Nor will any other flags, such as the bear and transgender flags, be flown on the flagpole at Harvey Milk Plaza in the city’s gayborhood as of January 1, 2013.
Members of the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro unanimously voted at their meeting this morning (Thursday, November 1) to no longer alter the 20 by 30 foot rainbow flag that flies above the public plaza.
“Our board cannot vet the flag,” said MUMC President Terry Asten Bennet. “We are a business organization and not in the business of managing the flag.”
The vote this morning came after years of debate over MUMC’s oversight of the flagpole and how it has handled requests to lower the rainbow flag or fly other groups’ flags.
Since it was dedicated on November 7, 1997 to mark the 20th anniversary of Milk’s election to the Board of Supervisors, the over-sized rainbow flag has become an internationally recognized icon for the LGBT community. MUMC, which pays for the insurance and maintenance of the flagpole, assumed oversight of it in 2000, and the Castro Street Fair has paid for new flags each year since 2002.
The flag has remained flying at full-staff, except for on a few occasions, over the last 15 years. It has been lowered to half-staff a handful of times to honor LGBT leaders who had died.
In 2001 the leather flag was raised as a way to draw tourists back to San Francisco following the terrorist attacks on 9/11 that year. It has been raised every year since on the Sunday prior to Folsom Street Fair.
In 2011 the bear flag was first flown in February over President’s Day Weekend to mark the end of the International Bear Rendezvous and was also flown this year when a smaller bear event was launched.
Since 2011 a group of local activists has questioned why MUMC gets to decide when to lower the flag. In an attempt to answer its critics, MUMC detailed a process for how people could make such requests.
But the controversy did not abate, and earlier this year, the Castro business group’s board decided to no longer lower the rainbow flag to half-staff. It cited security concerns as the main reason behind its decision.
The most recent controversy erupted over MUMC’s handling of a request to raise the transgender flag for the first time on November 20, which is the Transgender Day of Remembrance.
At first MUMC’s board denied the request because it also included having the transgender flag flown at half-staff. The decision led to an online firestorm, charges that the business group was being transphobic, and calls by some to boycott Bennett’s family-owned store Cliff’s Variety.
Veronika Fimbres, a transgender woman who asked that the transgender flag be flown, blamed MUMC’s leadership for the heated dispute that erupted over her request.
“It shouldn’t have been a big deal or taken two months for MUMC to respond,” said Fimbres during the meeting today. “All I did was put a petition online. I wasn’t being disrespectful of anybody.”
The public outcry led MUMC to agree to fly the transgender flag at full-staff for 24 hours later this month. Bennet, who apologized to Fimbres at the meeting, cited a breakdown in communication as the reason for how the request was handled.
MUMC had intended to wait until next year to address the flagpole. But with the continued questioning about its oversight of it, the group’s board decided to have the membership vote on whether to just fly the rainbow flag or hand oversight of the flagpole back to the city.
Theresa Sparks, executive director of the city’s Human Rights Commission, said her agency had been working with the City Attorney’s office to review the legalities around the flagpole. Sparks advised MUMC that it was unclear what would happen should the city be asked to take over the flagpole.
While the flagpole was commissioned by the city’s Arts Commission and created by Gilbert Baker, who also created the rainbow flag, having a city agency oversee it could open up the possibility of seeing numerous groups want to see various flags be flown, said Sparks.
“It is not an easy issue to deal with,” said Sparks, citing complications that could arise over freedom of speech granted by the First Amendment. “I am not sure what could happen to opening it to other flags.”
District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener, asked about rumors that the city would take down the flagpole due to monetary constraints, said it was unclear where the funding would come from if MUMC did not support it.
Ultimately, the proposal that MUMC relinquish its control and turn the flagpole back to the city was rejected.
Instead, the members adopted a policy requiring that the rainbow flag be flown at full-staff 365 days a year. Since it does not take effect until the New Year, the transgender flag will be flown on November 20 and a red ribbon will be attached to the rainbow flag on December 1 to mark World AIDS Day.
Unless MUMC revisits the issue, those will be the last two times the flagpole display will be altered.