An important part of San Francisco history is finally coming home.
Thought to be lost due to water damage while in storage nearly 40 years ago, a piece of the original Rainbow Flag, which helped define the LGBTQ civil rights movement, was discovered in 2019. Now, it will stay in San Francisco.
Gilbert Baker, a San Francisco activist, artist and LGBTQ+ advocate, stitched the original flag for the 1978 Pride Parade in United Nations Plaza. He did not trademark the design, hoping instead it would be replicated and easy to spread around the country and the world as a symbol of collective action.
San Francisco’s Rainbow Flag holds a prominent spot in San Francisco’s collective identity. It flies at the corner of Castro and Market streets, a sign of The City’s storied history as a bedrock of LGBTQ life.
It’s also one of the most iconic flags flown globally. The original eight stripes were deliberately designed to represent pride and power of the expansive community. But many say the flag is imbued with an even more powerful purpose: to serve as a beacon of safety and of hope.
“It’s a statement that we exist and that we’re part of the community,” said Terry Beswick, the executive director of the GBLT Historical Society. “The beautiful thing about it is that it’s a rainbow. There are no words, it’s not a symbol of violence, it comes from nature.”
City officials and LGBTQ activists unveiled the iconic flag on Friday morning outside the GLBT Historical Society Museum and Archives in the Castro, where it will be the centerpiece in the main gallery exhibit.
“People all around the world, it’s San Francisco they look to, the birthplace of the flag when they look to find that symbol of hope,” said Charley Beal, longtime friend of Baker and the manager of his estate’s creative assets. “We thought that though it’s only a fragment and can only be in a museum, the original flag should be right here in the Castro, where it was created.”
San Francisco Pride won’t be holding its annual march this month, the second straight year the parade has been impacted by the pandemic. With a $3.5 million budget and an annual attendance of around one million people, it’s considered to be the largest gathering of LBGTQ people and allies in the country.
It started with humble roots in 1970: A march down Polk Street followed by a “gay-in” at Golden Gate Park.
Over the following decades, the festival evolved. It changed its name signal broadened diversity, enduring financial woes, all the while attempting to balance competing beliefs about the vision of the gay rights movement.
Now, it’s a place where people can express their sexualities and gender identities as well as celebrate the community’s political power in the battles to overcome AIDS, civil rights abuses and other significant issues, and wield its influence to continue demanding change.
As Beswick points out, just because we don’t see the oppression in the same way we did in the 70s, when Harvey Milk became a city supervisor and was later assassinated, it’s still ever-present in more subtle forms of bullying that leads to higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide, even in San Francisco.
“That has an effect on a person and not everybody is able to survive it,” he said. “It still happens right in our neighborhoods, it’s just invisible.”
The Rainbow Flag captures and advances much of that political power, itself a direct protest against the pink triangle that represented the LGBTQ movement in the 70s, but activists say was borne of Nazi-era stigmatization as a way to identify those who identified as gay.
“It’s become ubiquitously understood across the world to represent an idea,” Beskin said. “So it’s really significant we found the first one.”
Baker created the flag at a moment in San Francisco when the gay rights movement was dovetailing with other social and civil rights efforts. Political races, economic centers and even entire neighborhoods, such as the Castro, were sexual identity in order to stake a claim in The City and combat ongoing persecution and legal oppression.
He wanted to create “something positive, something that celebrated our love,” he wrote in his memoirs.
The result — the rainbow flag — was an impossible-to-ignore declaration of love, a tangible object around which people could unite, make themselves visible and seek their own liberation.
“It’s about fabulousness, and it’s about celebration and victory because no matter what’s been thrown at us, we have emerged and we still maintain that spirit,” Beswick said.
When Baker died in 2017, many of his belongings were sent to his sister in New York.
Unbeknownst to most anyone who knew him, the artist and activist had quietly returned to the community center storage site in 1979 after the flooding and salvaged a 10 x 28-foot segment of the original flag, cutting around mildew and water stains.
Kept in his closet, it wasn’t until a flag was needed as part of a memorial commemoration of the historic 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York. Baker’s sister removed what she thought was just a replica, and gave it to Beal to use in the 2019 demonstration. A flag expert noticed it and sought out Beal to authenticate it as the original by identifying the ropes and stitching.
“I don’t know why he decided not to make this fragment public.” Beal said. “I think he’d be happy that we’re doing this.”
Mayor London Breed, along with other city officials and advocates, unveiled the section of the original flag on Friday. It will be part of the GLBT Historical Society Museum and Archives at least through the end of the year, when the ten-year lease for the temporary space on 18th Street ends.
To date, the future of the museum that preserves and commemorates the rich and sometimes painful history of the LGBTQ community in San Francisco, including the suit Harvey Milk was wearing when he was assassinated, remains uncertain. By extension, the flag’s permanent location could also be up in the air.
But the mayor surprised many by including a request for funds, the exact amount not yet disclosed, to purchase a permanent location in The City to build a standalone LGBTQ history museum. A place like this, some say, would be the best possible place for something so important as the original rainbow flag to be housed forever to pass along messages of radical love and unity in the face of personal risk.
“My hope for this remnant is that people learn history,” Beal said. “We want to teach the younger generation that the people who created it were just like them, not establishment people. They were activists.”