flags flew un-interrupted until June 14th when they were replaced with the American flag for Flag Day. The next day the Pride flags returned and so did the complaint from those who found the banners offensive.

Over the next several months, the issue boiled over during town meetings. It was then placed in the hands of the street committee and local citizens to hammer out an acceptable ‘flag policy’. The committee produced a draft policy that, if adopted, would allow for the display of numerous heritage flags including the Pride flag.

In November 2022, roughly five months after the rainbow flag controversy, Paonia town council took up the draft ‘flag policy.’ In the end, the board struck the section which included the ceremonial, commemorative and special occasion flags as-well- as all the flags celebrating history and heritage designated months including the Pride flag.

What was left in the flag policy was “the legal safe road” as explained by Mayor Mary Bachran.

"The U.S flag, the state flag and then if the town owns some other kind of flags like the banners that are currently flying on the DMEA poles. The town purchased those from the Creative Coalition so, those are town owned banners and so we can fly those."

During the November meeting, Councilor Paige Smith made clear where she stood on the role of government and the troubling flag issue.

"Again, remember we are a municipality. We are not a social club. We are here to provide services for the public, streets, sidewalks, water, sewer. We have not obligation to be the bulletin board for everything that comes along. We just can't. We just don't have the bandwidth or the staff," Smith told the council, " So, I really think we have to drill this down... American flag, Colorado flag, town purchased decorations because we've been doing Christmas decoration since forever."

Alicia Michelsen, executive director for The Learning Council in Paonia, which advocates for the LGBTQ plus community, found the town council’s decision disappointing.

"It felt like a 'no' especially in light of the fact that a week after they made the decision, they put Christmas decorations all around the town which was something that came up in the conversations as we were discussing the Pride flags."

Michelsen says that while she likes Christmas and Christmas decorations, she also likes Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. For the LGBT advocate, the issue is about inclusion versus privilege.

"Creating space for some cultures and celebrations but not a variety. That felt like second smack in the face. One week were going to say, 'no' and the next week were going to hang the Christmas decorations and were going to leave those up until February," said Michelsen.

For the town board, fair in the eyes of some, wasn’t the aim but rather an attempt to avoid lawsuits and dampen down the flames of controversy. Town Attorney Nick Cotton-Baez advised that the town could, if it chose to, include heritage month flags as town government speech and allow for the flying of the Pride flags, however, his recommendation fell short as the board voted down any official approval related to history, heritage and special flags.

Despite the restrictive flag policy, The Learning Council is “ making lemonade” out of what it sees as a sour deal.

"You know of course it was disappointing for the flags to be voted down but people still felt like we can still send that message that we are affirming our LGBTQ community and that we welcome everybody here in our community. So, we can do that on a more personal level," Michelsen concluded.

This Pride season the non-profit is running a "Color the Town" campaign which encourages local businesses and residents to proudly fly Pride Flags throughout the month. To further its mission, the non-profit is giving away free flags and offering installation as well.

Copyright 2023 KVNF - Mountain Grown Community Radio. To see more, visit KVNF - Mountain Grown Community Radio.

Lisa Young is a multimedia journalist living on the Western Slope of Colorado. She currently works as a freelance reporter for KVNF "Mountain Grown Community Radio" in Paonia, Colorado.