SF supervisors begin process to landmark Castro flag

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday April 2, 2024
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The San Francisco Board of Supervisors has approved a resolution to begin the process of landmarking the oversized rainbow flag and flagpole at Castro and Market streets. Photo: Rick Gerharter
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors has approved a resolution to begin the process of landmarking the oversized rainbow flag and flagpole at Castro and Market streets. Photo: Rick Gerharter

San Francisco supervisors agreed Tuesday to kickstart the process to grant local landmark status to one of the city's most recognizable LGBTQ tourist attractions, the giant rainbow flag flying above the Castro Muni station.

The Board of Supervisors approved a resolution at its April 2 meeting that asks planning and historic preservation officials to take up the proposal to landmark the rainbow flag installation, which consists of the oversized flag and its flagpole at Harvey Milk Plaza. The public parklet built atop the transit station is located at Market and Castro streets in the city's LGBTQ neighborhood.

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents the Castro, had introduced the resolution March 26. It requests 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," it states.

The resolution requests "that the Historic Preservation Commission consider whether Gilbert Baker's Rainbow Flag installation at Harvey Milk Plaza warrants landmark designation and submit its recommendation to the board according to Article 10 of the Planning Code." Per the city's landmark designation rules, a majority of the 11 supervisors would need to adopt an ordinance to officially add the flagpole to the list of local landmarks.

Mandelman's office told the Bay Area Reporter that the resolution only begins the landmarking process. The clerk will now refer the matter to the historic preservation commission, which will hear the request. At that hearing, the HPC will make a recommendation and an ordinance will be introduced at the board of supervisors after the language has been worked on by the city attorney's office and the planning department.

"In 1978, at the request of Harvey Milk, his friend Gilbert Baker designed an eight-stripe rainbow flag as an image of pride for the queer community," Mandelman explained to his board colleagues at last week's meeting. "The flag was first revealed at the 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco. Color shortages necessitated the removal of the pink and turquoise stripes from subsequent flags and the blue was changed to a different shade. The updated 1979 Gilbert Baker rainbow flag includes six colors and has since become an iconic, internationally recognized representation of freedom, equality and LGBTQ+ pride."

There's a bit more to the backstory. As the B.A.R. previously reported, Baker co-created the 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 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. Baker would go on to eliminate the stars and reduce the number of colored stripes to six.

"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.

Over the ensuing years, Baker turned the standard six-color 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 parade to the GLBT Historical Society Museum in the city's Castro neighborhood, where it is now on public display.

An oversized rainbow flag has been flying at Harvey Milk Plaza since November 8, 1997, commemorating the 20th anniversary of Milk's election to the Board of Supervisors. The Castro Merchants Association is the flag's caretaker; most recently the association replaced it March 22, and it is slated to be replaced again before this year's Pride festivities. Tom Taylor had been the keeper of the flag, but he died in 2020, as the B.A.R. reported at the time. In the years preceding his death, the merchants had been involved with him and his assistant in the flag's caretaking.

The merchants association last year started a new program to donate retired rainbow flags to nonprofit organizations, as the B.A.R. previously reported.

In process for years

As the B.A.R. had reported in 2022, 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. The Castro merchants group is supportive of the landmarking effort.

"This has been in the process for a very long time," Terry Asten Bennett, a straight ally who is president of the association, stated to the B.A.R. "I am very excited to see the landmarking process move forward. This flag that flies over the Castro is a beacon of hope, not just for our community but for the entire world. It is so important that these steps are taken to make sure it is preserved and protected."

Charley Beal, a gay man who is president of the Baker foundation, stated in a news release that "this initiative comes at a crucial time in civil rights history."

"Homophobia has grown more aggressive at the government level," he continued. Across America, the rainbow flag has been banned in nearly 50 places. And that includes seven towns and school districts in California. Our community is under attack."

Beal stated that the oversized flag and flagpole at the plaza was the brainchild of Baker and then-mayor Willie Brown, who in the 1970s as a member of the state Assembly, spearheaded the successful effort to overturn the state's sodomy laws. The release stated that Baker "had been developing the Harvey Milk Plaza flag for 10 years when he ran into charismatic San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown at the 1997 Castro Street Fair."

Gilbert quickly pitched the flagpole installation concept. Mayor Brown turned to an aide and said, "Make it happen," Beal's release stated.

Gay former supervisor Jeff Sheehy, who was friends with Baker, described a similar scene in a 2021 Guest Opinion piece for the B.A.R., in which he wrote that he was with Baker when they ran into Brown. In the piece, Sheehy wrote that the flagpole and flag are considered an art installation.

The Baker foundation will be holding a virtual town hall on the matter Thursday, April 25, from 6 to 9 p.m. Pacific time. Further details will be announced later, Beal stated.

For years Mandelman has said he is open to looking at possibly landmarking the flagpole. Most landmark requests are made for sites that are at least 50 years old, though exceptions to the guideline can be made in certain circumstances.

When asked last month why now, Mandelman stated to the B.A.R. that "Gilbert Baker's Rainbow Flag installation at Harvey Milk Plaza deserves recognition as a historically significant art installation. More than a quarter century since the flag was first raised over Harvey Milk Plaza, nearly a half century since Gilbert first conceived the rainbow as a symbol of queer liberation, it's high time for San Francisco to recognize Gilbert Baker's Rainbow Flag installation as the historic landmark it is."

Milk was fatally shot in November 1978 by disgruntled former supervisor Dan White, shortly after White killed then-mayor George Moscone after the mayor refused to reappoint White to the supervisor's seat from which he had resigned on November 10.

White served only five of a seven-year sentence for his crimes, after which he killed himself on October 21, 1985.

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