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Pierce County Council recognizes Tacoma Pride for the first time despite polarizing response

A pride flag flies alongside a Washington state flag and the U.S. flag at the state Capitol in Olympia in June 2015.
Rachel La Corte
The Associated Press file
A pride flag flies alongside a Washington state flag and the U.S. flag at the state Capitol in Olympia in June 2015.

For the first time, the Pierce County Council is formally recognizing LGBTQ Pride month, which Tacoma traditionally celebrates in July. The council approved the proclamation during its regular meeting Tuesday.

But unlike other proclamations that are typically approved unanimously with little reaction from the public, Tuesday’s vote was preceded by polarizing remarks from residents and concluded with a split vote and two abstentions from councilmembers.

The issue also has morphed into a convoluted display of bureaucracy, specifically over a request to display a pride flag atop the County-City Building.

Language in the proclamation celebrates the LGBTQ community and aims to promote acceptance and “affirm the dignity of all people” in Pierce County, according to the resolution. 

“This community needs to see that their government sees them, their government values them and affirms their dignity and humanity,” said Councilmember Ryan Mello, who is the only openly gay person on the council. He was one of four Democrats to vote in favor of the resolution.

One Republican, Councilmember Amy Cruver, opposed the proclamation. Republicans Dave Morell and Hans Zeiger abstained.

“In the balance of our shared citizenship, I am not interested in affirming or rejecting one side or another,” Zeiger said. “And in doing that, I fully respect the choices of my colleagues who will be voting yes as well as those who will vote no.”

Councilmembers received hundreds of emails leading up to the vote. Mello said he fielded roughly 700 emails over the past week alone.

Emails reviewed by KNKX Public Radio showed that some responses from opponents cited language from the Family Policy Institute of Washington, a conservative advocacy group, suggesting an organized opposition.

“I expected some negative response,” Council Chair Derek Young told KNKX. “That’s part of the reason we were doing it.”

The opposition in Tuesday’s meeting was met with equally strong support during public comment, including remarks from residents who identify as gay, non-binary and transgender.

“This action tells me that I am a valued resident of Pierce County and that my contributions matter,” said Stella Keating, a 16-year-old from Tacoma who identifies as transgender.

Young told KNKX that’s exactly why the proclamation matters. He said it isn’t just symbolic. He said affirming people’s identities directly affects public health outcomes.

“There’s a lot of rejection this community faces,” Young said. “This is our chance to say we love you, we value you and you belong here.”

County Executive Bruce Dammeier did not sign onto the proclamation, something Young said was surprising and disappointing.

Dammeier told KNKX it had nothing to do with the language of the resolution, which he says he supports. He says the decision was about process.

The dynamic of the council has shifted since November, when Democrats took over the majority for the first time in nearly two decades. Dammeier, a Republican, says since then, proclamations have taken on a different tone. He says they’re more frequent and, at times, more controversial. It prompted him to re-evaluate when and how he enters into joint resolutions with the council. Now, he’ll only do so when he can count on unanimous support of those proclamations from councilmembers, which was not the case Tuesday.

“I want to send a message strongly to our employees and to our residents that I am there to support every single resident and every single employee in Pierce County regardless of their gender identity, regardless of their sexual preference,” Dammeier told KNKX. “I’m more about substance than symbols. I want to do stuff that affects people’s lives. I’m frustrated that this issue came up in this way. It’s not the message I want to send.”

Tuesday’s proclamation did not include an original request to fly a pride flag atop the County-City Building in Tacoma.

Two weeks prior to the vote, the council chair sent a letter to Dammeier requesting the rainbow flag fly in conjunction with the forthcoming proclamation celebrating Pride month.

In a letter in response, Dammeier said the county lacks a formal policy about non-governmental flags and proposed drafting a policy that would “ensure our flagpole does not become a forum for political controversy or a source of division in our community.” He said the county adheres to state law related to flying flags.

Tacoma City Hall a few blocks away has flown a pride flag this time of year for the past decade. Likewise, a spokesperson for Gov. Jay Inslee says a pride flag has been raised at the Capitol Campus for the past several years. Non-governmental flags, which have recently included Seahawks and Sounders flags, can be flown at the discretion of the governor.

KNKX reviewed a draft of the flag policy from Dammeier's facilities staff. Any special flags, including a pride flag, would require unanimous council support in order to be flown.

“The whole thing is a little silly,” Young said. “We don’t get these requests often.”

Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.