The ongoing movement to reconsider, and sometimes remove, some public monuments and artworks has taken aim at what many agree are outdated and problematic symbols: Confederate generals, Christopher Columbus and Junipero Serra, to name a few.
The present-day legitimacy of the 43-year-old flag, intended to represent LGBTQ inclusion and liberation, is being questioned by some in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood — and in the wider LGBTQ community. With so many different flags now being raised to represent the LGBTQ community, is the original, San Francisco-created rainbow symbol still a banner to unite all, or is it an outdated emblem favored by primarily white, cisgender queer people in need of an update?
“There’s a lot of passion about the flag, and there’s a lot of passion about inclusivity and exclusivity in the queer community,” says District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents the Castro. “Gilbert’s flag flying on Market and Castro is iconic and has been an inspiration to people around the world for decades. And I also think that the other flags that our community has produced are important and worthy and need to be celebrated appropriately.”
For months, a discussion about just what flag should fly from the pole located at Harvey Milk Plaza at Castro and Market streets has provoked strong feelings. Several people contacted by The Chronicle for this story declined to be interviewed, saying they found the discourse around the issue toxic and they feared getting involved. One longtime Castro resident and business owner, who asked to remain anonymous, described the situation as “the left eating its own.”
The public debate over the flag began in earnest in August 2020, when LGBTQ newspaper the Bay Area Reporter suggested the Castro Merchants Association, which oversees and maintains the flagpole, should install a “more inclusive” version of the rainbow flag. Its editorial came after a town hall meeting held by the Bay Area Queer Nightlife Coalition about racism and bias in the Castro, and said that flying a contemporary variation would “send a strong symbolic message of the values that the community strives to uphold.”
The editorial noted that Oakland Pride organizers had updated its logo to include the colors brown and black for racial inclusion, along with the pink, white and blue of the Transgender Flag. Sacramento Pride, it pointed out, had flown the Progress Pride Flag, a rainbow designed by Daniel Quasar in 2018 that includes the Transgender Flag colors and black and brown stripes. Earlier in 2020, a Change.org petition urging that the Castro flagpole fly the Pride Progress Flag attracted nearly 500 signatures.
This month, leadership at the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, one of the eight city-designated cultural districts in San Francisco, said it, too, was in favor of seeing a contemporary flag flown from the pole and that it is “time for us to show our Black, Brown, and Trans siblings how much representation matters to us on this board.”
Created by Gilbert Baker in 1978 at the former Gay Community Center on Grove Street, the Gay Pride rainbow flag is seen by some as a progenitor of all LGBTQ community flags.
Just this week, the district initiated a survey asking residents and visitors about their experiences in the Castro. It includes a section asking people to evaluate whether Baker’s flag “represents all of who I am as an LGBTQ+ person” and whether the flag is “a historic symbol that has stood the test of time.” A town hall on the topic is being planned by the district in late September.
Meanwhile, the Castro Merchants Association has proposed installing a second flagpole to fly the Pride Progress Flag, while keeping Baker’s flag where it is. At the beginning of this year’s LGBTQ Pride Month in June, the group hung the flag off the Bank of America Building at the “Hibernia Beach” corner at 18th and Castro streets.
“We believe wholeheartedly that representation matters, so both flags (historical and contemporary) are the right balance for our community today,” the merchants group said in an email. “In the future, there may be other flags and symbols that represent our dynamic community, and as Harvey (Milk) would have wanted, we would encourage the community to also embrace those, as well.”
The Gilbert Baker Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to celebrating the late artist and his flag, has started a Change.org petition of its own calling for the landmark designation of the pole, which was erected in 1997 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Milk’s historic victory as the first openly gay elected official in California history. It argues that the pole and the flag constitute a piece of installation art created by Baker that deserves to be protected. Cultural institutions including the Museum of Modern Art in New York have examples of Baker’s flag in their collections. The petition currently has more than 1,500 signatures.
In response to the survey, Charles Beal, president of the Gilbert Baker Foundation, posted on the Cultural District’s Facebook page: “If the CCD really wants to fill the sky with the other wonderful flags mentioned in their survey they should erect more flagpoles. That is what Gilbert Baker did.”
Baker designed the Gay Pride Flag in San Francisco in 1978 for the Gay Freedom Day Parade (now San Francisco Pride). Originally featuring eight colors but simplified to six for easier reproduction, each stripe represents a value, including red for life, blue for harmony and peace and purple for spirit. Baker never trademarked the flag, believing it would flourish as a symbol for the community only if it were free to reproduce.
“In the mid-1970s there were various flags and ideas to represent the gay community,” says vexillologist (flag expert) Ted Kaye, secretary of the North American Vexillological Association. “Gilbert Baker’s was the first and the only one that was broadly embraced and spread like wildfire. It was the community that took that flag and adopted it.”
The flag has since become a global LGBTQ signifier. Rainbow motifs appear prominently in LGBTQ-identified neighborhoods like the Castro and New York’s West Village. During LGBTQ Pride Month each June, rainbow banners fly on Market Street and businesses feature rainbows as a kind of seasonal decor. This year, when a piece of Baker’s original Pride Flag from 1978 was donated to the San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society Museum, executive director Terry Beswick termed it “the gay Shroud of Turin.”
While it has been a symbol for many of inclusion and hope, for others Baker’s rainbow is not enough.
“The flag for some Black and brown people, they don’t feel it represents them,” says Carnell Freeman, executive co-chair of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District. “But I think it depends on who you’re talking to. For many white gays, they’ll say they think the Progress Flag is not attractive and that they’d keep it as it is, as a rainbow. If you talk to most people of color or allies, they will say, you know, it’s time for a change.”
Freeman says that he and other members of the Cultural District board don’t see the Progress Flag being flown from the pole as an erasure of Baker’s flag, but as an evolution of it. Some have criticized the idea of removing the flag as counter to the organization’s mission of historic and cultural preservation.
Freeman says that following the racial reckonings of 2020, it felt like the appropriate time to re-evaluate whom the flag represents. He says the notion of two flag poles is akin to the “separate but equal” attitude of racial segregation.
Jupiter Peraza, the director of social justice initiatives for San Francisco’s Transgender District, says she personally doesn’t object to the current flag but understands the desire to see a more contemporary one flown. In recent years, she says, she feels the message of Baker’s flag has been co-opted by both commercialism and some conservative gay groups that aligned themselves with the Trump administration, which backed significant anti-transgender legislation.
“I can’t believe this is even a question — the Progress Flag should go up, period,” says activist and drag king Alex U. Inn. For Inn, the Progress Flag would be a symbol that more diverse groups of people beyond cisgender, white gay men have a place in the community. If that flag flies on a second pole, Inn says, it’s important that there be language stating that the Progress Flag is not a token or an afterthought. “The original flag made a statement that’s now known around the world. The Progress Flag is a statement about our future.”
Dave Karraker, co-owner of MX3 Fitness and a member of the Castro Merchants Association, says it’s important that the history of Baker’s flag be recognized.
“The flag has been the banner under which people fought for their rights and fought for AIDS relief from the government,” says Karraker. “There’s a lot of pride in the fact that the Gilbert Baker flag is a gay icon globally and that it was created here in San Francisco by men and women who were San Franciscans.”
Karraker supports creating a second pole that would fly the Progress Flag or other community flags, and says there’s no reason to stop there. In a neighborhood with so much LGBTQ history and a community with so many flags and symbols associated with it, why shouldn’t the Castro be filled with different flags?
“I think what we can do is create a space or spaces within the Castro that effectively honor a very wide range of the members of our community,” says Karraker.
But while Mandelman believes a “win-win” compromise should be possible, it’s difficult to imagine what that might be.
The Castro Cultural District is hoping that its survey and town hall will illuminate more of the community’s feelings. Both the district and the merchants say this will likely not be the last time the flag and other symbols representing LGBTQ people come up for discussion.
Gage Lennox, who started last year’s petition to change the flag, suggests that answer might not be a new flag, but an evolving digital installation.
“Here’s the thing about gay and alternative sexual community people: we’re great artists,” Lennox says. “If we get the right people, we can think of something we can all get behind.”
But as the LGBTQ community continues to evolve, one wonders how long that symbol might last.