Flying the Rainbow Flag at Mitcham Council: How I Voted & Why

Mitcham_Logo_copy1I’m an Elected Councillor on the City of Mitcham, in South Australia. On last night’s agenda, Council was presented for decision a request by the organisers of the FEAST Queer Cultural Festival to fly the rainbow flag for the two-week duration of the festival.

The motion passed.

It is an interesting and nuanced matter, which gives rise to the question of how governments should prioritise solidarity, symbolically or otherwise, with different portions of our community.  Recently at the neighbouring Marion Council, there has been heated debate and publicity after a decision to permanently fly the rainbow flag on one of their six flag poles.

Last night, during the Mitcham debate, one Councillor said he felt he simply had to vote for it, for fear of being branded as old, out of touch, and too conservative. Hardly a stance of solidarity.

I have several family members, friends and colleagues who identify as LGBTIQ. Yesterday, prior to the vote, I discussed the matter over lunch with a gay friend.

There is precedent for this Council demonstrating solidarity in this way, namely with Tibet, however it is unusual.

I voted against the motion. I believe a more appropriate occasion to fly the rainbow flag is on International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

Let me explain my reasons.

Firstly, Mitcham has just two flagpoles, currently flying the Australian Flag and the emblem of the City of Mitcham. We do not permanently fly the Aboriginal Flag, representing the First Peoples of Australia. That appears only during Reconciliation Week. Mitcham has a proud history as the second Council in South Australia, however that is still rather shorter than the many thousands of years the Kaurna people dwelt as its custodians. In respect of their ongoing spiritual and cultural relationship with the land, I have trouble supporting a motion that elevates this particular symbolic gesture for a longer period than the recognition of the First Peoples.

Secondly, a debate exists currently on the possibility of changing the Marriage Act to permit marriage between two persons of any gender. That legislation is a federal matter, with some state implications, and has nothing to do with Local Government. I believe flying the rainbow flag for a two week period could appear as tacit support by the City of Mitcham for one side of that debate. That would be an inappropriate position to take. But flying the flag on a single, internationally recognised, day would limit that perception.

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Thirdly, I am reluctant to link appropriate solidarity with residents of Mitcham who identity as LGBTQI to a specific Queer Festival featuring a suite of events which appeal to only some of the community. I’m not necessarily convinced the way to help a young person struggling with their sexual identity is to point to this festival as the representative expression of LGBTQI life.

I actually enjoy alternative and more edgy artistic expression, and certainly would affirm, even fight for, the right of the artists to express them in whichever way they desire. However, I’m not totally convinced it’s in Mitcham Council’s best interests to link our solidarity with LGBTQI residents directly to this event.

The organisers of the Queer Festival themselves (rightly) note in their letter that a rationale for their request is that “our (GLBTQI) community as a whole is still subject to discrimination, violence, misunderstanding and fear, which can manifest in violent attacks, verbal abuse and bullying”. 

That behaviour is not to be tolerated in our community.

And so as I think it very appropriate that we participate in the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, a ‘global day aimed at drawing people’s attention to the discrimination still faced by same sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse people and a massive celebration of sexual diversity and gender diversity’ rather than Mitcham establishing a pattern of aligning with a festival.

If last night’s motion has not passed, I would have moved a motion to that effect.

Lastly, it’s important to note that my alternative suggestion does align with my preference of a pluralist society which leans toward publicly celebrating diversity, rather than an alternative vision of a removing all such symbolic references from the public space.

I note, for example, the debate in recent years over restrictions to Christmas decorations in schools, and the debate in other Councils about the geographic location of mosques. I believe as a multi-cultural, multi-faith community, the role of government is to seek the peace and prosperity of all its residents. I do hope the inclusive spirit of diversity which has prompted this decision extends to many other parts of the community also.

A final word: It was encouraging to participate in the constructive and positive debate at Council, in which everyone spoke and all views were listened to carefully, and in what can only be described as our usual good-natured and respectful atmosphere. A credit to my fellow Councillors.