Guest Opinion: Castro Merchants encourages Pride symbols in addition to iconic rainbow flag

  • by by Masood Samereie
  • Friday August 14, 2020
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The rainbow flag flies at Harvey Milk Plaza in the Castro. Photo: Rick Gerharter
The rainbow flag flies at Harvey Milk Plaza in the Castro. Photo: Rick Gerharter

The Black Lives Matter movement has brought forward what could be considered one of the most important social discussions in a generation. And with its deep history in civil rights, the Castro understands all too well that it takes loud voices and strong actions to generate meaningful change.

In the past two months, there have been many strong voices, including the Bay Area Reporter in a recent editorial ["Raise an inclusive Castro flag," August 6], and two separate online petitions, suggesting the iconic rainbow flag in Harvey Milk Plaza be changed to one of the newer flags, including the Philadelphia Pride Flag and the Progress Pride Flag. In each instance, those important voices are calling upon Castro Merchants, the district's business association, to replace the existing rainbow flag.

Plaza flag history

To fully understand the issue, you have to first travel back to when the original rainbow flag was created by Gilbert Baker in 1978. Baker's friend, Harvey Milk, having just joined the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, challenged the artist to come up with a symbol of Pride for the gay community — a positive alternative to the pink triangle. Baker's answer was the rainbow flag.

Speaking in 2012, Baker explained, "What I liked about the symbolism of the rainbow is that it fits us. It's all the colors. It represents all the genders. It represents all the races. It's the rainbow of humanity."

In a statement, the Gilbert Baker Foundation recently wrote: "The rainbow flag was meant to represent all colors, creeds, races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. It was meant to be everybody's flag." The foundation also had a similar letter published in the B.A.R.

Today's rainbow flag, along with the flagpole at Castro and Market (intentionally aligned with the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street), was conceived and designed by Baker and approved by the city as a work of art. The installation was overseen by Baker in 1997 and completed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the election of Harvey Milk. According to his friends, Baker was quite emphatic about this being a work of art, his one permanent piece of public art. An apt analogy would be Cupid's bow along the Embarcadero.

Before his death in 2017, Baker and other community leaders sought to have the rainbow flag art installation registered as a historic landmark through the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission. It won't be eligible for landmark status for another two years.

Castro Merchants' role

Shortly after it was erected, recognizing no one was taking care of the flagpole and the humongous flag that rips in San Francisco's fierce summer winds, Castro Merchants assumed stewardship of the art installation. We have no authority to change the flag and our sole responsibility is maintenance, including replacing the tattered flag and maintaining the flagpole at the cost of near $5,000 annually. However, we want to be a part of any movement to add to this symbol of diversity and inclusion that stands proud at the entrance of the Castro.

While we do not ultimately control the content of this San Francisco art installation, we hear these recent voices for change loud and clear. When they arose in June, the Castro Merchants board scrambled to see what could be done.

In addition to understanding how Baker viewed his work as not just a flag and a flagpole but as an art installation, we learned quickly that the existing flagpole does not have the structural integrity or proper safety clearance to hold more than one flag. We then sought out other prominent flagpoles in the district to fly alternative flags — there were none. Bank of America graciously offered the side of its building on Castro and 18th streets, but that would require any alternative flag be made into a very large vinyl banner to secure it properly. We also recognized the availability of the light pole banners on Castro Street to honor the Black Lives Matter movement and other future causes important to our community.

Of course, all of these opportunities require funding and community support. Unfortunately, given the impact of the coronavirus on our local businesses and our organization, funding for any solution is in short supply.

Encouraging other Pride symbols in the Castro

In our role as stewards of Baker's original art installation, the Castro Merchants can't recommend changing it, but can absolutely encourage the display of other symbols of Pride in the Castro. We would support any community effort to erect an additional flagpole or some other installation in a significant location in the neighborhood to fly flags that symbolize the diversity of our LGBTQ+ residents and visitors, and would use any influence we have with the city to push this through. Were we to assume stewardship of any additional art installations, we would honor the original guiding intent of that installation, the same as we have done for Baker's art, unless directed differently by those responsible for its development and installation.

To this end, we will host an online community discussion on this matter soon, including gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District, the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, and other community organizations, to establish a concrete way forward with a defined timeline. Those interested in helping to lead this effort can email us at [email protected].

It's time to turn everyone's loud voices into definitive action. We are determined to support the Castro as the world's most inclusive and welcoming place; where individuality, creativity, and self-expression are encouraged and celebrated.

Masood Samereie is the board president of Castro Merchants.

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