Barbara Shelly

How Missouri’s Dent County pushed back against anti-gay bigotry

The flag at the Dent County Courthouse will fly at full staff after citizens protested a move to lower it in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling.
The flag at the Dent County Courthouse will fly at full staff after citizens protested a move to lower it in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling. Missouri Association of Counties

It’s been quite the week in Dent County, Mo., and that was the case even before a long-haired local character named Chief Wana Dubie announced he was running for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican Roy Blunt.

Get it? Dubie vs. Blunt. A smokin’ hot race.

But it was three commissioners who created a brush fire in the county with a population of 15,655 persons. At their Monday morning meeting, Presiding Commissioner Darrell Skiles brought up the matter of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling making same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.

As a “Christian American,” Skiles said in a letter for the public record, he felt “sadness, shame, and outright revulsion.”

Turns out his two fellow commissioners felt pretty much the same. The three voted to lower the U.S. and Missouri flags at the county’s courthouse and judicial building to half staff on the 26th day of every month for a year. June 26 was the date of the Supreme Court ruling.

“May all who see these flags at this lowered position be reminded of this despicable Supreme Court travesty,” Skiles wrote in his letter.

That gesture would validate every stereotype of rural Missouri, where Dent County sits on the fringe of Mark Twain National Forest, as backward and intolerant. Just the news reports of the commission’s action led to that conclusion.

But overnight, the people of Dent County, turned that stereotype on its head.

Alex Sellers, 26, started an online petition “to respectfully request that the Commission rescind this decision.”

“While it is understood that individual commissioners may disagree with this Supreme Court ruling and have every right to voice their individual opinions, it is inappropriate for them to take action such as that described which projects their opinions as those of the entire community,” Sellers wrote, using a remarkably civil tone for this raucous age.

The petition quickly gathered close to 1,500 signatures from inside and outside of Dent County. One signee was James Cotner of Salem, Mo., who included a comment: “I am going to be the first gay marriage in Dent County. Need I say more?”

The commissioners heard from neighbors concerned they were giving the county a bad name. They heard from veterans who thought the lowering of the flag should be reserved for universal tragedies such as the deaths of service members.

On Wednesday, the Dent County Commission rescinded its decision.

But before the unanimous vote, Jacob Wilson, a 2004 graduate of Salem High School in Dent County who now lives in Washington D.C., started a fund for a “courage scholarship” for graduating high school seniors who act boldly on behalf of peers who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or others who have “historically faced discrimination and been pushed to society’s margins.”

He started with a goal of $2,500 and cleared that within 12 hours. Now he’s shooting for $12,000.

“To me, this is about more than a flag or even scholarships. It’s about sending a message of love and acceptance to drown out hate,” said Wilson, who grew up on a farm about a mile from the home of one of the three commissioners.

Also this week, the Salem News printed a lovely story about James Cotner and his partner, Gary Cotner, who have been together for 31 years and who decided many years ago to share a last name. James, 59, and Gary, 65, were the first same-sex couple to apply for a marriage license in Dent County after the court ruling. They are planning a simple backyard wedding.

Perhaps predictably, the Supreme Court ruling unleashed a backlash. Since June 26, I’ve seen a couple of thunderous anti-gay billboards along Interstate 70 and I’ve noticed a sharp uptick in emails from readers denouncing homosexuality. The flag-lowering idea was part of the backlash.

But the people of Dent County wouldn’t allow bigotry to become their identity. From an act of intolerance came many gestures of acceptance. Dent County can fly its flags high and proudly.

Reach Barbara Shelly at 816-234-4594 or Twitter: @bshelly.