Powerful US Republicans join in demand to remove LGBTQ+ Pride flag from Biloxi VA

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At a time when many U.S. states and cities across the nation are celebrating LGBTQ+ Pride Month, powerful Republican lawmakers from Mississippi are demanding the Pride flag be removed from a flagpole on the Biloxi VA property.

It started last week when U.S. Rep, Mike Ezell, a Congressman from Jackson County, took issue with the rainbow flag that’s flying with American flags at the front of the VA hospital and cemetery campus off Pass Road.

Ezell sent a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough and the Gulf Coast Veterans Healthcare System asking for the Pride flag to be replaced with the U.S. flag.

“While I believe that everyone should be treated with respect, I take serious issue with any flag flying that promotes social policy positions or political statements,” Ezell said.

The VA did not take down the Pride flag, which has flown in the same position last year after McDonough allowed all VA-owned facilities to fly it.

Now, Sens. Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith, among other GOP members of Congress, have written to McDonough to demand the flag be removed.

“This political stunt is yet another example of this Administration’s willingness to promote its political agenda rather than focus on its mission as the executive branch. Our veterans expect the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide services, not promote controversial ideologies,” the legislators wrote.

Shaun Shenk, chief of community and public affairs at the Biloxi VA Medical Center, said giving veterans inclusive and high quality health care “is what they earn by signing the dotted line.”

“If anybody wore the uniform, they are welcome at our VA,” Shenk told the Sun Herald on Friday.

A Pride flag is flown at the Biloxi VA Medical Center on Pass Road to celebrate LGBTQ+ Pride Month.
A Pride flag is flown at the Biloxi VA Medical Center on Pass Road to celebrate LGBTQ+ Pride Month.

On the same day, McDonough tweeted: “Happy Pride to LGBTQ+ Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors! Your service, your sacrifice – even in the face of discrimination – will never be forgotten.”

The VA estimates there are 1 million LGBTQ+ veterans in the U.S. Shenk said there are about 6,500 veterans in the Gulf Coast VA health care system that identify as LGBTQ+.

The Gulf Coast Association of Pride, based in Biloxi, praised the VA for flying the Pride flag in June.

“This display isn’t a replacement of our great American flag as some have tried to spin it, the board of directors said in a statement. “It is simply a reminder of those who for far too long, went unrecognized for their sacrifices.”

GOP needs to retract their demand, HRC says

Rob Hill, state director for the Human Rights Campaign in Mississippi, told the Sun Herald he applauds the VA’s decision to fly the Pride flag and said Republican lawmakers should retract their request to take the flag down.

“It’s disrespectful of them (lawmakers) to not honor the lives of the LGBTQ+ people, especially those who have given their lives in the armed services,” Hill said. “This is the right thing to do.”

Hill noted that Pride Month is celebrated by some of the largest businesses on the Coast, including Chevron, Ingalls Shipbuilding and Memorial Hospital at Gulfport.

“With the unprecedented attacks against LGBTQ+ people around the country, now more than ever we need to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community and the many contributions we make today to enhance our society,” Hill said Monday.

The LGBTQ+ community is growing across the Mississippi and on the Coast, U.S. Census data shows.

Hill also noted last month that there’s been an uptick in growth of LGBTQ+ residents in Bay St. Louis and Ocean Springs, two of the trendiest and most desirable cities in the state.

LGBTQ+ community faces uphill battle in MS

The demand to remove the Pride flag comes at a time when Republican lawmakers in Mississippi and across the U.S. have passed bills targeting the LGBTQ+ community, specifically transgender youth.

Mississippi earlier this year banned gender-affirming health care for minors in the state, a move that followed several other states in the South, including Texas, Tennessee and Florida.

Mississippi Coast families grappled with the new laws, with some having to decide whether they’d stay or leave to get medical care for their children.

The trans youth health care bill was also surrounded by controversy after a Republican lawmaker Joey Fillingane was accused of making up a story about a teenager getting gender-affirming surgery by a Mississippi plastic surgeon.

A transgender teen who graduated from a Mississippi Coast high school also skipped her commencement ceremony after a federal judge ruled she’d have to follow the Harrison Central High boy’s dress code policy.

The teen, who was represented by the ACLU, made national headlines after fighting the school’s dress code with just days to spare before graduation.

Wins for Pride flag, trans teen in Biloxi

It’s unlikely McDonough, who is a former White House Chief of Staff under Barack Obama, will remove the Pride flag from Biloxi VA.

The controversy around the flag did not deter more than 2,000 LGBTQ+ people and allies from attending 2023 Pride Day at Point Cadet Plaza in Biloxi.

The family friendly event included dozens of vendors, food and drinks, keynote speakers and lots of drag performances.

Gulf Coast Association of Pride, who hosts the event, said this year’s Pride celebration crowd broke records, with people coming from as far as Los Angeles and New York City to attend.

L.B., the Harrison Central High student who skipped graduation, also got the chance to walk across the stage at 2023 Pride in her dress, heels, cap and gown on the same day the Tennessee drag ban was ruled unconstitutional.