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Arroyo Grande votes to fly pride flag, as comments spark backlash against local business

A discussion at the Arroyo Grande City Council about whether to fly the LGBTQ+ pride flag at government buildings next month drew objections from some community members, support from others and a backlash that entangled a prominent local business.

After hearing public comment and reviewing written feedback, the City Council voted 5-0 on Tuesday to display the pride flag at Heritage Square Park and City Hall during Pride Month in June.

But the process once again revealed the kind of stark divide on certain cultural issues that’s spread across the country.

In Arroyo Grande, comments ranged from showing support and inclusivity for underrepresented members of the community to one that condemned the display of “ungodly symbols.”

Ultimately, the council voted unanimously to display the flag, as it has for the last two years.

“I choose to fly the pride flag because I want the unseen to feel seen,” Mayor Caren Ray Russom said of her yes vote. “I want those who feel unloved to feel loved. I want those who feel they don’t have a tribe to know they have a community whose majority supports them.”

While some commenters said Arroyo Grande should only fly the city, state or American flag so as to remain impartial, Ray Russom pushed back that no flag is truly neutral, including the U.S. flag, which for some may evoke the country’s history of systemic racism and imperialism.

Russom said flying a pride flag does not make a statement against any one group, but voices support for a marginalized and threatened community.

Arroyo Grande business distances itself from comments

Many community members took issue with flying the pride flag, with some of the most contentious comments in a 42-page document of email submissions coming from members of one prominent local family — which in turn drew the ire of other community members on social media.

The comments were from Catherine Talley, Elliot Talley and Talley Farms co-owner and orchard manager Byron Talley, who are members of the family that owns the well-known Arroyo Grande produce business.

“We have such a special and unique community and would hate to have these ungodly symbols shown,” Catherine Talley wrote. “Please keep this community the way it is. It is so special to us.”

In his written comments, Elliot Talley said the LGBTQ+ community is attempting to indoctrinate and sexualize children by “encouraging them to get brutal sex changes as a minor and performing drag shows around innocent little children,” and claimed the “LGBT movement has followed down a path that simply cannot be ignored.”

“We must protect our children especially in this amazing little town,” Elliot Talley wrote.

Those comments sparked a backlash from social media users on sites like Instagram and Reddit, some of whom went so far as to urge a boycott of the business.

That prompted a quick response from Talley Farms CEO Brian Talley, who said in an Instagram post that the statements do not represent the Talley family or their businesses.

“These comments expressed opinions that are not consistent with my views or the views of the Talley Family as a whole,” Brian Talley said in a written statement to The Tribune.

“In every family there are members who have differing opinions and our family is no different,” he wrote. “I celebrate the diversity of both the people who work in our family businesses and our larger community, just as I recognize everyone’s right to express their opinion in a public forum.”

Community divided over role of pride flag

Prior to the council’s vote to approve flying the flag, around two dozen community members gave responses during the public comment period, alongside a handful of letters on the issue.

Many of the people who made comments opposing flying the pride flag argued that only the city, state and United States’ flags should be flown.

“(The pride flag) does not unite us through a common goal or value, but divides us into increasing subsets of groups,” one speaker said. “Either we fly everyone’s flag, or we fly the flags that unite us — California flag and the American flag.”

Others said flying a flag that represents one community within the population gives unequal, preferable treatment to that group.

“Are we taking anybody else and going, ‘We’re going to celebrate you this month?’” a speaker who opposed flying the flag said. “Will you celebrate all the straight people next month? Can we put up a flag that says we celebrate straight people? I think the flags we have is enough.”

Members of the LGBTQ+ community and allies pushed back on that argument in the public comment and in the written correspondence.

Many supporters said it was important to show recognition and solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community during a time in which states across the country are taking steps to strip LGBTQ+ people of their rights and civil liberties.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, nearly 500 anti-LGBTQ+ bills are currently in the legislative progress in the United States, with many bills targeting nondiscrimination laws, actions protected under the First Amendment such as drag performances and access to gender-affirming care for transgender youth and adults.

A 15-year-old Arroyo Grande High School student who spoke during public comment said there should not be a problem with flying a pride flag.

“As a proud citizen of this city, I can tell you right now that as an LGBTQ youth in this city, it would mean the world if raising this pride flag wasn’t such a huge deal,” the student said. “I can guarantee that nothing bad will happen from this — all that will happen is that I’ll feel more at home and accepted.”

Another speaker said that as an owner of an Arroyo Grande Village business, flying the pride flag there has increased business by “at least 25% during the month of June.”

That increase in traffic, she said, is due to the safe and inclusive environment signaled by flying a pride flag.

A speaker who described himself as a “quintessentially conservative guy” said that, while he loves the American flag, he does not oppose flying a flag that represents LGBTQ+ members of the community.

“I think we should run it,” the speaker said. “I think life’s more interesting that way, and I think there’s room in that community to do that.”

LGBTQ+ pride flags blow in the wind at the San Luis Obispo PrideFest on Sunday, May 22, 2022.
LGBTQ+ pride flags blow in the wind at the San Luis Obispo PrideFest on Sunday, May 22, 2022.

City Council explains decision to fly pride flag

After the public comment period, the City Council gave its thoughts on the importance of flying the pride flag.

In response to claims made by some community members who said the banner violated the city’s flag policy, city manager Whitney McDonald said the pride flag is categorized as a commemorative flag, which is permitted to be flown at government buildings.

These flags require two City Council members to move forward with putting the item on the agenda, followed by approval from four of the five council members, McDonald said.

Commemorative flags cannot include religious symbols, which would constitute endorsement of a religion or creed by the government and violates church and state requirements, McDonald said in response to community members who argued that a Christian flag should be flown.

The Arroyo Grande City Council has voted unanimously to raise the “progress flag” — a rainbow pride flag that features an additional five-colored chevron meant to represent transgender people and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities of color — over government buildings during Pride month since June 2021, Mayor Pro Tempore Kristen Barneich said.

Barneich said she “wholeheartedly” endorsed flying the progress flag again in 2023.

Barneich pointed to The Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health — which found 45% of LGBTQ+ youth have “seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year” — as a reason to fly the pride flag.

“We see almost daily that the LGBTQ+ community is treated differently and subject to hate and violence,” Barneich said. “It’s disheartening to see, it’s disheartening to hear about, and I just think that if you’re not there in that community, you don’t know it happens.”