'I feel erased from campus': Why students are urging St. Edwards to bring back pride flag

Only posters and thumbtacks hang on a wall at the back of a cafe where a pride flag used to be at St. Edward's University. The posters have a QR code with the message: "BRING BACK OUR FLAG."
Only posters and thumbtacks hang on a wall at the back of a cafe where a pride flag used to be at St. Edward's University. The posters have a QR code with the message: "BRING BACK OUR FLAG."

Since 2018, an LGBTQ+ pride flag has hung from the ceiling of a buzzing coffeehouse on St. Edward's University's campus in South Austin, a central symbol that made students feel accepted at the private, Catholic university.

This year, after remodeling and a vendor change at the cafe, the flag was taken down, and students' attempts to bring it back have not succeeded. For now, posters and thumbtacks hang on the blank blue wall at the back of the cafe with a QR code and the message, "BRING BACK OUR FLAG."

At the Student Government Association's Senate meeting Wednesday, during which President Montserrat Fuentes and Vice President for Student Affairs and Administration Lisa Kirkpatrick addressed concerns about the flag's removal, administrators barred journalists from Hilltop Views, the student newspaper, from reporting on it, students who were present told the American-Statesman. The students attending the meeting were not allowed to videotape, photograph, take notes or add to the meeting minutes, they said.

Hilltop Views is published by the School of Humanities but is not subject to prior review under the code of student conduct ― meaning the university does not have a say in what is written. The code of conduct also states that the administration "does not censor Hilltop Views."

The student newspaper's editor-in-chief referred the Statesman to Hilltop Views' reporting on the incident, saying she cannot comment as the paper's coverage of what happened is ongoing.

A student the Statesman interviewed, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear or retribution, said they had put up a replacement pride flag in the coffee shop the same day as the student government meeting, but it was removed within an hour.

Multiple student groups have issued statements condemning the pride flag's removal. As of Monday afternoon, more than 400 students had signed a petition to once again raise the flag at the coffee shop.

Why were St. Edward's students barred from covering the Senate meeting?

In emailed responses to Statesman questions, the university said that media were asked not to participate in the meeting to allow space for a vulnerable conversation, and that media have been asked previously not to attend for similar reasons.

"The meeting was an authentic conversation to be together within our own community with the purpose of offering support and listening to students," the university said. "The university prioritized psychological safety so that those who may feel vulnerable could participate fully."

Mackenna Bierschenk, a junior at St. Edward's, said the meeting was emotional and "charged."

"At the end of the meeting, about 10 students broke out into a chant 'Bring it back' and then a lot of people collected right outside where the meeting place was and just hugged each other," she said. "I saw people break down; I saw people scream. It was just so much frustration and anger from the lack of transparency, the lack of communication, the lack of really a story that they stuck to."

Why was the pride flag at St. Edward's removed?

The coffeehouse in the Robert and Pearle Ragsdale Center on campus changed from a Jo's Coffee cafe to Meadows Coffeehouse serving Starbucks coffee this academic year. The coffee shop was remodeled over the summer, and with the change, the pride flag was moved to Equity Hall, the university said in response to Statesman questions.

But students said the pride flag's new location is not as central on campus, nor is it in a place that is visited by students as much.

Louie Moore, a first-year student and the president of SEU PRIDE, a student organization on campus, said many students, including himself, were attracted to attend St. Edward's because the school proudly showcased the pride flag. He doesn't understand why the flag can't be placed back in the coffeehouse.

"This is a Catholic institution. I came here and I felt comfortable being myself as a trans man," he said. "And now the administration is shushing LGBTQ students and our representation. That's how I view it. That's how I feel."

Bierschenk said students' activism over the pride flag started about two weeks ago, as it was not initially clear that the school's administration was behind not allowing a pride flag in the coffee shop.

The university said in another statement addressing the flag's removal that "Catholic social teaching affirms the dignity of every person" and the flag was removed to a place where multiple identity flags are housed.

"The university does not identify itself or its students, faculty or staff by a single flag, symbol or issue, as our mission calls us to foster a respectful and inclusive campus community."

But Tommy Linn, a first-year student and the secretary and treasurer of PRIDE, said he wants the administration to know this action hurts its goal to be inclusive.

"You say that you want to be a campus that's for all identities and includes everyone, but when you took that flag down, it stopped being that," Linn said.

Two students who attended the meeting said the student government president spoke about the school's obligation to follow laws that prevent preferential treatment. A student asked at the meeting why the university appears to be complying with Senate Bill 17 — a bill that went into effect in January banning public, but not private, institutions of higher education from having diversity, equity and inclusion offices or functions. The students said they were told other laws also require equal treatment.

Neither the email nor the university's statements mention SB 17, and St. Edward's is exempt from the bill. But students said they fear the bill and the political conversation around it have influenced campus life anyway.

"SB 17 is an excuse," Moore said. "I think they're trying to cover up their actions, which I don't want to tolerate."

What's the impact of the pride flag being removed?

Linn, a freshman, toured the campus late last spring. He pulled his tour guide aside and asked if it would be safe for LGBTQ+ students like themselves to attend St. Edward's University. The guide pointed to the flag at Jo's Coffee as an example of the school's acceptance.

"First-year students who are coming from homes that maybe aren't safe, they know that when they come here, they can see that, and it's just like a wave of calmness," Kam Fletcher, another freshman, said. "Like 'I know, other people like me will be here. I'll have a sense of community.’ ”

Linn now says they feel "lied to."

"That pride flag was up; I felt safe here. And then I get here, and it's gone," Linn said.

An Instagram account created by Bierschenk called @wheredidtheprideflaggo has more than 400 followers and 40 posts from university community members who have shared their thoughts on the flag's removal anonymously on a Google form. Posts say the flag made it easier for them to come out on campus, feel at home and feel safe.

"It tears down inclusivity," one post said.

"I feel erased from campus," another said.

At the same time, Fletcher, who is now the vice president of PRIDE, said the flag being down has made anti-queer sentiments seem louder on campus. One post on the Instagram account, however, said displaying the pride flag felt like going against Christian values.

"It's making campus feel unsafe," Fletcher added. It's "nerve-racking to be on campus and be out again."

The Office of Student Affairs sent an email to the campus community Monday morning to address the hurt some have felt about the flag's removal. The email said it was removed to respect and equally support different identities on campus and "to not elevate one over the other." The email said that the hurt students have felt because of the decision has been "devastating to hear."

The email, obtained by the Statesman, said that the university will work to make the area where the pride flag is now located more accessible to students, will continue its support and education programming centered on the LGBTQ+ community, and work with students to create a central space "where we can ensure inclusive symbols are incorporated, including the Pride flag."

It did not mention, however, whether the school would allow a pride flag at the coffeehouse.

Bierschenk said the Instagram account and the student support for the pride flag's reinstatement show the wide backing for the symbol's place to be central on campus.

"It really has proven to me that there's such a widespread agreeance across the university of what we want," she said.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed the anecdote and quote about the tour guide. This article has been corrected to reflect the correct speaker. The Statesman regrets this error.

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: LGBTQ issues: St. Edward's University removes pride flag from cafe