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After Lauri Carleton's murder, store owners reflect on their Pride flags

"You can't let one crazy person somewhere out there deter everything you stand for.”

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When vandals ripped down the Pride flag and cracked a window outside of Christa Charter’s used book store this past June, she responded with defiance. “I was both nervous that some hater would come in and confront me about the flag, and also kind of hoping they would so I could verbally rip them a new one,” she told The Handbasket in an email on Tuesday. 

Now, in light of Lauri Carleton’s murder last week in Lake Arrowhead, California, as a result of a bigot’s hatred of her business’ Pride flag, Charter and other store owners have been forced to acknowledge the potential danger—and the fact that threats of violence are no longer hypothetical. But for those I spoke to, the theoretical risk doesn’t outweigh their commitment to flying the flag.

“Obviously there are people who come in and tell me once in a while, ‘you’re really brave to do that [fly the Pride flag].’ This is going back years,” Steve Cunniff, a Jersey City, NJ, hair salon owner, said in a phone call Wednesday. “But, you know, I don't think we really feel in danger or brave or anything until something actually happens…whether it's gay-bashing or this woman who is just a LGBTQ+ supporter gets killed over it, then all of a sudden you think, ‘oh, am I in danger also?’”

Despite the unsettling thoughts, his feelings haven’t changed. “I'm certainly not going to take down my flag now because of that,” he said in the aftermath of Carleton’s murder. “It's more important than ever to show support.” 

Cunniff, who identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community, has been in business for 25 years. He puts up a giant flag on the bracket outside his salon each June, but this year for the first time he decided to keep it up indefinitely. It’s now displayed alongside the American flag on patriotic holidays, because he doesn’t believe you should have to choose one or the other.

“I am proud to be an American, and I'm a little bit put off by the fact that today's MAGA people think that they have this monopoly on flying the American flag and it only stands for what they think it should stand for,” he said. 

James Lamb put up a Pride flag outside his Doyleston, PA, candy store three years ago for Pride Month and never took it down. It remained there without incident, until someone ripped it down on Easter this year. Lamb put a new one back up, and then in June it was torn down twice in two days by different individuals.

“I think that unfortunately the political climate has changed and people are getting more brazen,” he told The Handbasket by phone on Thursday.

He acknowledges the potential for danger, but hasn’t considered the possibility of taking down the flag. “I feel like this area of this community, we all look out for each other. There's cameras everywhere. I mean, none of that stops a crazy person, but you can't let one crazy person somewhere out there deter everything you stand for.”

Unfortunately for Charter, the used book store owner in Carnation, Washington, the incident at her store has contributed to her decision to shut down for good. After the flag was torn down in June and the window was cracked in the process, she immediately put a new one back up.

Then her landlord sent her an email:

We leased you the unit ONLY for your book store business and not for any political etc expressions in front of it.

Unfortunately you ignored this too and put LGBT flag in front of our unit and started bragging about it on Facebook and some Carnation residents did not like it.

As a result of your provocative decision someone broke our front window.

My wife and I respect anyone regardless of race, religion, political view etc but our unit is leased ONLY to run retail business and not for expressing any views that might not be accepted by some people and we don't feel it is safe for our unit and that’s why someone broke our window that you or your insurance company must fix ASAP.

Therefore, please immediately take off everything that is not related to your business outside of the unit - we never gave you permission to do it anyways.

It was a bridge too far for the Charter, whose commitment to loudly and proudly supporting LGBTQ+ rights is non-negotiable. 

“I guess my feeling is ‘they can’t kill us all.’ and people should stand up to bullies,” Charter said. “Like Lauri, I do not identify as LGBTQ, but my youngest child is trans and I will, without hesitation, put my life on the line for my kid. Human rights are absolute, not conditional.”

Carleton’s own daughter’s, even in the midst of their grief, acknowledged that their mother would have no regrets. 

“She was murdered over a pride flag that she proudly hung on her storefront,” her daughters Ari and Kelsey wrote on Instagram. “Make no mistake, this was a hate crime. Her flags had been torn down before and she always responded by putting up a bigger one…We find peace in knowing she passed quickly in a place she cherished, doing what she loved while fiercely defending something she believed in.”

All this talk of flags had me thinking of the days following 9/11 when nearly everyone I knew put up an American flag outside their house or on the bumper of their car. It was the kind of jingoism that now makes me bristle and squirm at baseball games and community events when we’re demanded to pledge allegiance. But as a 14-year-old kid, the flags didn’t feel political—they were merely a sign of national pride. Of course we support our troops! But in retrospect it was meant to draw a line between us and those who we didn’t consider to be part of us. 

And really, that’s what flags have mostly been throughout history: a sign of dominance and solidarity with one another and against a common enemy. That is, until the Pride Flag came along. Suddenly there was a flag that was supposed to unite people of disparate groups; that beckoned you whether you were part of the community or simply an ally. 

But despite the fact that the flag stands for the freedom to live your life, people are still willing to kill and die for it.

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