This month, Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its LGBT student organization, MT Lambda. To commemorate the occasion, MT Lambda has created a display in the lobby of the campus library, which includes artifact’s from the group’s history. One item—an American flag with rainbow stripes that the group has used for several years—suddenly is causing controversy.
According to Nashville’s News Channel 5, complaints about the offending flag began trickling into the MTSU dean’s office shortly after MT Lambda installed the retrospective. Those opposed to the flag charge that it violates laws against desecrating the American flag.
MTSU spokesman Andrew Oppmann told News Channel 5 that the university had done its due diligence to ensure that the MT Lambda’s inclusion of the flag was protected free speech and did not violate any laws. “We wanted… to make sure through legal counsel and through the attorney generals that this was properly, constitutionally respected, protected speech,” Oppmann explained. “And it is.”
“It’s a symbol of pride for our community,” added MT Lambda president Joshua Rigsby. “It’s really caught us by surprise that this flag has caused so much controversy, because in essence it’s not an American flag. It’s symbolic of that… Desecrating an American flag would entail ripping, or shredding, or burning an actual 13 red and white strip American flag, and that’s not what this is.”
Tennessee isn’t exactly a bastion of queer equality. Last March, an MTSU poll found that 62 percent of people in the state oppose equal marriage, and 31 percent support a law that would make it illegal to talk about homosexuality in elementary and middle schools.
At the same time, MTSU historically has maintained a tough resolve when faced with backlash against its LGBT community. MT Lambda was founded in 1988, when support for queer rights was virtually nonexistent in Tennessee. More recently, in April 2012, the university funded a pro-gay marriage video directed by Professor Bob Pondillo. Pondillo cast child actors as adults in the short, which triggered cries of corrupting innocents. The university refused to cede to pressure to withhold the video.
Now, true to form, MTSU has no plans to take down the rainbow flag in MT Lambda’s library display, letting homophobes on campus know that those colors, like a proper queen’s mascara, do not run.