American flag, Wisconsin flag, Door County flag and Progress Pride flag flying on county flagpoles in June, 2023. Photo courtesy of Cathy Grier.

The Door County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a resolution to limit flag display on county flagpoles to include only the United States flag, the flag of the State of Wisconsin, the flag of the county government, the POW-MIA flag and the flags of 20 of the United States branches of military service. The resolution (Resolution No. 2023-69) passed with a vote of 14-7.

The discussion of this resolution pertained mostly to the subject of the Pride flag being flown on county flagpoles. The county has flown the Progress Pride flag during June, which is federally recognized as Pride month, in past years. This resolution will no longer allow that to happen.

Supervisor Vinni Chomeau. Chomeau proposed two amendments to the original resolution. Photo by Heidi Hodges.

Supervisor Vinni Chomeau proposed two amendments to the resolution prior to the approval of the original resolution. The first of the proposed amendments was to fly the Pride flag on county flagpoles for the duration of Pride month. Supervisor Morgan Rusnak seconded this amendment.

“(Flying the Pride flag) is an example for our youth and adults in our community of being welcoming, accepting and caring for others,” said Chomeau. “It’s a sign of respect for the struggles that happened in the 1969 Stonewall Riots, which is how Pride month came to be. It’s different than allowing other flags on the flagpole because it has gone through three presidential executive orders on a federal and national level since 1999 to celebrate Pride month, and this is a way to do that.”

Supervisor Nissa Norton shared a personal story about a friend of hers who grew up in Door County and didn’t come out until he moved out of the county. 

“The fact that people from Door County still don’t come out until after they leave the county is a concern,” said Norton. “Why make people feel unsafe purposefully?”

“Bringing this issue up at all is emphasizing division,” said Supervisor Bob Bultman. “We have enough division in the world and making more seems counterintuitive. The future is not closeted. The future is not suppressed. The future is not discriminatory. We are not going back to the era of persecution. Supporting diversity moves us towards happiness, it moves us towards wealth. We all need to do some heartfelt reflection on what kind of community we want to be.”

Bultman pointed out that the county publicly supporting diversity can have direct impacts on the wellbeing of Door County residents.

“When persecution exists, the stress is enormous,” said Bultman. “Suicide rates among gay and trans people are way off the charts. That is not okay. We should not be accepting that in our community.”

The Door County Board of Supervisors is seen in a screenshot of its meeting in Sturgeon Bay on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023.

Supervisor Kenneth Fisher spoke in support of the original resolution, without amendments. 

“‘Liberty and justice for all,’” said Fisher. “You can’t say it better than that.”

Supervisor Dan Austad said he proposed the original resolution because “we (the county) have no policy” on flags displayed on county property.

Supervisor Dan Austad. Austad proposed the original resolution. Photo by Heidi Hodges.

“This is about the American flag,” said Austad. “I’m not against the Pride flag, but I’m supporting the American flag. I think any flag hung below the American flag dilutes the importance of it.”

Chomeau responded to Austad. “The flagpole is not just for the American flag,” said Chomeau. “We have a very good national and state track record for celebrating Pride month. There are many precedents already set throughout our country and state that are on board with that. To me, the flagpole is not just for the American flag. I would be very proud to have the Pride flag right below it.”

After discussing Chomeau’s first proposed amendment, the supervisors voted against it 14-7.

The next amendment Chomeau proposed was to allow consideration in the case of a state or federal recommendation to fly another flag. It was seconded by Bultman.

Chomeau pointed out Executive Order 204 issued by Governor Tony Evers. The order, which Evers issued in June of this year, “authorizes state buildings and any jurisdiction of the state of Wisconsin to fly the Progress Pride flag during the month of June 2023 for the purposes of recognizing Pride month.” 

The Progress Pride flag is a modified version of the original rainbow Pride flag which includes colors to represent marginalized groups within the LGBTQ community such as Black, Indigenous and people of color and transgender people.

“It seems like this policy (the original resolution) was in response to not wanting to follow the governor’s suggestion,” said Chomeau. “It hasn’t come up until now. This seems very prescribed to specifically not put the Pride flag on the pole. The timing and the way it’s written really limits the governor’s suggestion.”

“The future is not closeted. The future is not suppressed. The future is not discriminatory. We are not going back to the era of persecution.”

County Supervisor Bob Bultman

The original resolution allows exceptions in the context of a binding mandate, but does not account for suggestions such as the governor’s executive order, or other suggestions by the state or federal governments.

Chomeau said the intent of her second proposed amendment was to not exclude the possibility of following a state or federal recommendation. “If we pass this now, it’s written that it can never be done unless the policy is changed,” said Chomeau.

Although Chomeau’s proposal was “consideration of an executive recommendation,” the language used on the voter board for this amendment was “consideration of executive order.”

Supervisor Elizabeth Gauger asked if a lawsuit could be filed against the county if the county denies a request to fly one flag but does fly another flag.

County Corporation Counsel Sean Donohue said yes, that could happen. 

“I don’t know if it would be necessarily discrimination,” said Donohue, “but it could be an equal rights or free speech-related lawsuit.”

Dawn McGinnis, a resident of Egg Harbor, also reached out to the board in an email regarding potential lawsuits. McGinnis referred to the 2022 U.S. Supreme Court case Shurtleff v. Boston, in which a religious group requested to fly a flag symbolizing its religion on the Boston City Hall flagpole and was denied, resulting in a lawsuit against Boston claiming a violation of the First Amendment.

Both proposed amendments by Chomeau failed with votes of 7-14. The original resolution was passed with a vote of 14-7. The same supervisors who voted in favor of the final resolution voted against both of Chomeau’s proposed amendments.

Screenshot of voter board for original resolution.

Public comment

The County Board meeting began with public comment, which lasted about 35 minutes. Many Door County residents attended to share their perspectives, most of which pertained to excluding the Pride flag from the county flagpoles.

Sturgeon Bay resident Carl Whitford said he has lived in the county for 80 years. He said he was outed by classmates in high school. “I’m trying to show the gay community and the community at large the struggles we have had to fight and the progress we have made,” Whitford said. “Every time I drive down Madison Avenue these days, I am teary-eyed to see the welcoming flags and the prosperity of the businesses. I feel that this (resolution) is only the beginning of attacks that the homophobic haters have. Let’s be a unified community that is for compassion and togetherness rather than division and hate.”

Sturgeon Bay resident Roland Smith said, “we’re not here to speak against any organization or special interest group, we just think to honor that flag it should stand alone or with what the committee recommended.”

Cathy Grier, the founder and chair of Open Door Pride, agreed that the American flag has a place. “This policy is clearly disputing the Pride flag that has already flown on the county flagpole,” Grier said. “If you want to have a policy that just flies the American flag, go ahead and do that, but what you’re really saying here is you’re excluding the Pride flag. There’s no other flag here that you’re talking about. We can agree to disagree, but one thing we all agree upon is we love Door County. You all are elected officials, I respect every one of you and your right to have one mind here which is to represent all of your constituents. This resolution does not work for everyone. That’s what a flagpole should be for, to represent everyone.”

Sturgeon Bay resident Nicole Carmody suggested flying solely the American flag, without the POW-MIA flag. 

Gills Rock resident Jesse Simcox, who identified himself as part of the LGBTQ community, spoke in favor of the resolution. He referred to drag queens as “transvestites” and compared them to strippers. He also referred to some Door County LGBTQ community members and allies as “left-wing, Marxist activists” who are “going after our children.”

Sturgeon Bay resident Sean Grorich identified himself as a member of the US military as well as a member of the LGBTQ community. Grorich said, “the flag is a symbol of what we’ve done. We respect that and fight for it. The gay pride flag is a symbol for us of what we fight for, that freedom that everybody else takes for granted growing up heterosexual. If you go to cities that are open and accepting and show those flags, as a gay youth or adult who is still afraid to be themself, that one month of flying a flag in support of the rest of the citizens that are usually dismissed can not be denied.”

“Door County is already protected from such potential requests from hate groups or other groups by state statute,” said Sturgeon Bay resident Kim Peterson Krueger. “The United States flag and Wisconsin state flag are already the only flags authorized to be flown on state buildings. The exceptions to this must be directed by the governor.”

Sturgeon Bay resident Sandy Brown attended the County Board meeting virtually. She has worked with the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee on finding ways to be more inclusive in the county. “I served in the Vietnam war. I have to disagree that the American flag has always stood for all people. We’ve seen throughout history where it has not,” Brown said. “The rainbow flag is inclusive. I hope you’ll take into consideration how meaningful it is to a group of people that the American flag has not openly welcomed.”

Sturgeon Bay resident Melanie Jane spoke about the use of the phrases “special interest groups” and “lifestyle” during public comment. “That is very different than what we’re talking about when it comes to the LGBTQ community and the Pride flag. With the level at which they are being attacked, we should be flying their flag every single day. We’re afraid to fly their flag as a community because of how divisive things have gotten. It’s a protected class of people under attack. We should be supporting them. Flying a pride flag is not ‘condoning’ anything. It’s simply saying we are an open community, we are welcoming and we are accepting of all people.”