The Flag Flap: More Drama On Castro Street | Jive in the [415] Blog | Gay LGBT News Political Commentary

October 25, 2012

The Flag Flap: More Drama On Castro Street

Rainbow flag at Castro and Market San Francisco, CA  ©

San Francisco was at the vanguard of what historians call the “sexual revolution,” and sex, psychedelic drugs, and music were an integral part of that. The “Summer of Love” in the swingin’ 1960’s, still influences the Haight Ashbury neighborhood, near Golden Gate Park. There are head shops up and down Haight Street, and daily pilgrimages to Jerry Garcia’s former house, with a high concentration of aging hippies collecting social security, and wearing flowers in their hair.

San Francisco was at the forefront of the “gay liberation movement” of the 1970’s, that was so poignantly portrayed in Dustin Lance Black and Gus Van Sant’s film Milk. I know that for me, the film taught me a lot, and many of the scenes are etched in my heart and seared on my mind, and will stay with me forever.

I live in the neighborhood where they made the film. The accurate historical portrayal of our vibrant neighborhood, and countless struggles to bravely come out, with street parties, police actions, wanton sex, and the legacy of Harvey Milk and his camera shop, can still be seen in the windows and doorways of the shops, and the bars, and homes, that line Castro Street.

On the corner of Market Street and Castro, there’s an enormous flag pole where a huge rainbow flag flies nearly every day. It serves as a beacon at gay ground zero, standing guard like a sentry at the most exclusive rainbow club on the planet. The rainbow flag that’s become synonymous with the LGBT community, was designed by San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker (who is now based in New York).

For nearly two years, our symbol of LGBT pride, the rainbow flag, has been the subject of controversy, countless discussions and many debates.The flag pole sits on city owned property, in Harvey Milk Plaza. The flag itself, is maintained by a private organization of local merchants, who pay for the insurance and replacement flags, which costs about $10,000 a year.

There are some city residents who feel that the flag should be lowered to half-mast,  after the death of someone who has made a significant contribution to LGBT equality and civil rights, to honor and commemorate their life. In addition, many in the community would like to see the flag lowered annually on 9/11, Veteran’s Day, World Aids Day, and Harvey Milk Day. I personally feel that it’s very important to lower the flag on those days.

Veronika Fimbres, a local transgendered activist, made a request of the merchant’s group, that the flag be lowered on November 20th, the Transgendered Day of Remembrance. The Merchants of Upper Market and Castro (MUMC) said no. MUMC has said in the past that they get an excessive number of requests to lower the flag throughout the year, and some of the merchants feel that it should never be lowered at all. After Fimbres received a letter rejecting her request, she started an online petition and quickly gathered over 1,000 signatures, and MUMC reconsidered their decision and acquiesced.

Blogger and gay organizer Michael Petrelis has been working on this issue for nearly two years. He has been in contact with the city, and MUMC, in order to ensure that MUMC make their decisions regarding the lowering of the flag, in an open forum so that the process is transparent, and the stakeholders can attend the meetings and participate if they wish.

MUMC is a private organization, so they aren’t required to have meetings that are open to the public. The flag pole sits on public property, and as such, Petrelis contends that MUMC should  have open meetings when they consider issues related to the flag, and the merchants should be attuned to the wishes of the community.

When MUMC refuses to lower the flag, they often cite safety issues, and the wishes of the flag’s creator. On the MUMC website, they write (emphasis mine):
In the 1990’s, Baker and community colleagues worked with City officials to erect a Flag Pole from which to fly the Rainbow Flag in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood. It was dedicated on November 7, 1997 in what is now known as Harvey Milk Plaza at Castro and Market Streets, to commemorate the election of Harvey Milk to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The intent was that this Rainbow Flag would be flown at full-staff at all times, in a neighborhood which has become internationally recognized as a center of LGBT culture and freedom.

Consistent with the principles established by the Flag’s creators and with broad community support, the Flag flies almost always at full staff with very rare exceptions.
The issue that exasperates me the most, is how inflexible MUMC is, and the arrogant posture that they have maintained for nearly two years. I know someone on the board of MUMC, and I know that they have had spirited discussions about the flag, behind closed doors. And that's the problem that MUMC has created for themselves. As I said a year ago, since the flagpole is on public property, MUMC must have a set procedure to make requests, with an appeals process in place, when an individual or group wants to appeal MUMC’s decision. That is not an unreasonable request.

Terry Asten Bennett, the current President of MUMC, issued a statement recently about the flag. The online newspaper SF Appeal reported:
"Over the last two years the MUMC Board has been overwhelmed with requests to alter or change the flag," Asten Bennett wrote in a MUMC mailing Monday.

"These requests have regularly been accompanied by a great deal of personal attacks, blatant bullying and harassment. Due to these attacks it has made it very difficult to consider any requests."
I don’t know anything about personal attacks, though I certainly can empathize with Asten Bennett feeling bullied. Michael Petrelis is a niggler, and he will persist as long as MUMC maintains their arrogance, and doesn’t open up the process in a transparent way.

To add insult to injury, Petrelis staged a public scene outside of Asten Bennett’s business. The SF Appeal writes:
Regardless of the successful campaign for the transgender flag to fly in November, gay rights activist Michael Petrelis teamed up with three nudist activists and stood in front of the store Tuesday afternoon holding signs stating "Boycott Cliff's" and bellowing into a bullhorn.

Petrelis said MUMC needs to offer the Castro community more transparency with their decisions and use of public land.

"We are asking them to hold public meetings" and in the meantime asking customers to boycott Cliff's, he said.

Cleve Jones, a prominent LGBT activist who worked with assassinated San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk for human rights in the 1970s, walked through the store doors during the boycott to show his support for Asten Bennett and Cliff's.

"The attack on this business and family is unwarranted," Jones said.

Asten Bennett is one of the owners of Cliff’s Variety Store in the Castro. Cliff’s has been an integral part of the Castro for over 75 years. I must admit that it's my favorite store in San Francisco. Where else can you go to buy sequins, a bucket of paint, a halloween costume, a bit for your drill, a shower curtain, and have a key made all at once?

Cliff’s is vital to the neighborhood, and Asten Bennett and the store have done nothing to warrant a boycott. That’s also not the way to curry favor when you want something from an organization where she is the President.

I hope that Petrelis can find a place in his heart to apologize to Terry Asten Bennett and the employees of Cliff’s. The MUMC Board doesn't work at Cliff’s, so why would anyone want Cliff’s or Cliff’s employees to suffer? Dumb move in my opinion.

If you find yourself in the Castro, stop in at Cliff’s and buy something to support our neighborhood store. You’re bound to love it like I do.

In the meantime, the saga continues......

straight talk in a queer world.        
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