Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

After activists question Castro flag policy; the iconic gay symbol will be lowered for rally tonight

For only the fourth time since it was installed on November 8, 1997, the over-sized Rainbow Flag in the Castro will be lowered to half mast tonight.

It will descend midway down the flag pole above the Castro Muni Station around 6 p.m. to coincide with a rally planned in Harvey Milk Plaza that will honor murdered Ugandan LGBT activist David Kato.

Planners of the rally initially had asked the Castro’s merchant group, which oversees the flag, to lower it for 24 hours on behalf of Kato, whom Ugandan police say was bludgeoned to death with a hammer in his home January 26. But leaders of the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro declined, saying their policy is to only lower the flag on those special occasions when a local LGBT person dies.

In fact, MUMC president Steve Adams said that only three people have been honored in such a way during the last 13 years. The most recent being San Francisco Patrol Special Police Officer Jane Ellen Warner, who died on May 8 last year.

The other two were Trevor Hailey, who led tourists on guided history tours of the Castro and pushed to install the flag pole, and San Francisco Police Officer Jon Cook, who in 2002 was the first openly gay city police officer killed in the line of duty.

After the outcry this week from local activists upset with MUMC’s decision not to honor Kato in a similar fashion., Adams relented and told the Bay Area Reporter that the flag will come down for one hour tonight.

“I do think it is the right thing to do,” said Adams, who was greeted at this morning’s monthly MUMC meeting by a person handing out fliers demanding his resignation. “I agree with the activists that what is happening in Uganda and other places around the world is horrifying.”

At the end of the MUMC meeting, local activist Michael Petrelis, one of the organizers of tonight’s rally, asked MUMC to revisit its policy on when to lower the flag.

“We want a new debate on who controls Harvey Milk Plaza and who controls the flag,” said Petrelis. “It is not community controlled when you have to go through Steve Adams and MUMC.”

Petrelis said there has been talk about erecting a second flag pole at the site that activists could control and lower at their own discretion.

“Do we want a second flag? I don’t think so,” said Petrelis.

Adams pledged to have MUMC’s board address the community complaints about the flag policy.

“I am open to dialogue. There may be a compromise between the activists and MUMC,” said Adams.

He said the board a long time ago adopted the restrictions on when to lower the flag because they receive anywhere from four to eight requests a month to do so.

“It got so it was overwhelming, the number of requests,” said Adams. “Unless something very special happens within our own community here, it keeps flying.”

According to the rules MUMC uses, any requests to lower the flag must be approved by its full board. A flag expert, who wishes to be anonymous so he is not approached about requests, handles the taking down or lowering of the flag.

Technically, the ground on which the flag pole sits near the intersection of Market and Castro Streets is owned by BART, which built the Castro Muni Station back in the 1970s. In the 1990s Castro merchants worked with Hailey and Gilbert Baker, the creator of the Rainbow Flag, to erect the flag pole and fly the iconic LGBT rights symbol.

Baker initially oversaw it, but after he moved out of the city, MUMC assumed responsibility for it. BART and the city refused to be held liable for anything to do with the flag and pole, so the merchants group pays $5,000 a year for an insurance policy in case of any accidents.

“If if falls into traffic and somebody gets hurt or something, the city said they were not going to pay the insurance for that,” said Adams. “In the late 1990s we had an agreement with DPW we would pay for the insurance.”

The flags weigh up to 20 pounds, and MUMC uses $4,000 donated annually by the Castro Street Fair to buy four new ones each year as the winds coming down from Twin Peaks quickly damage the massive flags.

Since being installed, the flags have become one of the most photographed structures in San Francisco. LGBT and straight visitors alike come to the Castro by the busload to take pictures of it. It is one of the reasons why MUMC is so hesitant to lower the flag more often.

“The bottom line is a lot of it is tourists. They want to see that flag up,” said Adams, who plans to bring up the matter with his board. “It is not my decision; it is a board decision.”

He said based on the phone calls he has had this week with board members, the majority support keeping the status quo.

“I am open to dialogue though,” said Adams. “They may not get what they want, but I am open to talk about it. That is a democracy.”

In an email, community activist and former Mr. Gay San Francisco  John F. Weber said the issue of who controls the flag needs to be examined.

“The community intends to engage in direct dialogue with MUMC for their lack of sympathy at the death of a fallen International Gay Activist and controlling the Rainbow Flag in the Castro,” wrote Weber earlier this week before Adams agreed to lower the flag.

— Matthew S. Bajko, February 3, 2011 @ 2:09 pm PST
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