Flying two flags downtown was a small step, but a Parsons man plans for it to be the beginning of a larger movement toward honoring the legacy of the man who became synonymous with the LGBTQ community.
When David Matthew moved to Parsons last summer to join his husband, Dr. Shawn Zimbrunes, he had no idea his new hometown was the place where iconic LGBTQ leader Gilbert Baker spent much of his youth, graduating from Parsons High School in 1969. Eventually, Zimbrunes learned that Parsons once was the hometown of Baker, who created the world famous rainbow flag, also known as the pride flag, that has been the enduring symbol of the LGBTQ community and its battle for equal rights. When his husband told him about that fact, Matthew was shocked because he saw no trace of Baker’s legacy.
“That came as a great surprise because I wondered where is the memorial? Where is the honor of his legacy? Where are the pride flags?” Matthew said.
Instead of just complaining, Matthew decided to do something about what he perceived was a huge oversight or perhaps an unawareness in the general community.
Matthew bought three dozen rainbow flags shortly after the beginning of Pride Month and set about to see who he could get to display them. That was as many as he could get as June had already begun and flags were in short supply.
First he placed his own flag in his yard. Matthew was in tears because he thought it might be the first time a pride flag was flown in Baker’s old hometown. He imagined what it must have been like for Baker growing up in Parsons and not seeing his legacy honored here.
“That’s what motivated me to go out and buy every flag I could find,” Matthew said.
Being a new resident of Parsons, Matthew was unaware a rainbow flag was flown from the flagpole at Labette Community College during the 2017 Gilbert Baker Film Festival that honored him not long after his death.
Several businesses on Main Street expressed interest in flying Matthew’s rainbow flags in front of their storefronts on the lampposts owned by the city, but with the public display of pride flags being such a drastic change in a new direction for Parsons, Matthew decided to keep his request small. He chose Kitchen Pass, 1711 Main, as an ideal location to begin a tribute to Baker and asked city officials if he could use the flag holders on the lampposts in front of the popular restaurant.
City Clerk Gaye Swanwick said this week that City Manager Debbie Lamb told Matthew he could hang the flags as long as Kitchen Pass owner David Pawlus agreed. Lamb was unavailable for comment. City Attorney Ross Albertini said the flag holders were included on the lampposts on a request from a local civic organization that hangs U.S. flags on holidays. The city discourages businesses from hanging other flags from the posts, such as for a sale, but doesn’t really enforce that regulation.
Pawlus agreed to display the two flags out front and even accepted a third flag to hang inside his restaurant. The flags were placed in the first few days of Pride Month. Pawlus said he didn’t know much about Pride Month before Matthew requested the flags to be displayed, but he talked to his wife, Carla, and both agreed they should support the cause.
“I just have friends, co-workers and customers that are gay, and I wanted to support them,” Pawlus said.
Matthew said he thought it was important to fly the flags downtown to “create a disruption as a way to start a conversation,” and “to allow the message of love and inclusion and the celebration of diversity to take center stage in a town that perhaps has not had that conversation before now.” He also wanted everyone in town who self-identifies as LGBTQ to know that they are seen, accepted and visible and that they matter.
Matthew expounded on his thoughts in a prepared statement to the Sun.
“If you’ve grown up your whole life enjoying the sorts of privileges that being ‘in the norm’ will afford you in a community, you simply can’t understand what it’s like to grow up feeling like ‘other.’ When you fear that you will be shunned, rejected, physically harmed, evicted from your home, fired from your job, lose the ability to adopt a child, disowned by your family, excommunicated from your church or otherwise made to feel less than for simply being who you are, it leaves emotional (and sometimes physical) scars that even time may never heal. The rainbow pride flags are a beacon of hope, especially to those who feel like or have felt like ‘other,’ that reminds them they are seen, they are valuable, they are loved, they are equal and they matter,” Matthew wrote.
Matthew donated some of his flags to residents to display at their homes. Many are being displayed by heterosexual people who are considered allies who want to show their support for and increase the visibility of the LGBTQ community, Matthew said.
“And this is one of the most powerful ways in which the pride flag services its function as a symbol of love, compassion and the celebration of diversity,” Matthew said.
Matthew said the Kitchen Pass staff has worked hard to keep the flags safe and protected, but the two outside were stolen recently. Matthew quickly replaced them with two of his own from home. The flags have since been returned. Matthew said it is believed that their theft may have been related to a larger act of vandalism. The investigation is ongoing, so he didn’t want to discuss details.
Matthew said the person’s behavior angered and disappointed him because presumably they may have used the flags as a way to make someone else feel bad about themselves. He is disappointed that they took away from everyone in town the experience of seeing the flags outside of Kitchen Pass.
“And I hope that, at the end of the day, whoever it was that took the flags can learn from this experience, appreciate that their choices and their actions affect the lives of other people in very real ways and decide to make better choices in the future,” Matthew said.
Response to the downtown flags has been overwhelmingly positive, Matthew said. He received messages not only from local residents but also from people all over the country — people who once lived here or have friends and family here.
Matthew’s written statement addressed the sentiments sent to him.
“I heard heart-wrenching stories about rather awful experiences growing up in a town where they felt hated and excluded, where they feared admitting who they were. People relayed how it brought them to tears to see pride flags flying in a town where they had never felt seen, never felt accepted. I also heard from local residents who were absolutely thrilled to see these flags to honor Gilbert Baker, to honor their son or daughter who is gay, to honor their family and make them visible and appreciated in the place they call home. There have been so many tears this week that the well has just about run dry. It has been so immensely warming to my heart to have played some small role in serving this important message, which is so much bigger than me, that we all matter, we all deserve respect, we all want to be accepted and we all want and deserve to be loved. Because, no matter how we look at it, we are all in this life together, and the more that we cooperate and embrace and include one another, the better off we will all be,” Matthew wrote.
A group from LCC plans to resurrect the Gilbert Baker Film Festival this fall, and Matthew said he will happily support the festival in tandem with the many other things he has planned to celebrate Pride Month and honor Baker in the coming years.
Next year, Matthew hopes to see the entire downtown lined with pride flags. The decision should be made by the city instead of business owners because the lampposts are public property, so he will request permission from the city commission to hang the flags. He plans to work on bringing a Parsons pride festival in June that he hopes can rival the size and scope of the Katy Days celebration in May. He also plans to work with the city commission to create permanent installations and a memorial to honor Gilbert’s legacy. Matthew said he is in touch with individual and potential corporate sponsors who are excited about the prospect of the next steps.
Matthew acknowledged that Parsons is not the typical location for an LGBTQ pride festival, but there are a lot of special qualities about the city, including it being the place where a “giant of a man” was raised, a man who became synonymous with the LGBTQ community.
“I’m certainly hopeful the city is going to be supportive, and I certainly will work with the city to come up with a plan that works well with everyone,” Matthew said.
Commissioner Tom Shaw said by email he would support Matthew’s efforts, citing the Declaration of Independence that states life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights given by our creator.
“Who can argue with that? Every person should be free to be who they are, and we should all show respect and acceptance to one another,” Shaw said.
Shaw said the flags on Main Street and the one or two he has seen at homes look great. He said to him the flag signifies “hope that people from diverse background can accept one another and live in peace.”
Shaw said a couple of years ago he and former Commissioner Aaron Keith Stewart discussed creation of a Baker memorial. What a memorial would consist of depends on how much local support and enthusiasm would be generated by the idea. That enthusiasm must come from the people bringing the idea, Shaw said, the people who are most passionate about it.
“This is unique because the rainbow flag is a current events topic, but it’s also part of history. At very least, a flag and Mr. Baker’s story might be considered for the museum,” Shaw said. “Not to say it belongs only in a museum.”
Since moving to Parsons from Washington, Matthew said he and his husband could not be happier with their decision to set down roots here. They feel that their new neighbors have gone out of their way to welcome them with open arms and to learn about and appreciate their cultural differences, just as they have in return.
“And we are truly inspired by the bravery and support of so many Parsonians who are embracing change, especially during Pride Month, and who are working together to create an even more open, loving, accepting and compassionate place that we can all feel proud to call home,” Matthew said.