US embassy in Seoul removes Black Lives Matter banner and Pride flag

This is how the US Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, looked util they received a request from the US State Department to take down the Black Lives Matter and Pride signs. Lee Jin-man/AP photo via CNN.

The US Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, has removed a large banner for the Black Lives Matter movement after a request from State Department leadership and taken down a rainbow flag that celebrates LGBTQ pride.

Senior State Department leadership asked the embassy in Seoul to take down the Black Lives Matter sign that Ambassador Harry Harris had hung from the building's façade Saturday, according to a source familiar with the issue. A spokesman for the embassy confirmed to CNN that the large Pride flag has also come down.

The request from the department's 7th floor -- where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's offices are located -- cited as its reason the fact that Black Lives Matter is a non-profit organization and that the US government does not encourage contributions to the group or promote any specific organization, the source said. It is not clear why the Pride flag -- which was hung in late May, according to the embassy's Facebook page -- was removed and no explanation has been offered yet.

A challenge

The banners stood as a challenge to President Donald Trump and his administration at a time when they have been harshly criticized for their stand on racism and LGBTQ issues. The Pride flag was removed Monday night in Seoul, just hours before the Supreme Court ruled that a law banning sex-based job discrimination covers gay and transgender workers. On Friday, the administration erased protections prohibiting discrimination in health care for the LGBTQ community.

Harris posted the BLM sign as the administration has been under fire for its response to nationwide protests after the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed in police custody. Trump has compounded anger about racial injustice with his decision to oppose a Pentagon proposal to start a conversation about renaming bases named after Confederate generals who celebrated slavery and owned slaves.

The administration's decision to disperse peaceful protesters outside the White House with tear gas, rubber bullets and violence so the President could stage a photo-op with a Bible outside a nearby church has raised questions about its commitment to freedom of assembly.

On Saturday, the US Embassy in Seoul tweeted a message saying the embassy "stands in solidarity with fellow Americans grieving and peacefully protesting to demand positive change," the embassy said in the tweet. "Our #BlackLivesMatter banner shows our support for the fight against racial injustice and police brutality as we strive to be a more inclusive & just society," the tweet also said.

Harris, a retired four-star admiral who previously served as the commander of US military forces in the Pacific theater before he retired from the Navy, made clear the decision to post the sign was his.

Quoting President John F. Kennedy's speech in June 1963, Harris tweeted, "I believe in what President JFK said on June 10, 1963 at American University: 'If we cannot now end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.' USA is a free & diverse nation...from that diversity we gain our strength."

CNN has reached out to the State Department and the White House for comment.

The Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, tweeted his appreciation to Harris on Monday. "Thank you @USEmbassySeoul for your principled stand against racism & support for LGBTQ+ community. I know the US lacks ethical leadership from the WH, but there are millions of Americans who appreciate you demonstrating American values to the world. #BlackLivesMatter #Pride," Engel wrote.

A spokesman for the embassy said in a statement that "the Ambassador decided to put the Black Lives Banner up to communicate a message of solidarity with Americans concerned with racism, especially racial violence against African Americans."

"He wanted to highlight the enduring American values of racial equality, freedom of speech, and the right to peacefully protest. However, the Ambassador's intent was not to support or encourage donations to any specific organization. To avoid the misperception that American taxpayer dollars were spent to benefit such organizations, he directed that the banner be removed," the statement continued.

"This in no way lessens the principles and ideals expressed by raising the banner, and the Embassy will look for other ways to convey fundamental American values in these times of difficulty at home.

The statement went on to quote Pompeo, noting that he recently said, "America is rightly outraged at the brutal killing of George Floyd and our country will prosecute his killers and respect the right to protest peacefully."

A gay marriage critic

The question of flying the Pride flag during June -- recognized as LGBTQ Pride Month -- has been an issue in the past.

Last year, certain embassies were denied permission to fly the flag on their flagpoles, though State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said at the time the State Department and Pompeo had no issue with it being flown elsewhere at the embassies.

In a briefing last June, Ortagus said that Pompeo "respects the dignity of every individual," but "Secretary has the position that, as it relates to the flagpole, that only the American flag should be flown there" when asked about embassies not being permitted to fly the rainbow flag.

"Pride Month that we're in right now is celebrated around the world by many State Department employees, by many embassies. The Secretary has the position that, as it relates to the flagpole, that only the American flag should be flown there. But he, of course, as he said in his congressional testimony, respects the dignity of every individual and I think all of you can do a simple easy Google or Twitter search and see the pictures of members, embassies, ambassadors, people of the foreign service celebrating Pride throughout the world," she said.

The Pride banner removed from US Embassy Seoul was not flying from the flagpole.

Pompeo has come under criticism for his views on the LGBTQ community and same-sex marriage, with several groups opposing his nomination to become secretary of state on those grounds.

While a congressman from Kansas, Pompeo co-sponsored bills that would keep the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman and he was harshly critical when same-sex marriage was legalized, vowing to fight "to protect our most sacred institutions."

As of 11 a.m. ET Monday, the embassy website was still displaying the BLM banner draped on the embassy.

By Nicole Gaouette and Jennifer Hansler, CNN via The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2020 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

The Gayly. 6/16/2020 @ 12:06 p.m. CST.