SKOWHEGAN — When Jessica Stetson began setting up her store, Old Soul Collective, early this spring, she hung a Progress Pride flag outside of the shop’s front window, overlooking downtown.

“That flag stands for so much more than what a lot of people view it as, and I really wanted everyone to know by looking at the flag that you’re loved and you’re safe here,” Stetson said.

Stetson, of Fairfield, who opened up the vintage boutique May 1, said that when she arrived to work Saturday, she noticed that not only was the flag gone, but the pole that attached it to the building had been forcefully removed, with neither the flag nor the pole in sight.

Stetson made a report with police. After a brief discussion with an officer, he soon returned with the broken pole he found, which had been discarded on the backside of the building.

Before opening up shop for the day, Stetson posted about the incident on the store’s Facebook page, with a photo of the store with a sign in front reading, “Stealing our pride flag won’t bring us down.”

“I made a post on Facebook and Instagram letting whoever did this know why it wasn’t OK. It’s not just my storefront that you’re damaging,” Stetson said. “I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve had a kid walk in here and tell me how much that flag means to them.”

In the post, she writes, “I don’t know why you did it, I don’t know what’s in your heart to make you feel so angrily toward an entity that in no way is harming you. I would have rather invited you in my doors with open arms.”

“Instead, you not only ripped the flag off the building but you ripped a beacon of hope and happiness of the streets of downtown Skowhegan,” the post said.

Stetson went on with the workday and said about an hour after the post was made, a community member who had seen the post had arrived with a replacement flag.

That community member, Margaret O’Connell, of Norridgewock, is a founding member of the LGBTQ Somerset Social, a multigenerational social group for members of the LGBTQ community and allies throughout Somerset County. O’Connell said that she and her wife have extra flags they keep at their house as “this has happened before within the county.” O’Connell reached out to EqualityMaine.

Simultaneously, Town Manager Christine Almand, acting as a private citizen, reached out to her daughter, Brittany Hemphill, who is an intern at EqualityMaine, to see if any flags could be donated to local businesses to show their support and solidarity.

“I saw the post on Old Soul Collective’s Facebook page, and I texted my daughter to see if she could get some flags. Apparently a lot of other folks were also trying to find ways to help the situation,” Almand said.

On Monday, Almand delivered some of the flags to Stetson and said that the other flags she received have been spoken for by other local business owners.

June marks Pride Month, which is celebrated annually to honor the 1969 Stonewall uprising in Manhattan, a tipping point for the Gay Liberation Movement in the United States.

EqualityMaine, a Portland-based organization, was able to provide Almand with a handful of flags in response to her inquiry. The organization recently concluded its #ShowYourPrideME Progress Pride flag campaign, where more than 2,700 Progress Pride flags were given out statewide at over 40 sites as a way to “bring a piece of Pride” to the LGBTQ community during the pandemic.

Old Soul Collective store owner Jessica Stetson hangs a Progress Pride flag on Monday in the front window of her downtown Skowhegan store. The flag, which was displayed outside the store, was damaged while being torn away from a pole that was attached to the outside of the Old Soul Collective building. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

EqualityMaine provides support through community, education, collaboration and power. It is the oldest and largest statewide organization that works to create “a fair and just society for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Mainers.”

The Progress Pride flag is a newer version of the original Pride flag, which includes black and brown stripes to represent marginalized LGBTQ communities of color with the pink, light blue and white stripes from the Transgender Pride flag.

“It’s important to acknowledge that it’s an act of hate against our community,” said Christopher O’Connor, development director at EqualityMaine, in reference to the incident in Skowhegan. “The flag symbolizes so much for our community. It is meant to represent love and acceptance, pride and visibility. The fact that the symbol is so threatening to people, it’s absurd; it’s so important that we stand up to that. We’re a community that is just trying to live our authentic lives.”

Though the EqualityMaine campaign has concluded, O’Connor said that anyone who would like a Progress Pride flag can reach out to the organization directly.

When Stetson’s store closed Saturday, she returned to Facebook to see that her original post had gained traction and attention throughout the region. The post had been shared more than 300 times as of Monday.

During the day, a shopper had found the battered flag on Court Street and returned it to Stetson, where it now hands inside the front window. She then made a Facebook live video detailing what had happened throughout the course of the day.

Police Chief David Bucknam said Monday he didn’t have any information on the vandalism incident.

“I had this lovely woman (O’Connell) walk in my store and ask if I was the owner and she had a Pride flag neatly folded up and wanted to give me a new one,” Stetson said in the video. “She told me that she had reached out to EqualityMaine, one of the interns (Hemphill) is donating 10 Progress Pride flags to bring to the area to display throughout downtown.”

Since then both businesses and residents in town have began hanging up flags to show their solidarity, including Bigelow Brewing and the Skowhegan Free Public Library. Stetson also encouraged those who offered financial support to her business in wake of the incident to instead consider donating to EqualityMaine.

“I didn’t expect such a small gesture of having that flag outside my store was going to impact so many people in the area,” Stetson said. “This started off as a selfish, negative act and turned into a huge, beautiful, positive movement for downtown. I hope it starts to spread, and I hope the LGBTQ+ community sees the support and love and they know that there’s people here that care about them.

“We’re here for them, and we’re going to stand up for them,” Stetson said.

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