Life with Gracie: Gay pride flag causes flap in Gwinnett neighborhood

Gary Caudill (left) and his partner, Matt Lombardi, stand before the rainbow flag that’s been on display at their Peachtree Corners home since June to celebrate Gay Pride Month. The couple was about to take the flag down when an anonymous resident complained the emblem is offensive. GRACIE BONDS STAPLES / GSTAPLES@AJC.COM

Credit: GRACIEBONDSSTAPLES/gstaples@ajc

Credit: GRACIEBONDSSTAPLES/gstaples@ajc

Gary Caudill (left) and his partner, Matt Lombardi, stand before the rainbow flag that’s been on display at their Peachtree Corners home since June to celebrate Gay Pride Month. The couple was about to take the flag down when an anonymous resident complained the emblem is offensive. GRACIE BONDS STAPLES / GSTAPLES@AJC.COM

The ironic thing about what happened recently in this quiet slice of Peachtree Corners is given a few more days, it probably wouldn’t have happened at all.

With fall quickly approaching, Matt Lombardi was already considering replacing the gay pride flag hanging from his mailbox with something representative of the season, say, Halloween or Thanksgiving.

On the night of Sept. 14, Lombardi, a 44-year-old medical assistant, and his partner, 55-year-old Gary Caudill, were watching television when the couple’s phones chimed, signaling they had an email.

Lombardi was the first to open the five-paragraph missive addressed to the two of them, and boy was he surprised.

“You both seem to be very nice people in passing and speaking,” the email began. “While I do not agree with, either religiously or socially, your lifestyle choice, I do respect your legal rights and the fact that you have your own feelings and way of life.

“I likely have many social and religious beliefs, habits and activities that I engage in which you would probably find just as uncomfortable, disrespectful, offensive, disturbing or even horrifying to you. I do not fly a flag to broadcast those beliefs and activities.”

The email went on for three and a half more paragraphs, but by then, Lombardi, a normally calm guy, had read enough.

Stunned, he jumped to his feet. Anger boiled like a volcano erupting inside of him, and it hit Lombardi that the email wasn’t about their flag. It was a condemnation of their gay relationship.

He nor Caudill recognized the writer’s name. After nearly 16 years in the North River Crossing neighborhood, after serving nearly 10 years on the homeowners association board, Lombardi knew pretty much everyone and their children. Lori Peters didn’t ring a bell. They were sure it was a coward’s alias.

Where I come from, that’s what you call throwing a rock and hiding your hand.

Lombardi kept reading.

After complimenting the couple for also flying an American flag, the writer dug in, saying residents felt the gay pride flag was being forced on them.

"Many of us perceive that you flying that flag is uncaring, a social snubbing of sorts and an attempt to make a statement that the rest of us do not care to be faced with multiple times a day going in and out of our neighborhood."

It was all news to Lombardi and Caudill. In all the years they’d lived in North River Crossing, they’d never been so offended. If they had a neighbor who objected to their relationship, no one had ever made them feel that way. Not even once.

“We have never been made to feel anything other than included and very accepted by everyone,” Lombardi said.

But they never asked for acceptance, either. The way, they see it, the way they live is between them and God.

“If I end up going to hell because of my life, that’s for me to deal with, not someone else,” Lombardi said.

What started as a stressful moment for Matt and Gary soon turned to their good. Their anger was dwarfed by that held by many in the neighborhood, a mixed-race, middle-class enclave of mostly empty nesters and young families.

Within minutes of receiving the email, Lombardi typed a rebuttal, making reference to the email on his Facebook page. He then taped that and a copy of the Peters email to every mailbox in the neighborhood. Neighbors quickly responded, saying the email writer didn’t speak for them.

“As many of you know, I have strong beliefs (on lots of subjects) and my Faith guides most, if not all, of those beliefs,” he said in a Facebook post. “However, this note (its content, tone, intent, and more) crosses so many lines of good faith, ‘speaking truth in love,’ taste, and even basic neighborliness that I do not believe it can go without some level of response.

“This is not how neighbors address differences. This is not how one reaches out to others with differing beliefs. This is nothing more than an attempt to shame and belittle another human being.”

“Starting tomorrow our hetero, Conservative-Christian home will be flying a rainbow flag from our mailbox, lamp post and potentially the front-fricking door. I strongly urge our other neighbors, whatever their persuasion or belief system, to stand up to this adult bullying in their own way. “

And so they did. At last count, nearly a dozen neighbors, including Rash and his wife, Ashley, and Ann and Steve Cone have purchased flags for display at their homes.

It would be easy to see North River Crossing as a place apart, an anomaly. But we all know this could happen anywhere and it’s a sobering reminder of how fractured we’ve become.

But as Rash alluded to, we’re obliged to be kind and generous to those we encounter. Not just to our family and friends. Strangers, too.

Our faith demands it. Love your neighbor, Jesus commanded. Not when it feels good or the mood strikes, but always. It’s easy to reject those who don’t look like us, act like us, believe like us, but when we choose to any way, we’re being our better selves.

To their credit, Rash and the rest of his neighbors seem to get this.

When Lombardi first hoisted the flag in June, it was in celebration of Gay Pride Month. Then when a gunman, rejecting otherness, spewed gunfire inside an Orlando nightclub in what some called the worst mass shooting in our history, they decided to keep it up. It was their way of honoring the lives lost. June passed, then July and August. In September, just as they were about to take the flag down, that awful email ended up in Lombardi’s and Caudill’s mailboxes.

Caudill didn’t mince words when he hit the reply button: “If the sight of the flag causes you grief, anger or any type of emotion please feel free to use Graywood Trace as your preferred route in and out of the neighborhood.”

The flag, he said, stays.


Atlanta Pride

The 46th annual Atlanta Pride festival will celebrate gender and sexual identity diversity with the help of more than 250 exhibitors, nonprofit organizations and artists in Piedmont Park.

Musicians will provide live entertainment throughout the two-day festival. In addition to traditional activities, such as the annual parade that will take place at noon Oct. 9, the festival will feature an expanded college and career fair this year. “The Starlight Cabaret Show,” featuring national and international drag performers, once again will close out the festival.

The Youth Liberation Space and Gray Pride will feature programming geared toward younger and older members of the LGBT community. Additionally, an exhibit created through a partnership with the Center for Civil and Human Rights museum will showcase a timeline of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history, both locally and internationally.

10 a.m.-9 p.m. Oct. 8-9. Free. Piedmont Park, 400 Park Drive, Atlanta.

— Jewel Wicker