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Sheriff sought to have LGBTQ pride flags removed from courthouse grounds during Pride Marfa, officials say

During a Pride event in June, officials quietly asked the event’s organizers to take down their rainbow pride flags after Presidio County Sheriff Danny Dominguez expressed concerns about the flags.

By Travis Bubenik

Earlier this year, as former Marfa resident Chris Gonzales was helping plan a summertime LGBTQ pride event in the small West Texas town, he logged onto a Zoom meeting with local officials and asked their permission to use the Presidio County Courthouse lawn for a family-friendly block party as part of the festivities.

As Gonzales put it, organizers hoped the event would move Marfa from being a “queer tolerant” community toward a “queer celebratory” community.

“We know that Marfa is a loving place,” he told county commissioners. “And we just want to go ahead and broaden that spectrum of love.”

Commissioners unanimously voted to let organizers use the courthouse lawn for the event in June, which was hailed afterward as a joyful gathering and an important show of support for LGBTQ people in this rural corner of Texas.

But as families and visitors gathered at the courthouse for music, face painting and a game of loteria, Presidio County Sheriff Danny Dominguez was seeking to have LGBTQ pride flags removed from the courthouse grounds, according to accounts from two county officials.

County Judge Cinderela Guevara, the top local official currently running for reelection, said she received a call from the sheriff asking if the event organizers had gotten permission specifically to fly the rainbow flags.

“I said no, nobody ever asked for that,” she said. “He said, ‘Well, if they didn’t ask permission judge, those flags shouldn’t be up.’”

According to Guevara, the sheriff told her he needed to see proof that the organizers had permission to fly the flags, “and if not, they need to come down.”

Guevara said the sheriff did not elaborate on why he was concerned about the presence of the flags, but that she herself had received calls from people in the community who said they wanted the flags taken down because “the courthouse needed to remain neutral,” as the county judge described the conversations.

Guevara passed the sheriff’s message on to County Commissioner Brenda Bentley, who in turn shared the message with the event’s organizers, who she had been supporting in the leadup to the weekend. But by Bentley’s account, the message was more of a directive.

“I was told to ask [the organizers] to take them down, otherwise I guess the sheriff’s office would come take them down that night,” she said.

Sheriff Dominguez did not respond to multiple requests for an interview or comment about the incident.

The flags in question were never flown from the flagpoles outside the courthouse used for the U.S. and Texas flags, Bentley said, but rather were initially hung up on light posts near the building’s front door. Gonzales said organizers did agree to take the flags down from those areas, but then simply put them back up elsewhere on the lawn.

“We took the flags at the courthouse down and ended up just placing our own flag poles with the same pride flags at the block party,” Gonzales said, adding that the incident “by no means” detracted from the weekend’s festivities.

While the sheriff’s and others’ alleged concerns about the flags ultimately had little impact on the event, Bentley said she was nonetheless disturbed by the notion of local officials and law enforcement seeking to interfere with an LGBTQ pride event.

“If the [Marfa High School] Shorthorns were having an event at the courthouse and they put up Shorthorn banners, I wouldn’t expect them to not be able to fly those,” she said. “So yeah, it made me angry, I was not okay with it.”

Bentley also said that in her conversations, it wasn’t just the sheriff who was concerned about the pride flags, but also the county judge. She said Guevara informed her of calls she had received from locals who “didn’t like the idea” of Pride flags flying at the courthouse.

“I was told that they felt like it was defacing our courthouse, and that not everybody believes that way,” she said. “I don’t remember the exact words, but I know that she said that she was of that feeling too, that they should not be up.”

Guevara suggested she was simply passing on the sheriff’s message and that she didn’t know what prompted his concerns.

“I’m not going to read into it more than what it is,” she said. “He only asked if they had permission, and I just told him no they didn’t.”

When asked, Guevara would not say whether she felt it was appropriate for the local sheriff to get involved in the matter, saying that would be a question for him directly. 

Bentley said she now looks back on her handling of the incident with some regret, thinking that perhaps she should have explicitly told the event organizers that they didn’t have to comply with the request to take the flags down.

Still, Gonzales said he appreciated the commissioner’s quick communication about what was happening.

“I don’t know how much more complicated this would have gotten without her letting us know,” he said. “She helped prevent the problem from magnifying.”

Editor’s note: Elise Pepple, Executive Director of Marfa Public Radio, was one of the organizers of Pride Marfa.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.