When I arrived in Peru, I was surprised by the abundance of rainbow flags throughout Lima. Was there a gay pride convention in town? The flag was even more prominent in Cuzco, the ancient Inca capital and gateway to the Sacred Valley and Machu Pichu. What was going on? Finally I found out: the rainbow flag is the official flag of Cuzco and a sign of Inca pride. The banner design can be traced back to the imperial standard of 15th century imperial Incan armies.
Apparently I wasn’t the first to draw the wrong conclusion about the flag. There was such confusion between the two that there was discussion in Peru about retiring the flag, a decision that didn’t materialize.
The pride flag is now a source of controversy in Richmond, Virginia, but for a different reason. Since the beginning of June, the gay pride flag has been flying below that of the American flag outside the Federal Reserve Bank and that has gotten many conservatives upset. Bob Marshall, a Republican House of Delegates representative, complained in a letter to the bank’s president that celebrating gay and lesbian behavior by the bank “undermines the American economy, shortens lives, creates health costs, promotes venereal diseases.” Marshall also points out that homosexual behavior is a Class 6 felony in Virginia. Such a law does exist in Virginia, but what Marshall didn’t point out is that anti-sodomy laws such as Virginia’s were declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 2003.
“We are flying the pride flag as an example of our commitment to the values of acceptance and inclusion,” explained Sally Green, explained, the bank’s first vice president and chief operating officer. PRISM, a GLBT group within the bank, prompted the Fed to display the flag during Gay Pride Month.
The sides have been drawn up, with conservative groups denouncing the rainbow flag flying and gay right’s groups supporting it.
There is a component of the dispute that has nothing to do with gay rights and that whether it is right for the Fed to fly this or any other flag other than that of the country. The bank’s spokesperson, Jim Strader, defends the right of the bank to promote this or any other cause if it so wishes because the Federal Reserve is privately owned, not a government entity.
Strader may be technically correct but his contention is misleading. An Act of Congress created the Federal Reserve System in 1913. Its seven-member board is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Its chief responsibility is to affect the cost and availability of money and credit in the country. It is America’s central banking system. There are 12 regional banks, including the one in Richmond, now caught up in controversy.
The Federal Reserve System was created to be as independent of political influence as possible. It makes its own decisions, not needing ratification by the President or any other branch of government. The government sets the board members’ salaries and the Fed is subject to Congressional oversight.
As I understand it, this means that the Federal Reserve system is an autonomous unit within the government, not a privately owned entity. If this understanding is correct, then I side with those who say that flying the rainbow flag is inappropriate. The government should be neutral and not endorse a cause. This applies, for example, to showing support for missing Vietnam soldiers by flying POW flags at government sites, as is commonly done on Long Island or promoting any other cause however benign or admirable.
Others can argue the fine points about whether the Federal Reserve banks are subject to the same constitutional restraints as other government agencies or whether they are sui generis and more fall into the private domain. But certainly the perception is that it is a public entity and its functions are decidedly public in nature. So even though its employees initiated and endorsed the gay pride flag to be flown during the month of June, it is inappropriate for it to do so.
Debates about policy belong in legislative halls and in the media, not on flagpoles on public property. Let the banners wave but just not here.