The Trump Administration Was Not Down With Displaying a Rainbow Flag on Federal Land

Illustration for article titled The Trump Administration Was Not Down With Displaying a Rainbow Flag on Federal Land
Photo: Mark Lennihan/AP

Queer activists celebrated when it was announced in 2017 that a rainbow flag would be flown outside the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, where a riot in 1969 helped inaugurate the gay rights movement. The flag was to fly in Christopher Park, right outside of Stonewall Inn, which was designated in 2016 as a national monument.


It turns out that another group was not so happy about the decision to display a rainbow flag on federal land, as was revealed in documents released thanks to a Freedom of Information Act Request, according to E&E News. The emails showed that officials in the Trump administration sent emails to the National Park Service questioning why the flag was being flown and working to get it taken down.

“Can you please get details from NPS and report back?” Todd Willens, who was an assistant deputy secretary and is now the chief of staff to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, wrote in one of the emails.


In October 2017, days before the flag was supposed to be honored with a ceremony, Willens ordered that it be removed.

“Todd instructed us to remove all flags—U.S., NPS, the POW-MIA and pride flags—from the pole tonight,” Bob Vogel, who was then the NPS acting deputy director of operations, wrote in an email to Mike Reynolds, then the NPS acting director, according to E&E. “He was OK with us donating all flags except NPS to the city... Needless to say there is significant concern on how this will transpire with the community.”

A bizarre series of events then took place, ending in the flagpole being designated as not a part of the federal monument.

From E&E:

In the end, NPS and Interior officials had it both ways: The rainbow flag that signifies gay pride would fly at Stonewall, but on a flagpole deemed not on federal property, even though it’s inside the monument’s boundary lines and the park’s own superintendent assumed it was owned by the federal government. The NPS disposed of the flag by donating it to the New York parks department, which now owns both the flagpole and the flag.


What a pointless waste of time!

The whole thing was apparently a headache for the officials involved, who had to try to explain the change in plans to reporters, E&E describes.

Minerva Anderson, chief of communications for the National Parks of New York Harbor, appeared to follow the script when she told a top NPS official how she had described the transfer to a reporter.

“We partner with N.Y. city parks to manage Christopher Park, so we gifted the flag to them. Oy vey,” she wrote to Jane Ahern, NPS associate regional director for external affairs.


Oy vey indeed.

LGBTQ activists were furious upon learning of the administration’s decision to hand over the flag to the city.


“The feds were washing their hands of the whole project—it was crazy town; it was shocking,” Ken Kidd, an events organizer and LGBTQ activist in New York, told E&E.

Kidd, who was involved in organizing the flag ceremony, said it was obvious when Washington got involved in the plans.


“The communication just changed completely and dramatically,” Kidd told E&E. “There was a little bit of radio silence, and then, as the emails will attest, the message changed, and then suddenly the flagpole wasn’t part of the federal envelope.”

It was LGBTQ activist Michael Petrelis who originally requested that a rainbow flag be flown over the park in 2017. President Obama had designated the park as a monument a year earlier.


“It was something that was necessary,” Petrelis told E&E. “When you have a national gay monument, you have to fly the rainbow flag, especially when you have a flagpole on your property. It was just really strange.”

Petrelis was filed the FOIA alongside WCBS NewsRadio 880 to request information about the decision to give the flag and flagpole to the city.


“The first thing that stood out was the absence of substantive information about what the controversy was about,” Petrelis told E&E. “It was clear to me as longtime government transparency advocate that these were professional bureaucrats who knew not to memorialize in writing their substantive discussions.”

Petrelis is right. In one email, John Warren, a communications official in Philadelphia, reminds his colleagues that “this exchange could be subject to a FOIA request in the future.”


The Parks service decline E&E’s request for comment.

This isn’t the only case in which the Trump administration has displayed hostility to the rainbow flag, and by extension the LGBTQ community. This month, the administration told U.S. embassies to not fly the flag during Pride month.


Read the rest of the story over at E&E News.

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