KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For Kale Van Leeuwen, the artist who painted the Pride mural at the Country Club Plaza, and for others who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community, it's not just a flag — it's a welcome sign for acceptance and safety.
The installation Van Leeuwen's painting coincides with the start of Pride Month in Kansas City, the first one since the city's LGBTQ+ Commission was formed.
"Our mission is to dismantle systems of oppression, to promote justice and to ensure that all voices within the LGBTQ community are represented," said Commission Chair Moon Glasgow Brown, who believes Pride is making a stand just by developing the commission.
But the work is far from over and community members believe everyone can play a role in spreading love over hate.
"I say to them educate yourself," Glasgow Brown said. "You don't necessarily even have to accept me, but I ask that you respect me and respect my community and recognize that we are here, we are not going anywhere, we’ve been here and we’re just going to increase in numbers."
Van Leeuwen said it's particularly important for younger generations.
"If, especially kids, can realize that it's OK, that they don't have to hide for 20 years and they can just be who they are, then that's good," Van Leeuwen said.
As symbols of Pride emerge across Kansas City, Van Leeuwen, who is also a middle school art teacher, said he shares his pride year-round with his students in the classroom.
"They just want to know that there's other people like them and, especially to see an adult that is accepted by the other teachers and the administration, I think helps a lot also," Van Leeuwen said.
Everyone's journey is different, but coming out was a years-long battle for Van Leeuwen as well as Joel Barrett, who waited years before feeling safe enough to come out.
"(I'm a) former Baptist minister, married, three kids, went through three years of conversion therapy before finally coming out, and I use that story to encourage people to live authentically, not be controlled by fear or shame," Barrett said.
It was a long and trying process he shares in his book, "Godly ... But Gay."
"I really believe, firmly believe, in not shutting up about this, because I want others to live out and proud and feel safe and feel empowered in their community like Kansas City, because we have a great LGBTQ community here," Barrett said.
A Progress Pride flag will be flown atop City Hall starting Thursday morning, marking the first-time a Pride flag has flown on a government building in Kansas City.
"When they see the symbols like a Pride flag, that's really important, like that speaks volumes," Barrett said,=. "I mean, to me now, at this point, it's like, 'Oh, there's the Pride flag. Cool.' But there are other people who look at that and I'm going, 'Wow, maybe I can actually live my life the way I truly want to, (just) be me.'"