Dear Civilities: It sure seems like hypocrisy to say we can’t fly the Rebel flag because it offends people, when you fly the gay flag, which certainly offends lots of people. Who gets to decide which flag is allowed to fly and which ones can’t? I say grin and bear it.

Anonymous, N.C.

No one is saying that you can’t fly the Confederate flag, or any flag of your choosing — that’s your right to free expression. The recent controversy has been mainly about the display of the Confederate flag not in private venues, but on public buildings and grounds such as the South Carolina statehouse, in the wake of the June killings at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. On a white supremacist Web site, the accused gunman, Dylann Roof, was pictured holding a Confederate flag. All of which takes us directly to questions of civility and history.

Your question is deceptively evenhanded. Both the Confederate and rainbow flags are offensive to some, therefore, the two flags should be treated the same. Or, why not just split the difference and fly both (which is how I interpret “grin and bear it”). However, there’s an inherent problem in your logic: The history and symbolism of the flags could not be more different; the responses they evoke — or provoke — even more disparate.

I have personal history with both flags. In 1978, I graduated from Duke University and took a summer job with a county health department in rural North Carolina. I rented a mobile home from a middle-aged white couple who took a shine to me. Before long, the husband confided to me that he was a Ku Klux Klan member and invited me to a rally. Among the many things he didn’t know about his tenant was that I am gay and Jewish. Intrepid, if not naive, a few nights later I witnessed a cross-burning and a display of Confederate flags in support of white supremacy and nationalism.

The South Carolina state government held a ceremony to take down the Confederate flag from statehouse grounds July 10. The crowd watching chanted "U-S-A" as the flag was folded. (AP)

I was genuinely terrified. Terrified that my identity would be unearthed and terrified by the hatefulness of the imagery. One year later and a one-hour drive from my house trailer, members of the KKK and the American Nazi Party killed five participants, including another Duke graduate, in an anti-Klan rally.

Still, years later, I understand on a visceral level, as countless African Americans in South Carolina and elsewhere also do, that the Confederate flag’s power rests in its symbolism and its long and inextricable association with slavery, racism and national terrorism.

Some people, mainly Southerners, steadfastly argue that the Confederate flag is about history and brave rebellion, even that it has been misappropriated by the Klan. At a recent rally of hundreds of Confederate-flag supporters in Hillsborough, N.C. (where I live), a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans insisted to a reporter, “It’s not hate, it’s heritage.” The problem is that even if that is the case for this individual, the flag represents quite another thing to others.

“Given what the Confederate battle flag means to most African Americans — the banner of the cause of slavery — and given what flying it communicates to them, that’s plenty of reason not to fly the flag,” said Tim Tyson, a visiting professor of American Christianity and Southern culture at Duke Divinity School.

LGBT people also have reason to fear the Confederate flag. Just a few days ago, I read that a Georgia chapter of the Klan, its Web site overrun with multiple images of the Rebel flag, is targeting the gay community, distributing incendiary fliers that read: “Stop Aids: Support Gay Bashing.” “Homosexual men and their sexual acts are disgusting and inhuman.” (The Newton County, Ga., sheriff’s office has launched an investigation.)

As for the rainbow flag, here’s what Gilbert Baker, who created it in 1978, had to say: “The rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in terms of race, gender, ages, all of those things.” During the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, I volunteered with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and marched in the city’s Gay & Lesbian Freedom Parade behind a fluttering rainbow flag, one that unashamedly symbolized inclusion, equality and love. I’m quite certain no one has ever felt that his or her life was at risk at the sight of the rainbow flag.

The key question, when it comes to civility, is what your display of values means to others. Fly the Confederate flag on your property or from the back of your truck if you like, but know that fair-minded Americans will both support your right to do so — and dislike you intensely for doing so.

Agree or disagree with my advice? Let me know in the comments section below.

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