When Jamie and Ben Belnap bought a home in Heber City three years ago, their son had just come out as gay. The parents worried about the response he would receive in the conservative mountain valley town.
But then in June 2019, the family noticed rainbow-colored pride flags hanging from the street lights along Main Street.
“It was comforting at the time,” Jamie Belnap said. “It made us feel like, ‘OK, this is a more accepting community than we thought.‘”
Then came the backlash.
Residents began showing up at City Council meetings calling the flags “disturbing” and “political.” One Wasatch County Council member, speaking as a private citizen, called the concept of pride “odd.” He noted that he didn’t think rainbow flags did any harm, but worried what the City Council would do if people wanted to fly Nazi or Confederate flags on Main Street.
“How upset a lot of residents are has been really discouraging,” Jamie Belnap said. “Think of all the kids who don’t feel comfortable coming out and the message that sends.”
The pride flags flew again this summer in the city of about 16,000 people, sparking more complaints and prompting the City Council to consider an ordinance restricting what types of banners can be hung from city street posts.
Apart from state and federal holidays, the ordinance requires approval from the city manager for any banners proposed for city light posts, with appeals sent to the City Council for review. Only Heber City, Wasatch County and Heber Valley Chamber of Commerce are allowed to sponsor events or messages for the banners. Events must be nonprofit and nonpolitical.
Numerous residents and organizations showed up to a meeting last month and urged the City Council to reconsider, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah and Utah Pride Center.
But Tuesday night, when the City Council unanimously voted to adopt the change, only one person came to speak against it — Ben Belnap.
“I understand many people are uncomfortable seeing [pride] banners,” Ben Belnap said, adding that as a straight, white man, he understood the privilege of feeling comfortable. “That said, I have a gay son and ... I’ve seen the discomfort my son experiences every day, the slurs hurled at him every day. He’s called a ‘f*g’ in the halls.”
Bullying, school problems and lack of social support are among the risk factors for youth suicide, according to the Utah Department of Health. Nationally, nearly one out of three LGBTQ youth has attempted suicide compared to 6.4% of heterosexual students, according to the department.
Ben Belnap asked at Tuesday’s meeting whether the temporary discomfort of seeing pride flags on Main Street for one month each year was worth the well-being of community members who, at times, “feel ashamed and worthless for being who they are.”
“Would you truly want to trade your discomfort for theirs?” Belnap asked.
While some Heber City residents said it was unfortunate that LGBTQ students were bullied, they continued to call the pride banners inappropriate.
“The recent [pride] banners on Main Street are an endorsement of the city of a political view,” said Nelda McAllister, one of a handful of residents who commented in support of the ordinance Tuesday night. “We appreciate all of our good neighbors hoping to build a kinder and safer place where we can live the dream of the West of a space for yourself, of living your own values and of your own industry.”
But City Attorney Mark Smedley said nothing in the ordinance specifically excludes pride flags and that if the city wanted to support the LGBTQ community as “government speech,” then “they could come out and do that.”
Council member Mike Johnston said he wasn’t backing the ordinance because of pride flags, but rather “the ugly response to them.”
“That’s what really bothers me. We don’t actually have a way to prevent the ugliness,” Johnston said. “We really feel we need to come together and put something together that pulls this into government speech rather than private speech.”
In an emailed comment, ACLU of Utah called the City Council’s ordinance a disappointing limitation on freedom of expression.
“Whether or not this action complied with the letter of the law, the spirit of our Constitution calls for more speech, not less,” said legal director John Mejia.
In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, Mayor Kelleen Potter said she, too, felt disappointed.
“I though it was a beautiful opportunity to express acceptance and a welcoming tone,” Potter said, whose own son came out 10 years ago. “We’re a small city. Historically people have contacted me and told me the hard things they’ve gone through and how they felt excluded.”
In addition to the numerous public comments and social media posts about the banners, Potter said she and the City Council members had received numerous negative comments privately, including some threats.
“There were people on the council who I thought would go to bat to keep them and didn’t,” Potter said. “It became too much pressure.”
The mayor seemed doubtful that the city would sponsor pride events in the future that would allow the flags to fly again. But she said she’d continue to work with LGBTQ community members to provide support.
“We still have a big stigma here. We’re behind some bigger cities on the Wasatch Front,” Potter said.
Allison Phillips Belnap, who is not related to Jamie or Ben Belnap, raised funds for Heber City’s pride flags as a private citizen through a GoFundMe campaign last year. She said she understood that the city didn’t want the freedom of expression argument to open the door for hateful or controversial messages displayed on the city’s light posts. However, those situations never arose, she said.
“The fact of the matter is, those hypotheticals were not reality,” Phillips Belnap said. “This response and limitation came as a direct result of the pride banners being hung. I think it feels like a slap in the face to the LGBTQ community of Utah.”
After two years of use, the banners are too worn to fly next summer. But Phillips Belnap said she hopes to organize a local pride event in the future so rainbow colors will continue to wave in Heber’s streets — ideally with the city’s backing.
“That was the impetus for getting the banners hung. It was not any effort to make a big political statement,” she said. “It was an effort to say ... you’re not alone. There’s community and there’s safety and there’s support. Then it just became a big deal.”