In 2002, a year after the horrors and devastation of 9/11, I began renting one side of a lovely old house in Andover, Massachusetts. There were two front doors, one for me and one for Mr. and Mrs. X, the silver-haired couple who owned the property. Between the doors, closer to my side, was a flag holder bearing an American flag. I remember asking the X’s whether they wanted me to take it inside at night. Mrs. X smiled and said that wasn’t necessary; they weren’t that big on flag etiquette.

Little did she know that I was quite the flag etiquette devotee. Leaving the flag out at night, without a light shining on it, was a clear violation, but I let it go. It was their flag, after all, and I was busy doing my own things.

Then the fall rains came. Hurrying out the door to work, I would glance over at the flag, dripping wet and miserable looking. It only took a couple of minutes to set down my book bag, take the flag inside, and prop it up somewhere so its hem didn’t touch the floor, thereby avoiding another etiquette violation.

When I got home and it had stopped raining, I put it back where it was supposed to be. This went on for a few weeks, and then the semester got busy and I brought the flag inside one gusty, rainy morning and forgot about it. I kept it inside for another day even though it was brilliantly sunny. Then I remembered and hung it up again before heading off to the university to teach my classes.

When I got home that afternoon, Mr. X was waiting for me on the front porch. “We thought it was stolen,” he said.

“The flag?”

“Yes, the flag,” he said, gazing levelly at me.

With a little chuckle I explained what I had done. It didn’t seem like such a terrible thing since, as Francis Scott Key put it so memorably, the flag was still there.

Or, um, the flag was back.

“I called the police,” said Mr. X, thoroughly unamused. He turned on his heel and went inside. One can imagine the conversation the X’s had about me that night.

After that, I left their flag alone. I had thought of it as a friend I should honor and protect, but that particular flag just had to stay where it was.


Flags are powerful symbols, and that’s how American flag etiquette got started, as a way to revere and reify the symbol. I understand why people project their beliefs and identities onto Old Glory: they want its power as their own. But that doesn’t mean I have to like the way conservative ideologues have turned our nation’s flag into a talisman of their bigotry and unexamined self-righteousness.

Speaking of which, another flag–the Confederate flag–is suddenly all the rage in rural Virginia where I live. It is a battle flag for the most heinous of lost causes. Flying the Confederate flag in front of one’s house or sticking it on the back window of one’s pickup truck is the equivalent of saying: “I failed American history, and I continue to fail America every day that I identify with this flag.”


The rainbow flag is my flag of choice in this historic year when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage.

Bring it inside, leave it out. Drape those gorgeous colors around your shoulders and let the wind lift you a few feet off the ground. This is a flag that can go anywhere anytime. It doesn’t require you to take etiquette lessons.

When I think of flags I have known, this is the one I want to wave.

rainbow flag