SF historic panel gives approval to Castro Pride flag landmarking

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday May 15, 2024
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The oversized rainbow flag installation at Castro and Market streets is a step closer to being approved as a city landmark, as the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission gave its approval May 15. Photo: Rick Gerharter
The oversized rainbow flag installation at Castro and Market streets is a step closer to being approved as a city landmark, as the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission gave its approval May 15. Photo: Rick Gerharter

The San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission has unanimously approved plans to landmark the late gay artist Gilbert Baker's oversized rainbow flag installation in the Castro neighborhood. The issue will now be taken up by the Board of Supervisors.

But under the proposed ordinance the commission sent to the supervisors, flags other than the rainbow banner could be flown. During a discussion at their May 15 meeting, the commissioners talked about what procedures would have to be followed for that to happen.

The commission voted 7-0 in favor of landmarking the flagpole. San Francisco Planning Department staff had recommended it approve the designation of the rainbow flag installation at Harvey Milk Plaza, seen as the front door to the LGBTQ neighborhood, just one week prior to what would have been the slain supervisor's 94th birthday.

The supervisors kick-started the local landmarking process April 2, approving a resolution introduced by gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents the Castro on the board.

The resolution requested that the planning department "prepare a landmark designation report to submit to the Historic Preservation Commission for its consideration of the full historical, architectural, aesthetic, and cultural interest and value of Gilbert Baker's Rainbow Flag installation at Harvey Milk Plaza."

During the meeting, Planning Department staff member Moses Corrette said that the flag qualifies as a traditional cultural place and as a significant artwork.

"The artwork represents three pillars of Milk's values which he taught: hope, visibility, and power," Corrette said. "The rainbow flag, as a symbol, is identified with the global LGBTQ community since about 1980."

Corrette said that it took six weeks from the first announcement of the installation in 1997 to when it was erected. Therefore, there was not a maintenance plan.

"In some regards, it's up to whoever holds the key to the flagpole and to the flag," he said.

Possibility of other flags

Corrette noted at the meeting that some in the community wanted other flags flown from the flagpole from time to time, mentioning the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, and said the proposed ordinance makes provision for a certificate of appropriateness to allow that to happen. Cultural district director Tina V. Aguirre declined a request to comment but stated they support the landmarking.

"The Castro LGBTQ Cultural District is committed to preserving, sustaining, and promoting the rich legacy of the Castro and its significance to San Francisco's LGBTQ+ community and beyond," Aguirre stated in a February 6 letter to the planning department.

The Castro Merchants Association is the current custodian of the flag. Terry Asten Bennett, a straight ally who is president of the merchants group, said during the meeting that it was a personal request made of her by the late Tom Taylor — who'd been the flag's custodian until his 2020 death but who'd been assisted by the merchants in his final years — that the one six-color oversized rainbow flag be flown at the site 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.

"It concerns me greatly the line is being put in to have other flags fly on the flagpole," Asten Bennett said of the proposal. "It was made clear to us that if it was not only the one rainbow flag flying it opened the possibility any flag, even a Nazi flag, might fly on the pole."

Nonetheless, "all in all the Castro Merchants are fully in support" of the landmarking generally, Asten Bennett said.

Asten Bennett said that "we stopped flying other flags because the [San Francisco] human rights commission was brought in and advised us it was all or nothing." At different points in the past, the trans and leather flags had been flown at the site.

The Human Rights Commission was not able to provide immediate comment.

San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu's office declined to comment, referring the B.A.R. to the human rights commission. A deputy city attorney who staffs the historic preservation commission referred a question on the matter back to Corrette.

Corrette said that "to change the flag would require a certificate of appropriateness" and San Francisco Public Works, which installed the flagpole in 1997, "would have to apply for that and make a proposal to the arts commission and this body."

Commissioner Hans Baldauf asked, "Does any San Francisco resident have the right to petition to fly a different flag from this flagpole?"

Corrette answered if someone were "getting the attention of the head of the department of public works" they'd be able — under the proposed language in which other flags could be flown with a certificate of appropriateness — to try to get another flag flown from the flagpole.

Corrette said it would be under the jurisdiction of the HPC to decide if any other flags could only be flown for a limited amount of time.

Baldauf also requested Corrette find out from the Human Rights Commission what its guidance is.

Mandelman told the B.A.R., "I actually am confused by the commission [HPC] recommendation, so this may take a little more time than I had hoped."

"We're going to need to work with planning staff and the city attorney to get clarity on the path forward," he stated. "I also thought the purpose of the landmarking was to recognize Gilbert's flag installation as the historically significant work of art that it is."

He previously told the B.A.R. that he is "hoping to have this project done in time for this year's Pride celebration, which is especially fitting as Gilbert's Pride flag made its debut at a San Francisco Pride parade."

Charley Beal, a gay man who is president of the Gilbert Baker Foundation, made public comment at the meeting, referencing bans of the Pride flag on public property in other parts of the country.

"It is the eighth most recognized symbol in the world after the American flag, French tricolor, the British Union Jack, the McDonald's arches, the Nike swoosh - well you get the picture," he said. "But the rainbow flag is more than just a prominent political symbol. It is an important work of art. I was with Gilbert when his flag was added to the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It is now in the permanent collections of almost a dozen museums and more are being added every year. As a work of art, I think it stands on its own and deserves landmark status."

Asked about the possibility of other flags at the site, Beal stated May 15, "The goal of the Gilbert Baker Foundation is to see Gilbert Baker's 6 color rainbow flag landmarked in order to preserve this beacon of hope in perpetuity."

In 2022, as the B.A.R. previously reported, the Gilbert Baker Foundation had hired architectural historian Shayne Watson, a lesbian who is an expert on the city's LGBTQ history, to conduct research on how the flagpole came to be as a first step toward declaring it a landmark.

As the B.A.R. previously reported, Baker co-created the first rainbow flag with friends Lynn Segerblom, a straight ally who now lives in Southern California, and James McNamara, a gay man who died of AIDS-related complications in 1999. Baker and his friends came up with a rainbow flag design that had eight colored stripes, with one version also sporting a corner section of stars to mimic the design of the American flag. It debuted at the 1978 San Francisco Pride parade.

"It really is a three-person, not a one-person, flag making. Everybody played their part and then some," Segerblom told the B.A.R. in a 2018 phone interview from her home in Torrance, southwest of Los Angeles.

Baker would go on to eliminate the stars and reduce the number of colored stripes to six. Over the ensuing years, Baker turned that standard six-color banner into an international symbol of LGBTQ rights.

Baker died unexpectedly in 2017 at the age of 65, and the foundation created in his name donated a segment from one of the first rainbow flags that flew in front of San Francisco City Hall during the 1978 parade to the GLBT Historical Society Museum in the Castro, where it is now on public display.

Updated, 5/15/24: This article has been updated with comments from Supervisor Mandelman.

Updated, 5/15/24: The original version of this report stated Beal did not provide public comment at the meeting. We regret the error.

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