MARSHALL, Minn. — Mary Kay Thomas loved being a high school principal here for 15 years, but one recent summer morning she sat in her garden, sad and alone.
Instead of the usual excitement of classes just starting, she dreads another year in the district where she has become the center of controversy.
It’s been more than two years since the 58-year-old grandmother hung a rainbow flag in the school cafeteria, angering some people in this southwestern Minnesota community.
She was dumped in an administrative job – away from the students – which she never wanted, and now feels like a black sheep. The garden swing is quiet as his daughter and son-in-law, who worked in the neighborhood, moved with their five children to the Twin Cities suburbs, upset by the controversy.
Hanging this flag disrupted Thomas’ career, family and sense of community.
But in the aftermath, a surprising thing happened: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their allies, who once felt isolated in this agricultural hub, found each other.
The high school club SPECTRUM, a gay-straight alliance that had formed a few years prior, experienced an increase in membership. A similar club formed in college. The students organized an after school walk to support their LGBTQ classmates and community members. The city held its first major gay pride festival this summer, and Brau Brothers Brewing Co. hosted a drag show that drew some 300 people. The local college organized “Queer Prom”.
“They say don’t touch a sleeping bear. Well, a bear got touched,” said Anne Veldhuisen, a progressive pastor at Christ United Presbyterian Church in Marshall. “People were already sick and tired of the way they were being treated for who they are, and all of a sudden it became a very public, city-wide thing. And the fans came out of the wood.”
Thomas has since sued the district, alleging the rainbow flag led to his reassignment and seeking damages and a return to his old job. In its response in federal court, the district said claims that Thomas created a “dividing work environment” had nothing to do with the rainbow flag.
Thomas hopes the lawsuit will encourage changes in staff training and the discipline of discrimination.
“There are a lot of things we want to change in the community, but mainly in the schools, the recognition of our children and who they are,” Thomas said. “That they have fairness and the right to plead. That’s what this whole case is about.”
Marshall sits amidst prairie and farmland midway between the Twin Cities and Sioux Falls, an agricultural center that’s also home to Schwan’s Co. and Southwest Minnesota State University. It is a community that values education, with voters regularly and overwhelmingly approving funding for new schools and facilities.
It is also one of the most trusted Republican parties in the state. Lyon County voted for Donald Trump by a nearly two-to-one margin over Joe Biden in 2020. (The county has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate once since 1976.)
In January 2020, Thomas hung the Pride Flag in an exhibition of around 30 flags from marginalized communities, primarily those of the English language learners’ home countries, but also tribal flags and a flag of autism. While the majority of those who spoke at school board meetings sided with Thomas, several pastors spoke out against the flag, as did some community members. A pastor called it a ‘lifestyle flag’ and said the school needed to be neutral on a ‘contested issue’. In his lawsuit, Thomas claims that being gay is not a choice and that phrases like “gay lifestyle” are slurs against the LGBTQ community.
Thomas filed discrimination charges with the state Department of Human Rights and the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A group of Marshall-area residents sued Thomas and the district, claiming a student’s First Amendment rights were violated when a petition to remove the rainbow flag was forfeited.
Thomas said she knows her assertive style and advocacy can rub people the wrong way; some in town say they support what the flag represents but wish Thomas had done it differently. But Thomas thinks it’s vital to help marginalized students in a district that is now more than 40% non-white.
After the flag controversy, she was put on a performance enhancement plan for the first time in her career. Last year, the district removed her as director and named its district assessment coordinator, where she oversees testing, writes grants, helps with hiring — but doesn’t work with students. .
Superintendent Jeremy Williams declined a Star Tribune request for comment, citing ongoing litigation, and two of the city’s most prominent Conservative pastors did not return messages.
Ellen Helgerson, who had been a Spanish teacher at Marshall Middle School before leaving a year ago, helped students start a gay-straight alliance in middle school as the flag divided the city. Helgerson printed flashcard-sized rainbow signs that read “ALL ARE WELCOME HERE” and brought them to a teachers’ meeting. But administrators later told him they couldn’t be distributed because some teachers were uncomfortable.
“What that means is that these kids feel safe,” said Helgerson, who cited the flag controversy as the reason she left the district. “It was just a flag to show this simple gesture: ‘You are welcome here.’ And it caused such a stir.”
As teachers noticed gay students and allies becoming more outspoken, some students tore up club posters and counted the number of damaged posters. The high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance held a Day of Silence, where students took a day-long vow of silence to raise awareness about the bullying of LGBTQ students.
Karrie Alberts – the daughter of Thomas, a former Spanish teacher at Marshall High School and at the time a Spectrum Club counselor – was called to the principal’s office and told teachers and parents they were complaining that the Day silence pits students against each other.
“It’s like a microcosm of America right now. People got mad, so they went their own way,” Alberts said. “No one is coming together to find common ground. It’s just us against them.”
The district’s response in the lawsuit points out that although Thomas’ original flag display has been removed, a rainbow flag remains in a display case for the college’s gay-straight alliance.
The controversy continues to deepen the resolve of some students, said Elly Lewis, a sophomore who is an active member of the Spectrum Club. Lewis said the flag controversy left students feeling like they had to pick a side.
“Even now, a lot of people are still waving the flag,” Elly said. “I heard someone say, ‘Well, where was the right flag when the pride flag was up? What if I wanted to celebrate my righteousness? “
“But we don’t want to fight,” she continued. “They think they’re tearing us down, but they’re really building us up. Every mean comment, every honk, every anti-gay message, we just use it to build our staircase.”