Matt Hughes

Matt Hughes, who is on the Town of Hillsborough Board of Commissioners, stands under one of 30 Pride flags that will be displayed on Churton, King, and Nash streets throughout June.

Early on June 1, a colorful and striped flag gently and quietly waves in a breeze at an identical flag about 30 yards away along Churton Street in downtown Hillsborough. The action, almost unnoticed and understated, repeats itself further up the road and splits down East and West King Street. The friendly motion picks up again on Nash Street. 

Seen individually, the Pride flag is a nod to acknowledge Pride Month that honors and recognizes the LGBTQ community. Seen together — or one right after the other as you drive through downtown — and Hillsborough is making a clear statement with its 30 Pride flags: Not only is the LGBTQ community seen, it is celebrated, defended, and welcomed. 

It’s a remarkable expression for a town that, prior to 2018, hadn’t recognized Pride Month. Not that Hillsborough hasn’t been progressive on the matter. It offered same-sex partner benefits, and came out overwhelmingly against Amendment One, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman.

Hillsborough declared Pride Month in June 2018. In 2019, then-Town of Hillsborough Commissioner Jenn Weaver talked about the possibility of putting up flags throughout downtown. 

Matt Hughes, who joined the Town of Hillsborough Board of Commissioners in 2018, was also in favor of the flags. “We said, ‘yes, we’ll do that next year,’” Hughes said. “Next year ended up being 2020. Everyone, I think, forgot all these things. It was just basic operations.”

After the new year rolled in, and the pandemic restrictions loosened their grip, Hughes put the idea on the agenda so it could be discussed. Time was quickly ticking away and there was much to be done and decisions to be made. How many flags? Who would manufacture them? What kind of Pride flag? Would it be the traditional colors, or would the town go with the more inclusive flag, with brown and black stripes? 

“What I wanted to do was go with the one that was more inclusive, but familiar to many,” Hughes said. 

Carrot Top Industries, a flag manufacturer in Hillsborough, had gotten word that Mayor Weaver was likely to propose the Pride flag display. The company approached the board about making the flags. Even though the more inclusive flag design wasn’t on their website, Carrot Top said it could design it with the black and brown stripes. The town could have its flags and it would be locally sourced.

“The rest was history,” Hughes said. “It was not really a major discussion point. The town board approved it, the staff said we needed to do a budget amendment and we did it. Before I knew it we had 30 flags posted in downtown Hillsborough and down Nash Street. Overwhelmingly it’s been positive. I think they’ve had a meaningful impact and people feel seen and respected.”

Hughes even said he’d received a message on LinkedIn about a same-sex couple who are moving to Hillsborough and this makes them feel welcome.

The display is one Hughes, a Hills-borough native and one of only a dozen openly gay African American elected officials in the U.S., said he never imagined the flags would ever fly in downtown. Even then, he was surprised at how much seeing them waving in the morning breeze meant to him.

“Now, I’ll be the first person to say I don’t necessarily like the rainbow flag as a design,” he said. “But it still made me pretty proud that people, whether it’s kids, within themselves, or a relative, that they’re in a community that is visually saying, ‘all are welcome.’ And that may sound weird as a town Commissioner, who’s been elected to say ‘I’m welcome, too,’ but I think it sends a signal that this is a welcoming community.

“I didn’t think it would make me feel as sentimental as it did but it did, and I’m pretty proud of it.”

Mayor Jenn Weaver expressed having a similar response. “I had a very emotional response of, you know, I was already feeling good and was supportive of the decision to purchase and install the flags for Pride, so it’s not like it was a surprise…. In some ways, it felt overdue, like I wish we had done it before. But actually seeing them made me so happy. It really drove home that this is such a powerful way to show that we are the welcoming community we talk about being. I think policies are the most important thing, but symbols are also really meaningful and powerful and and this certainly is one. The feedback that I’m hearing from people is driving that home even more,” she said.

Hughes said the process of getting approval for the Pride flags, purchasing and then displaying them is part of what he finds most rewarding about being on the board of commissioners in a small town. “You can literally see even what seemed to be small policy changes happen. You know when you go up the food chain, I feel like you work really hard to change policy or have an initiative or something, but it might take years later to realize.”

And Hughes believes the installation of the Pride flags throughout downtown was well worth the effort. “For some kid out there to see those flags, there’s a lot of LGBTQ youth that consider taking their lives every day. And if they see in their small town that it’s OK, I think that’s worth it. If that stops a kid from taking their life because they feel like they’re supported in their environment, then I think it’s worth it.”