Narcissism stands at heart of flag dispute

January 17, 2014

Larry Block, a natural, guy-next-door and tell-it-like-he-sees-it Chris Christie-like merchant running for a city council seat earlier and harder than anyone in the city’s history, has made the hanging of the rainbow flag and the degayification of WeHo his cause célèbre.

He claims that West Hollywood’s city council no  longer serves the residents, especially the gay residents, and is losing its influence on the world as a gay safe haven due to a misplaced focus on urban planning, development and parking fees.

The debate over the rainbow flag above City Hall has exposed a narcissistic streak in the city politic.

Taking the same stance as his Huntley neighbors, those condemning the city for its moves to increase green space at Plummer Park, assorted business interests upset over parking and some high profile members of the West Hollywood West Residents Association, he says the city has gone commercial.

“The city’s LGBT identity is being replaced by development, straight business owners… There’s just a changing environment in West Hollywood,” Mr. Block has said repeatedly.

Because the campaign season still has not begun, Mr. Block has taken to using the public comments podium at council meetings to politick.

Even so, when council voted to remove the rainbow flag, he accused the council of using it to politick, saying that because John Duran and Jeff Prang both seek higher office they are trying to play down the city’s gay reputation.

In one June meeting, he muddied history a little by asserting that the city was founded by gay men, asking, “What ever happened to Gay Camelot?”

That brought a swift reaction from Mr. Duran, who said, “That’s a pretty outrageous thing, to say to a city that was founded on LGBT rights. The city of West Hollywood is shared by both gay, lesbian, bi and trans people and straight allies. It belongs to all of us. It’s not just a city of gay men. It belongs to heterosexual people as well … let’s not ever give the impression that City Hall has become exclusive to one part of the West Hollywood community.”

Larry Block owns the Block Party store on Santa Monica, and wants more attention paid to his business district and gay issues overall.

The gay blogosphere erupted in anger and outrage at that – HOW DARE A GAY LEADER SAY SUCH A THING?

Let me explain. As I note in my history of West Hollywood, Images of America: West Hollywood, Gay Camelot never really existed.

Yes, four of five of the first elected city council were gay. Yes, the first mayor was gay. Yes, Bob Craig popularized the term to create a buzz in the run up to the election.

Still, the real power behind cityhood was the Coalition for Economic Survival, a still extent group that fights on behalf of tenants in the Los Angeles area.

As for being a “gay city,” within a year of cityhood, that lesbian mayor, Valerie Terrigno, was convicted of embezzling from the non-profit she ran to pay for her political campaign.

Then the AIDS crisis hit the city hard, stretching the newborn municipalities resources – financial and emotional – to the limit.

Because the city initiated one of the most aggressive rent control laws in the state, business interests looked with deep suspicion on the city, drying up economic development.

To civic leaders, embracing the title of “Gay Camelot” not only felt false as they watched their friends and family die, but would further dampen business’s desire to locate in an area the county had already determined could not support itself economically, and therefore ought not be incorporated.

What power in a symbol? How much difference does flying it over city hall make?

None of that detracts from his core question, though, of “Where is Gay Camelot?” which I take to mean, “Where and how do we influence or assist gay people now that the gay movement has outgrown our little city?”

When Mr. Block says, “The gay flag is symbolic. It’s symbolic of acceptance and diversity and tolerance. When I travel or you travel to any state or any country, it’s like a big welcome sign, ‘You’re welcome here,’” he has a valid point.

When he asks, “What took so long to raise the rainbow flag on our City Hall that says to every gay, lesbian and transgender kid, ‘You’re welcome here,’” he is somewhat mistaken, as that flag has flown proudly along Santa Monica Boulevard in Boystown for years and years, making visitors from around the world stand in awe before them.

And therein lies the narcissism of the whole idea. One must ask, how much is gay enough, how much is too gay and how much attention should this or any municipality pay to minority constituencies?

There are appropriate places and inappropriate places to express cultural pride. The roof of city hall is set aside to signify the sitting government structure of Federal, State and City.

Let’s back up a little bit and look at the larger view.

First of all, flying the gay flag in the center of a set of three flags atop city hall is unlawful by federal code. By removing the Bear Flag to make room for the rainbow flag, WeHo ran up against a California regulation.

The US Senate’s rules on the use of the American flag state, “When the United States flag is displayed with the flags of states of the union or municipalities and not with the flags of other nations, the federal flag, which represents all states, should be flown above and at the center of the other flags.  

In California, the pertinent law states; …the Flag of the State shall be prominently displayed during business hours upon or in front of the buildings or grounds of or at each of the following places:

   (a) Each public building belonging to the State, a county, or a municipality…

By flying the US flag with the rainbow flag at the center and the city flag on the other side, West Hollywood went astray in two ways, violating both federal and state law. They removed the state flag to make room for the rainbow flag and placed the rainbow flag where the United States flag should go.

Editor's note: From David Cruz, a law professor "The federal flag code is hortatory, the national government’s recommendations for how to display the flag.  It does not make uses that don’t follow its guidelines 'unlawful.'" 

He suggests that, "The debate over our city’s display practices should continue without pretense that federal law somehow dictates a resolution."

Let’s now turn our attention to Mr. Duran’s statement about community. West Hollywood has many communities, many of which overlap, sometimes in several ways. Forty-or so percent gay, but as much as 35 percent Jewish (not all practicing, of course); today only about ten percent of the populace has HIV/AIDS, but the thousands upon thousands of people’s lives affected by the disease over the 30 years that correspond with cityhood make the experience this city’s primary crucible.

A 23-year old blogger named James Duke Mason wrote a long piece picked up by a local anti-city publication that made his case for the rainbow flag hanging above city hall.

In it he said, “Usually I stay away from West Hollywood politics altogether because I think it tends to be kind of childish and petty…”

James Duke Mason is an American actor. The son of Go-Go’s lead singer Belinda Carlisle and producer Morgan Mason, and grandson of the late British actor James Mason and entertainment personality Pamela Mason, he also is an advocate on behalf of the LGBT community.

It’s not the sort of introduction I would use when discussing a debate over the placement of a flag, but I have trouble getting worked up over things that affect so few people directly.

Still, he too glommed on to John Duran’s comments about the city representing all of its constituents equally so he could claim not only that Mr. Duran owed his council seat to gay men (without offering any supporting evidence) but that, “Now that he’s running for a county supervisor seat, however, and has to appeal to a primarily straight electorate, he turns his back on the gay community and gay movement he has fought for over the last 30 years.”

There a couple of things wrong with that train of thought. John Duran did not institute this policy alone, nor did he create the laws governing the placement of flags. He is one of five, all of whom voted to return to traditional, lawful and best practices.

To claim that Mr. Duran is trying to de-gay WeHo because he is running for county supervisor demonstrates Mr. Duke’s ignorance of the Westside political climate, especially that of the 3rd County Supervisorial District. There is no more liberal district in the nation and being gay redounds to a candidate’s credit if they are a solid candidate.

Mr. Duke’s second assertion falls apart at first glance.

He says (emphasis his). “WEST HOLLYWOOD IS AN OFFICIALLY GAY CITY. As weird as that sounds, it’s true: West Hollywood, back when it was created as a city in 1984, was officially designated as the first gay city in America, and it remains the only one today. It was created primarily for the purpose of creating a positive, accepting environment for gay people who had nowhere else to go; it was a sanctuary, a safe haven.”

Uh, not. If I were grading this as a college paper based on a reading of my history, I would give it a C.

Sure, gays found safe haven in a place patrolled by LA County Sheriffs, but rent control drove cityhood.

Yes, the city was, as I maintain, “the first conscious creation of a municipal emotional safe space.” Limiting that safety, though, to gays alone is a fundamental misreading (and a narcissistic one from a gay man) of the time and place.

 The city was created out of county unincorporated land to protect tenants from the loss of countywide rent control protections coming in 1985. People fought for their homes.

That gay men played an influential role in the city’s formation is beyond doubt; that those gay men sought a place in the sun stands to reason. They saw the opportunities – long since borne out – of “coming out” to the world, or showing that gays can run a city every bit as well as straights, if not better.

But his very first assertion, that West Hollywood’s gayness has been “officially designated?”

I don’t even have anything to say about this. Only questions.

“Officially designated” by whom? By what agency or authority?

Here’s the part that, to me, is narcissistic about this debate.

One, it seems to be more about one man’s desire to stand out in the crowd than about bettering the community. Hanging the flag on city hall has no direct impact on anyone, resident or not because the city hangs them elsewhere.

Furthermore, this is not the first issue this candidate has “created.” Mr. Block has used the speaker’s podium to also demand that two rival council members “shake hands and make up,” before the entire city.

Two, the commentators have not done their homework, nor have they thought through the logical extensions of their demands, for gays are not the only special interest group in the city. They happen to be thinking only of themselves and castigating city council members for doing their duty, thinking of all citizens.

Three, it smacks of what the right wing calls demanding “special rights.” The movement has long asked for equality, which has been translated to low-information Fox News consumers as our seeking “special rights for a minority.”

West Hollywood is acknowledged as the West Coast’s gay cultural center for reason – we have the official protection and nurturing of a gay and straight ally civic governance, along with that of our allies in the County, State and Federal governments.

There is no lack of interest in West Hollywood, as these pages can tell – one-in-six of our readership comes to WeHo News from outside the United States to find out what is happening in the Creative City.

We have much to show outsiders, and little of that can be accomplished by hanging a flag. Actions, not words, carry the day.

Let’s hang up grandstanding and work for the betterment of the city and improvement of our civic brand.