Since it was first raised in 1997, the giant rainbow flag in the Castro’s Harvey Milk Plaza has flown at half-staff only five times despite a steady stream of requests. But on Sunday, it will be lowered for the 10th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
A dispute about the flag began in January when blogger Michael Petrelis and the group Gays Without Borders asked the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro to lower the flag in honor of David Kato, a Ugandan gay rights activist who had been brutally murdered. Though the Department of Public Works maintains Milk Plaza, the merchants’ group, commonly known as MUMC, has insured and maintained the flag for the past decade.
MUMC initially denied the Kato request, but eventually relented and flew the flag at half-staff during a rally in February.
But when Elizabeth Taylor died in March, Castro antiques dealer and MUMC member Isak Lindenauer’s request to have the flag lowered in honor of the actress’ AIDS activism was denied.
MUMC President Steve Adams said his group receives up to 10 requests each month to lower the flag. Board members vote on each one, he said, but nearly all are rejected.
“If we went with every request, we would be flying it at half-staff all the time,” Adams said.
The organization takes down the flag for the week before the Folsom Street Fair, replacing it with the black-and-blue flag of the leather subculture.
“We were like, ‘Well you wouldn’t lower it for Liz Taylor, but you let the leather flag fly for a whole week?’” Petrelis said. “It harms all of us to have MUMC being these control queens.”
Last month, Petrelis and fellow activist Bill Wilson requested the flag be lowered Sept. 11 to honor Mark Bingham, who died on Flight 93. Bingham, a gay Castro resident, was one of the passengers who tried to stop the hijackers.
Wilson and Petrelis said MUMC initially ignored their request, but last week the board changed its tune. Also, the flag will stay at half-staff Sept. 12 at the request of AIDS charity Project Open Hand, whose founder Ruth Brinker died in August.
Lindenauer said he was happy with those decisions, but he remained unsatisfied with the process for determining who will be honored.
“I just don’t think the flag belongs to anyone specifically,” he said.
Flying at half-staff
To date, the rainbow flag has only been lowered to mark the deaths of five people.
- 2002: Jon Cook, first openly gay SFPD officer killed in line of duty
- 2007: Trevor Hailey, Castro icon who led neighborhood tours
- 2008: Del Martin, lesbian activist
- 2010: Jane Warner, Patrol Special Police for Castro
- 2011: David Kato, murdered Ugandan gay rights activist
Sources: MUMC, news reports