MUMC re-examines rainbow flag policy

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Wednesday October 17, 2012
Share this Post:

Facing renewed criticism over how it oversees the Castro's iconic giant rainbow flag, the gayborhood's merchant group is re-examining its policies regarding the flagpole at Harvey Milk Plaza.

Less than eight months after it posted online written guidelines on how individuals could request to have the flag lowered to honor leaders who have died or for other commemorative purposes, the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro has rescinded the policy.

The group, better known as MUMC, will no longer agree to fly the 20-by-30-foot flag at half-staff.

"The reality is the flag should never be lowered. It is not safe," said MUMC President Terry Asten Bennett, whose family owns Cliff's Variety.

Since its dedication on November 7, 1997, the flag has been lowered less than a dozen times. But Asten Bennett now says it was a mistake to do so.

"It should never have been lowered in the first place. It was designed to be flown at full-staff," she said.

MUMC's board discussed the issue at its meeting Wednesday night, though no further changes to its policy are expected until sometime in early 2013.

One possibility is for MUMC to settle on a set schedule for when it would fly flags representing the leather, bear, and transgender communities during the year but otherwise fly the rainbow flag at full-staff the remainder of the calendar days.

"We are tabling policy until after the first of the year," Asten Bennett told the Bay Area Reporter . "However, all requests for a lowered flag will be denied for safety reasons."

Community activists fed up with MUMC's handling of the issue are circulating their own proposal. They are calling on the city to retake control of the flagpole, set up a public committee to oversee it, and set out a transparent process for how requests to lower it will be reviewed and decided upon.

"It's time to thank MUMC for all they have done, and allow them to gracefully retire their flag management activities, focus on selling consumer goods, and leave community representation up to the community," wrote Clinton Fein in a post shared on Facebook.

District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener praised MUMC's oversight of the flagpole in an interview with the B.A.R.

"MUMC has done a superb job managing the flag, replacing the flag when it needs to be replaced, and maintaining the whole structure and purchasing insurance for it," said Wiener, a gay man who lives in the Castro. "MUMC has done a great community service to make sure this community flag is proudly flying over the neighborhood, and I support MUMC's management role."


Transgender flag request renews debate

The issue reared itself again in September when MUMC refused to lower the rainbow flag on September 11 as it had done last year to mark the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Activists accused the group of being unpatriotic for not adhering to a presidential order asking that American flags be flown at half-staff, while MUMC officials countered that the White House request didn't cover non-U.S. flags.

A bigger brouhaha broke out in recent weeks after MUMC initially denied a request to raise the transgender flag on November 20 to denote the Transgender Day of Remembrance because it also asked that the flag be lowered that night to honor those transgender people who have been killed.

In February Steve Adams, MUMC's then-president, voiced support for flying the transgender flag on November 20 when asked about doing so by the B.A.R.

Longtime transgender activist Veronika Fimbres in September sent MUMC a formal request to fly the transgender flag as a way for the Castro community to support their transgender neighbors, co-workers, and patrons.

"I am just a person who has lost many friends in the struggle to be transgender and to be yourself," said Fimbres, who a year ago changed her last name from Cauley, when asked what motivated her to suggest that the transgender flag be flown. "It is a way to show solidarity."

But because Fimbres's initial request also asked that the transgender flag be lowered at night, MUMC informed Fimbres October 5 that its board had decided to reject her proposal because it "does not fall within the established policy" for altering the display of the rainbow flag.

MUMC's emailed letter to Fimbres also stated that its rejection of her request shouldn't be "interpreted as any disrespect for the transgender flag, the November 20 Transgender Day of Remembrance, or similar issues."

In response Fimbres started an online campaign October 8 to demand that MUMC fly the transgender flag. Her petition no longer included the request to also fly the flag at half-staff.

As word spread via social media about the issue, it set off a firestorm of criticism against MUMC and calls by some activists for a boycott of Cliff's.

"I am astounded it has taken them so long to add what we already should have done. They fly the leather flag and the bear flag so why not fly the transgender flag? It is a no-brainer," said Bill Wilson, a local photographer who has been pressing MUMC for more public engagement about the flagpole.

Twelve years ago the leather community successfully petitioned to have the rainbow flag be replaced by the leather flag and flown the week leading up to the annual Folsom Street Fair in September.

In 2011 MUMC agreed to fly the bear flag over Presidents Day weekend in February to mark the end of the International Bear Rendezvous event after a 17-year run. When local organizers launched a smaller get-together this year, MUMC agreed to again fly the bear flag.

Over the weekend Asten Bennett informed some transgender leaders and others that MUMC was reconsidering its position and would fly the transgender flag at full-staff on November 20. The board made its decision official Monday, October 15.

In a news release MUMC's board said it had "thoughtfully and thoroughly" reconsidered the matter and asked that "the community coordinate the flying of the flag with a commemoration that can bring the much needed focus, recognition and pride to the transgender community."

[Full disclosure: B.A.R. advertising director Scott Wazlowski, who sits on MUMC's board, supported flying the transgender flag at full-staff but voted to reject the request that included it being flown at half-staff.]

In an interview Asten Bennett declined to speculate if the board would have approved Fimbres's initial request if it was only to fly the flag at full-staff. She also defended the merchants association as having long supported the entire LGBT community.

"I can't answer what the board would have said at the time. It would have been a different conversation," she said. "MUMC is very supportive of the entire LGBT community and understands that the transgender community has been under-represented and subjected to more violence than the rest of the community and needs this recognition."

Fimbres told the B.A.R. that she wished MUMC, rather than reject her initial request outright, had said it would fly the transgender flag but not lower it.

"All I want them to do is raise the flag and let it fly," she said. "I didn't think my asking would be a big thing."

An anonymous gay man who lives outside San Francisco is willing to pay for the production costs for the flag, said Fimbres, adding that she would soon be ordering it so that it arrives before November 20. She plans to donate it so it can be flown each year.

"I wouldn't keep it; I have no need for a flag of that size," said Fimbres. "They can fly it every year to remember those transgender people who have been murdered."

In terms of moving forward, Fimbres called on MUMC to have a public dialogue about the flagpole and its policy governing it.

"I want transparency," said Fimbres. "They need to meet with the community."


Ongoing debate over flagpole

Controversy has long engulfed the flagpole, whose very creation was a hard fought battle.

Starting in the late 1980s Gilbert Baker, who created the rainbow flag, spent 10 years campaigning to erect the flagpole at the plaza named after the city's first gay elected official. He considered it to be an art project that would convey a sense of pride in being LGBT to the world.

When Baker relocated to New York City several years after the flagpole went up, city officials entered into an agreement with MUMC in 2001 to have the group be responsible for maintaining it. MUMC spends roughly $5,000 each year on insurance, and through an annual donation from the Castro Street Fair, buys four new flags to replace those worn down by the elements.

The first time the rainbow flag was lowered to honor the passing of an individual came in 2002 after the death of San Francisco Police Officer Jon Cook, the first openly gay member of the force to be killed in the line of duty. It was next lowered in 2007 when Castro history tour guide Trevor Hailey died; in 2008 to honor lesbian rights pioneer Del Martin; and in 2010 after the death of San Francisco Patrol Special Police Officer Jane Ellen Warner, whose beat covered the Castro.

The debate over when MUMC should lower the rainbow flag first gained wide attention in 2011 after the group declined to fly it at half-staff during a rally honoring murdered Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato. Local blogger Michael Petrelis began haranguing MUMC about its decision.

After an ensuing public outcry, MUMC reversed course.

The issue sparked continued discourse all last year after MUMC refused to lower the flag in honor of AIDS activist Elizabeth Taylor after she died and didn't fly a donated New York state flag when same-sex couples began marrying in New York.

Petrelis renewed his attacks after MUMC rejected his suggestions it fly an American flag below the rainbow flag on Veterans Day and lower it to half-mast on World AIDS Day. The flagpole is built to only fly one flag, according to MUMC, and it did affix a red ribbon to the rainbow flag during the AIDS observance December 1.

The group also agreed to lower the flag during the 9/11 anniversary that year. MUMC kept the flag lowered for two days to honor those lost in the terrorist attacks and to mark the death of Project Open Hand founder Ruth Brinker.

Yet Baker said he never intended for the flag in the Castro to be acquainted with mourning.

"There is more power when we celebrate our lives than our deaths," said Baker in a recent interview.

The flagpole is meant to be a symbol of gay pride, he added, and was purposefully dedicated on the 20th anniversary of Milk's election on November 7, 1977 to a seat on the Board of Supervisors.

"It is about his life and not his death," said Baker, referring to Milk's assassination on November 27, 1978. "I know it is very artsy and goes over peoples' heads. They see it as similar to the American flag and want to see it go up and down."

As for the repeated demands that the flag be lowered on certain occasions, Baker considers such requests to be censorship.

"Why are you censoring my artwork? Go get your own flagpole. Go kiss ass and make it happen. It infuriates me," he said. "I am trying to be gracious, but the merchants fucked this up by letting the leather flag up. Once they did that, it has never stopped."

But Baker himself opened the door for using the flagpole to send a political message. When the United States Supreme Court overturned the country's anti-gay sodomy laws on June 26, 2003, he raised an American flag in place of the rainbow flag.

He did so, said Baker, because "we moved as gay people in the U.S. from being criminals to being citizens. It was an incredibly important day and appropriately I went there and raised an American flag much to the consternation of many people who said, 'What are you doing?' I was sending a message to the New York Times and every newspaper in the world that we are gay Americans, we are citizens."

The flagpole was used a second time to respond to a court ruling when in 2009 the California Supreme Court upheld a voter-approved ban against same-sex marriage. The rainbow flag was flown at half-staff to visually express the LGBT community's outrage over the gay rights setback.

Baker intervened again when Frank Kameny, one of the country's first gay rights leaders, died on October 11, 2011. He asked that MUMC lower the flag.

"When he passed away, I felt it was very important to get people talking about him," explained Baker.

He now laments how requests that the flag be lowered have become "a never ending thing." His preference is for the flag to be flown at full-staff 365 days a year, said Baker, though he voiced support for having a set schedule for when the LGBT community's other flags will be flown.

"I guess that is okay if there has to be edits of my work. I guess I have to accept it. What choice do I have?" said Baker. "I just want this ugly, ugly controversy over. I can't stand it."

By articulating its flag policy on its website earlier this year, MUMC hoped it had resolved the issue. But the debate never abated, with activists continuing to voice complaints about MUMC's refusal to dialogue with them on finding a compromise.

They also question why safety is a concern if the flag is flown at half-staff but not when it is at full-staff.

"I would emphasize to you this is not just about flying the transgender flag. It is also about whether there can be any communication between MUMC and people in the community who want to do things with the flag," said Wilson, referring to a host of requests activists made to fly the rainbow flag at half-staff that were denied.

MUMC leaders, in turn, complain they have "been overwhelmed with requests to alter or change the flag."

In its press release this week, MUMC noted that "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."

As for the safety concerns, Asten Bennett said that there is a greater chance of the flag landing in the middle of traffic or nearby Muni lines if it were to break at half-staff than when it is higher up the flagpole at full-staff.

The group plans "to organize a committee to reassess our policy" at the start of the new year.

"We are a merchants' association and there are so many other things we need to be focusing on," said Asten Bennett.