Rainbow flag exhibit returning to the Bay Area

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday August 23, 2023
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Kudzai Kanyere of Zimbabwe dons a rainbow flag. They write in the Flag in the Map project that they are nonbinary in a country that does not recognize their rights. Photo: Courtesy Flag in the Map
Kudzai Kanyere of Zimbabwe dons a rainbow flag. They write in the Flag in the Map project that they are nonbinary in a country that does not recognize their rights. Photo: Courtesy Flag in the Map

An exhibit showing the worldwide impact of the rainbow flag is returning to the Bay Area in October.

Flag in the Mapis a visual exhibit showcasing 75 portraits of people in 40 nations who tell their stories and reaffirm the power of the global symbol of LGBTQ Pride. In Napa in October, 48 of those exhibits will be displayed. The project is a collaboration between the Gilbert Baker Foundation and ReportOUT. The two organizations put out a call in 2020 asking for photos of people flying the rainbow flag, according to the website. A book has also been completed as part of the project.

The website includes a video that shows images of some of the people who have participated. For example, Grace Edwards Akuma of Kenya wrote, "It shows how happy and proud I am of my identity as a lesbian, more so in a country that has not fully embraced LGBTQ persons."

Gay artist Gilbert Baker's flag came about when late gay supervisor Harvey Milk had urged Baker to design a symbol for the 1978 San Francisco Pride parade. With the help of co-creators and 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 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, as the Bay Area Reporter reported back in 2018.

Baker would go on to eliminate the stars and reduce the number of colored stripes to six. Over the ensuing years, he turned the rainbow flag 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 Pride parade to the GLBT Historical Society Museum in the city's LGBTQ Castro district, where it is now on public display.

Charley Beal, a gay man who is president of the Baker foundation, told the B.A.R. that the Flag in the Map project is a little over a year old.

"It debuted as a small exhibit at the GLBT Historical Society Museum in San Francisco and Stonewall park the same day," Beal said, referring to Christopher Park that is part of the Stonewall National Monument in New York City and also includes the Stonewall Inn, the site of the famous riots in June 1969 that are considered the start of the modern LGBTQ rights movement.

Beal said that the exhibition has also been at the Old Street Gallery in London, the New York State Capitol building in Albany, the Provincetown Pride Center in Massachusetts, and the United States Embassy to the French Republic in Paris.

"We solicited submissions from around the world. We had over 100 submissions from 40 countries — Ukraine, China, Pakistan, Indonesia," Beal said. "What we've found are harrowing stories of bravery: a story out of Iran, where there was a beheading; a man killed for coming out of the closet, and his friends running around Tehran wearing the rainbow flag — to just people: one, from Zambia, who is wearing the rainbow flag saying 'I'm pansexual and people don't understand me here' and wearing the flag with a face full of bliss."

Beal said the exhibit is meant to highlight the 73 countries where homosexuality is outlawed, as well as attacks on the rainbow flag abroad and at home. Beal said there've been dozens of rainbow flag bans on government buildings around the country.

The foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union have joined forces on the Save The Rainbow Flag project to fight anti-flag moves throughout the U.S. In February in Southern California, for example, the Huntington Beach City Council voted to remove the Pride flag from the list of approved flags to be flown outside City Hall. And in the Bay Area in late May, Vacaville Mayor John Carli refused to recognize June as Pride Month and fly the rainbow flag, as the B.A.R. reported.

Vandalism of Pride flags has also occurred locally. In July, a Pride banner was slashed in two at the Congregational Church of Belmont on the Peninsula. In May, Palo Alto police opened an investigation into the vandalism of a Pride flag flown by the city's First Lutheran Church.

Incidents have also turned deadly. On August 18 straight ally Laura Ann Carleton, 66, was fatally shot because she displayed a Pride flag outside her business in Cedar Glen, near Lake Arrowhead in Southern California. The shooter, Travis Ikeguchi, 27, was killed by police after fleeing the scene.

Beal said the foundation has seen some victories in other parts of the country.

Gilbert Baker Foundation President Charley Beal, left, stands with trans flag creator Monica Helms at the High Line Nine Gallery in New York City. Photo: Courtesy Charley Beal  

"We're learning how to fight back and how to win," he said, pointing to Sussex, New Jersey, where the burning of a rainbow flag at a New Jersey church solicited support and donations of replacement rainbow flags, Out in Jersey reported earlier this year. Proposed legislation in Florida to ban the rainbow flag on government buildings was withdrawn.

"I'm proud to say we beat [Florida Governor Ron] DeSantis," Beal said. "No, I don't want to be cheerful. ... Flag in the Map and Save The Rainbow Flag are two sides of the same coin. These stories, this exhibit, is how we save the flag."

The ACLU did not return a request for comment.

Daniel Nicoletta, a gay photographer who in the late 1970s worked at the late Supervisor Harvey Milk's Castro Street camera shop, has work featured in the exhibit — specifically, a picture of a rainbow flag flying at an Episcopal church in Grants Pass, Oregon.

"I've only seen the book and the online interface, as I live in Oregon now," Nicoletta told the B.A.R. "I think it's great. The book is amazing. I love it's international in scope and I was so pleased to be involved."

Nicoletta told the B.A.R. that the flag has been stolen from the church several times, which he said could be a story in its own right.

"It's a tribute to the endurance of the pastors, who keep on replacing the flag," he said.

Beal said he solicited North Bay resident Cleve Jones, a longtime gay rights and AIDS activist who was a personal friend of Baker's, to speak at the upcoming event. Jones agreed — on the condition the exhibit can also be displayed as part of the Russian River Pride festivities he is helping to plan the following weekend in Guerneville.

"This Flag in the Map project is so cool on a couple of levels," Jones told the B.A.R. "First of all — as someone who was a dear, close friend of Gilbert Baker — it's moving to see how his flag has inspired people, not just in North America and Europe, but all over, especially where LGBTQ+ people are under state attack, and in conflict zones. It's really inspiring to see how his vision has inspired people across the globe."

Added Jones: "When you look at attacks against the flag itself in our own country — local jurisdictions trying to ban the display of the flag — it's so cool the Gilbert foundation has teamed up with the ACLU to fight that."

The Flag in the Map exhibit will be displayed Friday, October 6, from noon to 7:30 p.m. at the Napa Valley College Performing Arts Center, 2277 Napa Vallejo Highway. The exhibit will close with a special speaker event at 7:30 p.m. featuring Beal and Jones. Admission is free.

People can submit a photo for consideration at the exhibit's website.

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