Each June, LGBTQ+ people come together to celebrate Pride Month. For 2021, Medford Pride on Main (MPOM), the township’s largest LGBTQ+ nonprofit, thought it’d be nice to fly rainbow flags in the center of town.
MPOM Founder Justin Gibbs contacted township officials and asked if he could provide pride flags to be flown on the lamp posts and in flower baskets on Main Street. He got an answer he wasn’t expecting: The township said no.
“The township does not permit private displays on public property,” read an email obtained by The Sun.
The email explained that individuals, private organizations or religious entities cannot put their own flags on Medford’s poles.
“I thought back to the holidays,” Gibbs said. “There’s actually a life-size menorah at the public park next to the library every year, so I don’t understand what the difference is.”
Township council wrote in a statement that the menorah lighting is a township-sanctioned special event rather than a private display.
“Medford Pride in Main has previously discussed holding an event and was provided with the information for a special-events application. No application has ever been submitted,” officials said in a statement.
Other displays like the flags and flower baskets on Main Street are limited to those that “celebrate Medford Township generally.” They may also celebrate the seasons or an event, but not a private group, according to council.
“If managed otherwise, the township would have to allow any individual or organization to display almost anything on the flag pole, in the baskets, or on other public property,” council wrote.
Gibbs said that the pride flag is not promoting his organization.
“The pride flag is a worldwide flag,” he noted. “The U.S. flies it, they fly it at the New Jersey capital, they fly it around the world.”
Township council wrote that it was aware of “various court cases involving private displays on public property.”
“If the township were to allow a flag and/or other private display on public property, the township may then be forced to be the arbitrator of what is an appropriate private display and what is not appropriate or controversial,” officials added.
Gibbs said he felt ignored by the township, which he said has not recognized MPOM’s volunteer work. Since its creation in 2019, the organization has partnered with local businesses to revitalize Main Street and make Medford a more inclusive community.
“When you just get brushed off and ignored by the town council and the mayor, it starts to really bother you,” Gibbs acknowledged. “It’s no secret that Medford has a very bad name.”
Gibbs started MPOM because he didn’t feel accepted as a gay teenager in Medford. He alleged the town has a reputation for being “homophobic and racist and close minded.”
“We’re really trying to evolve it from that,” Gibbs explained. “This just taught me that they do not want the community to actually grow, and to be that inclusive, welcoming community that we weren’t. It’s very frustrating and it’s disappointing.”
Township council indicated it would be “happy to work” with MPOM to acknowledging its contributions.
“The township council is very appreciative of the efforts and contributions to Medford Township from the members of the LGTBQ+ community,” its statement read.
Gibbs noted that the community as a whole has embraced MPOM. The organization recently partnered with Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge to host a drag show fundraiser and is working with Medford Arts Center to grow a pride garden.
Gibbs said he hoped the pride flags would be a step toward a partnership with the township, as he wants to eventually host a pride festival on Main Street. He remembers when neighboring Marlton first flew pride flags and received praise from community groups.
“I thought maybe [the township] will do the right thing,” Gibbs lamented. “We’re pushing for everybody and we’re trying to get rid of the bad name. This would be a very good opportunity for the township of Medford to say, ‘You know what? We don’t stand for that. We stand for everybody.’”