September 2, 2011

Controversy: San Francisco's Rainbow Flag An Iconic Symbol Of Tolerance


San Francisco,California: There is a rainbow flag proudly flying at the intersection of Castro and Market Streets, for as long as I can remember. The flag is a beacon of pride for the local LGBT community, as well as LGBT citizens across the country and around the world. Fellow San Francisco blogger, and activist, Michael Petrelis has been working to democratize the management of the flag, because the current structure doesn’t allow for any direct dialogue with the organization who maintains the flag.   

I’ve been reading about the controversy surrounding the famous flag at Harvey Milk Plaza, for quite a few months. As a long time resident of the neighborhood we call the Castro, I see the flag nearly every day. It’s a spot where you see tourists snapping pictures of the iconic symbol, a place where you arrange to meet friends before embarking on a night out, and a landmark where the community gathers to express joy about our Giants winning the World Series, or dismay about setbacks in the LGBT struggle for civil rights.

The Castro's flag is financed and managed by the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro (MUMC). They pay $5,000 a year for insurance, and an additional $4,000 a year to replace the flag every 3 months. While the land the flag pole sits on is public property owned by the city, the flag is maintained by MUMC. According to CBS5 San Francisco, Steve Adams, the President of MUMC, described the arrangement as a “public-private partnership” between the city Department of Public Works (DPW) and his organization.

Michael Petrelis contacted DPW to request that the flag be lowered to half-staff after David Kato, the Ugandan LGBT activist, was murdered on January 26, 2011. He was told to make the request to MUMC. Initially the request was denied, but after a public outcry, the flag was lowered on February 3rd 2011, for one hour.

Elizabeth Taylor, the iconic actress, Aids activist, and LGBT rights champion, died on March 23, 2011. There were requests made to the MUMC board of directors for the flag to be lowered in her honor, and the board said no. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the flag has only been lowered 5 times in ten years, to honor local gay icons.

Petrelis has requested that the flag be lowered on September 11, 2011 in honor of Mark Bingham, our local gay hero and Cal graduate, who perished on Flight 93, after storming the cockpit above Shanksville, Pennsylvania. He also requested that the flag be flown at half-staff on September 12th, 2011 on the day that the city is remembering Ruth Brinker, the iconic founder of Project Open Hand, who passed away on August 8, 2011. Petrelis reports that the MUMC board approved the request to honor Brinkman, and the Bay Area Reporter is reporting that the flag will be lowered for Mark Bingham and the other LGBT victims who lost their lives on September 11th, 2001.

The flag flying on the corner of Market and Castro is a symbol that represents inclusiveness, and yet decisions related to who the community would like to honor, is a closed process. From MUMC’s point of view, they are a private organization of Castro businesses, and have no requirement to have meetings that are open to the public. They view how they approach decisions related to lowering the flag, as a private matter.


I applaud the fact that MUMC spends nearly $10,000 annually to maintain the flag. I abhor the reality that our community has no voice in the decision making process. It’s incredibly disheartening, and ridiculous, that a “board” has to convene in private, to discuss the merits of honoring individuals who have made noteworthy contributions to our community.

I don’t think it’s necessary for city hall to get involved in this skirmish, but I do think it’s important for the merchants to have an open dialogue with the community. With MUMC picking up the tab for insuring, replacing, and maintaining the flag, they’ve earned the right to have a considerable amount of influence over that rainbow flag, but that influence is not absolute. In a “public-private partnership” you have a responsibility to your members (private), as well as the public. Isn’t that the point? Do the merchants forget who their customers largely are? They have a responsibility to be sensitive to our views, no matter how inconvenient it may be. I trust that MUMC will devise an open and transparent process to make requests, with an appeal process for any adverse decisions.

MUMC made the wrong decision about honoring Elizabeth Taylor. Let’s hope they get their act together, and find a middle ground for a solution that members of the community can live with. They would get off to a good start by announcing that the flag will be lowered on an annual basis, to honor Harvey Milk Day, and World Aids Day. Anything less, INCLUDING MUMC’s disingenuous suggestion to build or find another flag pole, in a different location, would be a travesty.

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