CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct an error which stated the House had passed language blocking the military from prohibiting LGBTQ flags on base.
Dozens of House lawmakers on Thursday sent a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper calling for him to reverse a recent policy change banning display of LGBTQ pride flags in public areas at bases, saying it runs counter to the military’s stated goals of inclusion and respect.
The move came after a legislative effort earlier this week to force a change of Esper’s July 16 memo that effectively banned flags other than those representing states and allied countries from being displayed in public or common areas on military installations.
The policy, written in response to pressure to ban the Confederate flag across all DoD property, is written in such a way that flags other than allied country, state and unit flags are unauthorized outside of private housing rooms and vehicles, targeting service members who might display a favored sport’s team’s ― as well as one representing LGBTQ pride or that of support of a Native American tribe, as the lawmakers argued.
“The implicit banning of these symbols of diversity and inclusion runs counter to our ideals as a nation and a military,” the letter reads, signed by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md., Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H. “The Department must have the strength and courage to be able to simultaneously stand against a symbol of hate and oppression in the Confederate Battle Flag while allowing the display of support for civil rights, equity, and justice.”
Defense Department spokesmen did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter.
In the weeks since the memo dropped, critics have questioned Esper’s reasoning for banning so many flags in the interest of rooting out one.
“Whether intentional or not, by banning the Pride flag, Secretary Esper effectively told the tens of thousands of LGBTQ American patriots who proudly serve this nation that their service and symbols of their diversity are somehow divisive and unwelcome,” said Jennifer Dane, interim executive director of the Modern Military Association of America, said in a Friday release. “The Pride flag is literally the very symbol of diversity and inclusion, goals the Department if Defense should be striving for. We urge Secretary Esper to listen to these Members of Congress and restore the ability of service members and their families to display the Pride flag on military installations, including in their on-base housing or work spaces.”
Despite the motivation for its creation, Esper’s memo does not explicitly ban the Confederate flag, as the Marine Corps, Navy and Coast Guard have done using their own authorities.
Specifically, DoD’s policy allows the flying of state flags, flags of allied countries for protocol purposes, unit flags, the Prisoner-of-War/Missing-in-Action flag and flags of department/military officials. Everything else is barred from public spaces, offices, housing common areas and government vehicles.
By the same token, Confederate flags ― and any other ― would be allowed on personal vehicles and within private housing, though shared barracks rooms could still be considered “common.”
“We do not honor or display the Parteiflagge of Nazi Germany on our military bases, and any decision on the Confederate Battle Flag must likewise be unequivocal: it must be banned outright,” the lawmakers wrote, adding that the House version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act bill includes a line banning that flag.
Earlier this month, House lawmakers approved a separate bill specifically banning the Confederate battle flag from public spaces at military bases. That measure faces an uncertain legislative future. Senate Republicans have not voiced support for either measure, and must agree to the provision for it to be included in the final law.
The effort to include the LGBTQ pride flag language in the defense appropriations bill this week was ruled out of order by the House parliamentarian, despite considerable support within the Democratic-controlled House.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.