Pride flag at CA Capitol 1st flew in 1990

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday June 18, 2019
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The October 18, 1990 issue of the Bay Area Reporter featured a photo of the Pride flag that flew briefly at the state Capitol on October 11 for National Coming Out Day. Photo: Bay Area Reporter archives
The October 18, 1990 issue of the Bay Area Reporter featured a photo of the Pride flag that flew briefly at the state Capitol on October 11 for National Coming Out Day. Photo: Bay Area Reporter archives

When a rainbow flag was raised Monday over the California Capitol, both Governor Gavin Newsom and Equality California, the statewide LGBT advocacy organization, claimed it marked the "first time ever" it had flown over the building.

Yet a Pride flag was first raised above the dome of the Sacramento structure on Coming Out Day October 11, 1990. It was said to mark the first time the symbol of the LGBT community had flown at a state capitol building in the U.S.

As a front page story in the Bay Area Reporter that day explained, it was the result of a joint resolution passed the day prior by the Assembly and Senate. A past president of the Sacramento gay and lesbian River City Democratic Club, Ken Topper, who was a legislative aide to then-Senate Pro Tem Dave Roberti, had approached the late Senator Milton Marks (D-San Francisco) to introduce the resolution.

"It sends a message to all constituencies that we're as much a part of this society as any other minority or cultural group," Topper had told the B.A.R., adding that "the raising of that flag raises our visibility and it will enable people to be freer in acknowledging who they are."

Marks had sought to have the Pride flag fly from sunrise on October 11 until the flags were taken down that night. Yet the flag ended up being flown for only a few hours that day, as the B.A.R. reported in its October 18, 1990 issue.

Then-governor George Deukmejian ordered the flag to be taken down shortly after it was raised, according to the article. The story also reported that state police had received threats from veterans who said they planned to shoot or burn the flag.

Marks criticized the governor's decision, stating in a news release that it was "inappropriate" and that the Pride flag "represents the diversity of our state and the struggle to gain rights and acceptance for all people."

Now living in Vermont, former Marks staffer Michael Bosia contacted the B.A.R. after hearing about Newsom's raising the flag this week in order to correct the historical record. In an email Tuesday, he wrote about working with Topper and another Marks staffer, Carol Stuart, on getting the flag flown nearly three decades ago.

Asked about seeing not only Newsom, but Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers and gay Colorado Governor Jared Polis fly the Pride flag at their state Capitols for the first time this year in honor of Pride month, Bosia replied he was surprised it hadn't happen sooner.

"To be honest, I am surprised that it has taken this long for the second raising of the flag. But now it is much easier in some ways," wrote Bosia, an associate professor of political science at Saint Michael's College. "Imagine how dark 1990 was, and how much anger, after nearly a decade of AIDS, the Bush administration, the 1990 AIDS Conference in San Francisco, the failure of Prop S, state and local budget cuts. We really needed something that gave us hope, and that's why we did it."

Stuart replied in an email when asked about the flag raising in 1990, "for us standing on the lawn, in front of the Capitol that day, it was very meaningful."

She credited Bosia and Topper, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday, for working behind the scenes to make it happen.

EQCA spokesman Samuel Garrett-Pate told the B.A.R. the inaccuracy in the news release sent out Monday highlights why it is important that the LGBT community's history be archived and taught in classrooms, as California and New Jersey now require.

"We're grateful to the Bay Area Reporter for flagging this important moment in history, and applaud the young gay Capitol staff who organized to have a rainbow flag flown over the Capitol in October 1990 — in celebration of National Coming Out Day," wrote Garrett-Pate in an emailed reply. "Their courageous act should not be forgotten, and we remain dedicated to ensuring our community's history is recorded, recognized and celebrated."

The release did mention how the rainbow flag had previously been hung over balconies both inside and outside of the building. And it also noted how the Capitol dome was illuminated in rainbow colors in June 2015 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality.

Newsom spokesman Nathan Click sent the B.A.R. a statement Tuesday afternoon explaining that the governor had just learned that the Pride flag had flown for three hours in 1990.

"This piece of our state's history deserves to be called out and recognized," stated Newsom. "News reports from the time tell of a group of activists and legislators who quietly orchestrated the flag to be flown to commemorate National Coming Out Day. It was an act of visibility and defiance. After a short time on display, Governor Deukmejian was alerted to the flag's existence and ordered it come down, saying it was 'mistakenly' raised."

He added that, "Almost 30 years later, our state is proud to have moved beyond the days when homophobia and bigotry were enshrined in our state body politic. And we are proud of the individuals whose collective actions helped moved our state and society toward acceptance and understanding. The rioters at the Black Cat, the friendly fearlessness of Harvey Milk, the coalition that banded together to fight the hateful Briggs Initiative — California has been a center of LGBTQ resistance. These legislators and activists who first hoisted the LGBTQ pride flag above the Capitol dome are part of that story."

The Golden State, stated Newsom, "proudly raises the LGBTQ pride flag this month in honor of that history. Twenty-nine years after the LGBT pride flag first flew above the Capitol dome, there's no mistaking why it's there. California is welcoming and inclusive to all — regardless of how you identify and who you love."

The Pride flag that flew 29 years ago was reportedly to be sent to the National Coming Out Day headquarters in Santa Fe, New Mexico accompanied by a note acknowledging Marks, who died in 1998, and the others involved in having it be flown.

Updated, 6/18/19: This article has been updated to include comments from Governor Newsom.