Posted on Thu, Aug. 17, 2006
Flag flap unfolds beyond Kansas town
By Deb Gruver and Dion Lefler
MEADE, Kan. - Usually a storm precedes a rainbow. But in Meade, the rainbow is the storm.
Weeks after the owners of the historic Lakeway Hotel started flying a rainbow flag in the middle of this town of about 2,000, a flap about gay rights, small-town politics and "California ways" is still the talk of the local truck stop.
Now the story has spread beyond the home of the Dalton Gang Museum, with mentions in a national gay and lesbian magazine and spots on CNN and radio talk shows.
People who had never heard of Meade now are blogging about it on the Internet.
"JR" and Robin Knight say the flag was a gift from their son. He sent it from California because, they say, it reminded him of Kansas and "The Wizard of Oz."
But after the Meade newspaper took a picture of the flag and identified it as a symbol of gay pride in a photo caption, a lot has happened.
Many people quit coming to the restaurant the Knights run inside the 10-room inn they've owned for almost two years.
Someone cut down the flag.
The Knights put another one up.
Recently, someone flung two bricks - with expletives [the word FAG] written on them - through a front window, destroying two neon signs along the way.
But if the purpose is to run the Knights, who moved to Kansas from southern California, out of business and out of town, they say it's not working.
The worldwide attention is helping business, they say.
Meade, about 170 miles southwest of Wichita, is far from the leading edge of the gay rights movement.
Eighty-nine percent of voters in Meade County cast ballots in favor of a 2005 state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions.
Out of 105 Kansas counties, Meade had the sixth-highest percentage voting for the amendment.
But Thomas Witt, head of the Kansas Equality Coalition, a group whose mission is to end discrimination based on sexual orientation, said he doesn't see evidence of widespread gay intolerance in the town.
"We really think it's not the whole town," he said. "Most of the people out there are live-and-let-live; that's their culture. There's a few bad apples out there who think it's OK to write hate speech attached to a brick and throw it though people's windows."
On Monday, the Knights shared with a visitor a thick notebook filled with e-mails, cards and letters from people who support their right to fly the rainbow flag, for whatever reason.
The southwest Kansas chapter of the equality coalition held its regular meeting Sunday at the Lakeway Hotel. "The meeting was fine," Witt said.
Although there was talk of a demonstration, only about half a dozen young men actually showed up to protest the meeting, he said.
"They said their piece ... that they didn't want us in town," Witt said. Then, they left and drove up and down the street, he said.
Anne Mitchell, the coalition's southwest Kansas representative, said her job takes her to Meade a couple of times a month, and she's found most of the townspeople to be "hard-working, caring and decent folks."
"I just feel like it (the flag flap) is the isolated actions of a few people who got fired up and are acting out," she said.
Several people have suggested holding a gay-pride parade in Meade.
Barbara Wilcox, who covered the story for PlanetOut Network, an online community for gays and lesbians, said it captured people's imaginations because it hit the Web just about the same time the Washington Supreme Court voted to uphold that state's gay marriage ban.
Wilcox said most of her readers saw Knight as someone standing up for gay and lesbian people despite pressure to back down.
"It was kind of a nice scrap of news on a bad day," she said. "Having the guy's flag out there meant a lot to gay and lesbian people all over the world. That's not a small thing."
But not everyone likes the flag.
"I don't go for it," lifelong Meade resident Bob Mabery, 73, said this week, sipping coffee. "It's ruined the city of Meade."
Meade, he said, was a "respectful little town, but this has practically destroyed it."
When asked how a flag has destroyed a town, Mabery said it's just gotten everybody's ire up.
For a while he was so upset he quit going to the Chuck Wagon Restaurant for his coffee.
"No one's going to go around that place," Mabery said of the Lakeway. But he doesn't hate gay people, he quickly added.
"I guess I'm just one who thinks it belongs in the closet."
Sitting at a table near him, Beverly Bennett said she's not upset about the flag so much as she is about JR Knight coming into town with his "California ways."
"He bellyaches about a lot of stuff" at City Council meetings, she said.
The flag issue isn't the real problem, she said. It's the Knights' attitude.
"I've known some gay people, and they don't bother me a bit as long as they don't push it on me," she said.
It would be OK with her if the Knights flew 50 rainbow flags outside the hotel, as long as they were not on the same pole as the American flag.
She'd feel that way about any type of flag, she said.
When the Knights moved to Meade, they ran into trouble with an electric bill-related lien on their new property dating back two owners and one year.
They fought the $4,800 special assessment on their tax bill, and that made others angry.
"It's been hell since we moved here. It really is surreal," JR Knight said.
He said he resents people calling him a malcontent when all he's doing is standing up for his rights.
He attends most City Council meetings and often talks at them. He also started videotaping the meetings, and that hasn't sat well with some city leaders, he said.
City Council member Curtis Hale said he thinks the problems between Knight and the city have been blown out of proportion.
"Let's put it this way, the (flag) issue is not with the city at all," he said. "We've got nothing to do with it."
He said the council voted to remove the lien and Knight "doesn't owe our city a dime," Hale said.
Hale said Knight has made complaints about open meetings, but Hale said that's Knight's right and it doesn't bother him.
"The council has no qualms with JR I know of," he said.
Meanwhile, words of encouragement keep coming in to the Lakeway Hotel from people across the map who had never heard of Meade before but now have it on their list of places to visit.