Walking in Memphis, under a rainbow flag

MEMPHIS - On South Cooper Street passers-by might notice a rainbow flag. But they might not know its history.

 The rainbow flag waves from a flagpole in front of the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center (MGLCC).

The rainbow flag is a very visible symbol of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community. Two years ago, the community center’s rainbow flag became the scene of a crime.

No one had to call the police to report the crime that evening, though. Officers were walking by in plainclothes. The community center is safely positioned within a mile of a police precinct.

Two Years Ago

The officers saw two men, who were students at the University of Memphis, setting fire to the rope that held the flag.

“I imagined they thought it would be like some Road Runner cartoon where you set a match and it immediately flames up," said Will Batts, the community center’s executive director.

The flag was spared. Only a few inches of the line became charred because Ross Burton, one of the students, began fighting with the officers. The other student fled.

The incident attracted national media attention. But the media did not follow-up on whether people felt safe at the community center.

The MGLCC Today

Because the police had immediately intervened, Batts now says, “Nobody that I talked to felt unsafe coming to MGLCC after the flag burning. They were angry. But nobody ever felt unsafe.”

A regular deluge of harassing phone calls is the worst that the executive director of the community center faces these days. And Batts is a strong man who holds it together. He spoke stoically as he recounted the messages, as though he had heard them so many times that he had become impervious to the hostility. No tears from this executive director. “You are going to hell,” one of the messages said.

Batts lets the messages roll off his shoulders.  But he does encourage volunteers at the center to be vigilant. 

“Always be aware of your surroundings,” Batts tells volunteers.

The community center is located in the Cooper-Young District, a diverse association of residents who endorsed the withdrawn Memphis non-discrimination ordinance. Batts says that today the center hosts gay kids who don’t have to think twice about whether it is safe to hold hands in public. They walk, holding hands, under a rainbow flag that waves in the wind. The flag and its slightly charred rope morph into new meaning: Memphis police protect the GLBT community.

A Building For Students

There is no freestanding building for GLBT students at the University of Memphis. Batts emphasizes that there are no freestanding GLBT community centers for students in the southern core of the US.

Batts fields calls from Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. He tries his best to help, and he has been instrumental in helping the Stonewall Tigers, GLBT student organization at University of Memphis with an office in a large campus building.

M.J. McAuliffe, the president of Stonewall Tigers and a sophomore at the University of Memphis, says that the MGLCC is a safe place for students.

“You can be yourself there, and no one is going to judge you,” she says.

McAuliffe bursts with joy when she speaks of the community center. And its rainbow flag is meaningful to her and the Stonewall Tigers.

“We see that and we just feel happy, especially during sometime like Pride,” McAuliffe says.

McAuliffe remembers when she was younger, and she wishes she could have been involved in the community center before becoming a student at the University of Memphis. She says she didn't  see PDA—public displays of affection—between gay and lesbian youth before going to college.

McAuliffe’s joy overwhelms her ability to find words to describe an image of a young gay couple holding hands at the community center.

“It leaves me kind of speechless,” she says with a feeling of freedom as she talks about boys and girls younger than herself holding hands at the community center.

To find out more about the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center, visit http://www.mglcc.org.

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