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Sonoma students push for rainbow flag at SVHS

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Sonoma Valley High School has run a new flag up its flagpole, taking a progressive stand for LGBTQ rights.

The new flag is an eight-color rainbow, with a green dragon poised in profile at its center. It flies underneath the red, white and blue, atop the 30-foot pole in the school’s center quadrangle. Official installation of the flag on Thursday, May 23, was spearheaded by SVHS senior Jose Valdivia, 17. In collaboration with an eight-member youth leadership team organized by LGBTQ Connections, a youth group focused on promoting inclusiveness, Valdivia worked to raise awareness and visibility of LGBTQ youth at the high school with a series of community advocacy projects throughout the year.

“We decided we would raise a flag to bring awareness to the topic of bullying, as some of the members on our team still face bullying about identifying as LGBTQ,” Valdivia said. The SVHS Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), a school-sanctioned club with 10 to 15 regular members, has seen an uptick in harassment this year, Valdivia said.

“We’ve had GSA fliers burned and (have) faced continuous harassment from an Instagram group calling themselves ‘SVHS MAGA,’” Valdivia said. “It’s not new, but there’s been a noticeable increase in harassment this year.”

Intending to mount a temporary display of the “Philadelphia pride flag,” which includes brown and black stripes to represent racial diversity, Valdivia and the leadership team was pleasantly surprised when Sonoma Valley High School Principal Justin Mori, in his first year at SVHS, proved to be “very supportive” of the idea. In addition to greenlighting the Philadelphia rainbow, Mori suggested that they add the school mascot on top, and then worked with the students to make the display permanent.

“We’re all Dragons,” Mori said. “We support inclusiveness and diversity in our school.”

Valdivia said Mori’s support was a welcome change. “Before, a lot of students felt like they were being ignored by the administration.” Valdivia said. “Now there are so many cool things going on.”

Deciding to add a new flag at the high school was a complicated process. Mori had to run the idea past Sonoma Valley Unified School District Superintendent Socorro Shiels who, according to Valdivia, was enthusiastic, too.

“We listened to the staff, students and families of the Valley and are joining the rest of the community by making a visible statement about our shared values with the raising of the flag,” Shiels said. “Students and their safety — both physically and emotionally — are a shared priority for everyone.”

Valdivia believes it’s the first rainbow flag raised officially by a school administration in the county. The hope, Valdivia said, is that the flag will be a daily reminder that SVHS intends to be a safe space for all.

“We hope it’s not going to be a red herring,” Valdivia said. “It shouldn’t be raised and then that’s the end of it. It should be a reminder that the school needs to continually support us.”

Mori told the Index-Tribune that the school is considering mounting other flags, as well, to draw attention to various issues.

“We could create similar flags for awareness, such as a red dragon flag for Red Ribbon Week, a pink one for breast cancer awareness, bright green for mental health awareness, and so on.”

An “equity and inclusion task force” rostered with SVHS teachers and a site administrator have been charged with “creating more inclusiveness and equity in the curriculum for all students through the district,” Mori said.

The rainbow flag was created in 1978, when openly gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk encouraged community activist Gilbert Baker to envision a new symbol to represent the LGBTQ community. Previously, a pink triangle had served as the icon, despite its pejorative use by World War II Nazis to identify gays. Baker’s homemade rainbow flag debuted as an alternative that year at the city’s “Gay Freedom Day” parade, and quickly became visual shorthand for the movement.

When the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015, the White House celebrated the decision by lighting the building’s exterior in rainbow hues, cementing the point of connection between the image and the cause.

Though the flag raising ceremony went off Thursday after school without a hitch, Valdivia expects there may be some objections. “It’ll be anonymous, of course. They’re not brave enough to say anything to people’s faces,” Valdivia said.

Animosity of that sort remains par for the course, as the LGBTQ movement fights back against decades of entrenched prejudice.

But Valdivia — who will leave SVHS with an Equality Scholarship on the way to Swarthmore College in the fall — feels energized by the progress that’s been made.

“I’m really proud of our team. We put in a crazy amount of work. It’s going to leave a really beautiful mark on the school.”

Contact Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com.

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