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The History, and Controversy, Behind the Rainbow Pride Flag

1978 rainbow flag

When people versed in LGBT history see a rainbow flag, they usually think of it as a creation of Gilbert Baker, the activist behind the first flags that flew July 25, 1978, over San Francisco; that was before the rainbow was adopted as a worldwide queer symbol.

But with the 40th anniversary of the flag, other people have come forth to say it was not solely Baker’s idea — something that friends of Baker, who died last year, and the administrators of his estate hotly dispute.

All those who were involved agree that many people collaborated to make the two giant rainbow flags that flew over United Nations Plaza in San Francisco 40 years ago. Numerous volunteers dyed strips of fabric, rinsed them, hauled them to coin laundries for drying, ironed them, and sewed them together. Where the disagreement comes in is over who came up with the concept of a rainbow flag.

“The rainbow idea, I cannot say that was Gilbert’s idea,” says Lynn Segerblom, now a Los Angeles-area resident, who was, with Baker, cochair of the decorations committee for the 1978 Gay Freedom Day celebration. “It was a three-person idea” — from herself, Baker, and fellow volunteer James McNamara, who died in 1999.

For her part, Segerblom says, “I loved rainbows. … Back in those days, I changed my name to Fairie Argyle Rainbow.” Paul Langlotz, a friend of McNamara’s and longtime activist who appeared with Segerblom on a recent panel in West Hollywood, calls her “the woman who came up with the idea of the rainbow flag.” Segerblom, who experimented sexually back then, now identifies as a straight ally.

Glenne McElhinney, a member of the 1978 parade committee who also worked on the flags, joins in saying not only the work, but the concept, was a collaborative effort. “I loved Gilbert,” she says. “Gilbert had always been a friend of mine. But he wasn’t the gay Betsy Ross. He didn’t do it all by himself.”

Others connected with Baker say he never claimed to have created the first flags by himself and that he was always generous with credit to Segerblom, McNamara, and others — but the idea was definitely his.

“The idea of the rainbow as a symbol of the LGBT community was Gilbert’s, and Gilbert’s alone,” says veteran activist Cleve Jones, who’s known for creating another important symbol, the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. The work of creating the flags “was a collaboration, absolutely, but the vision was Gilbert’s.”

“Gilbert, in his memoir, was very effusive with praise for Lynn and Jim,” says Charley Beal, manager of creative projects for Baker’s estate. “They were indispensable in helping to make the first flags.” But the concept, he says, was Baker’s.

Baker gives his own account in his yet-unpublished memoir, which he wrote in 1995, and excerpts of which are available at the estate's website. After attending a movie, he, Jones and another friend, filmmaker Artie Bressan Jr., were walking around the city. “Artie began to press me to come up with a new symbol for what he had called ‘the dawn of a new gay consciousness and freedom,’” Baker writes. “Both he and Harvey [Milk] had brought this up to me before.”

“As Artie implored, I looked at the flags flying on the various government buildings around the Civic Center,” he continues. “I thought of the American flag with its thirteen stripes and thirteen stars, the colonies breaking away from England to form the United States. I thought of the vertical red, white, and blue tricolor from the French Revolution and how both flags owed their beginnings to a riot, a rebellion, or revolution. I thought a gay nation should have a flag too, to proclaim its own idea of power.”

Later that week, while he and Jones were dancing to a band at the Cow Palace, Baker was impressed with the diversity of the crowd: hippies, bikers, punks, gay muscle boys, butch lesbians. “We were all in a swirl of color and light,” he writes. “It was like a rainbow. A rainbow. That’s the moment when I knew exactly what kind of flag I would make.”

Segerblom and McElhinney, however, contend that Baker switched over the years from telling a “we” narrative about the flag from telling an “I” narrative, although both express affection for him and respect for the work he did in promoting the rainbow flag into an international symbol.

But Beal says, “There’s just totally different memories here,” adding that “Gilbert was very generous to Lynn and to James — there’s no way he ever tried to say he did this on his own.”

Jones adds that Baker never attempted to trademark or control the rainbow design, but spend the next 40 years doing the work of popularizing it.

Gilbertbaker750x

Gilbert Baker

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Lynn Segerblom

There are some things that all parties can agree on. One is that all those who contributed to the first flags deserve appreciation for their work. Another is that creating them was an arduous task — but a labor of love.

The work took place at what was then the Gay Community Center at 330 Grove in San Francisco. Segerblom, a self-taught dyer who had a business creating custom-dyed costumes for theater and dance productions, and distinctive fabrics for a fashion designer, had rented space there to do her work. Because of her presence there, she was asked to be on the decorating committee, she says.

She describes a labor-intensive process that took place over several weeks: dyeing the fabric in huge vats, carrying them up the stairs (there was no elevator) to the building’s roof, which had drains, to rinse them and dispose of the water, then, after the fabric had dried somewhat, hauling it in trash bags to a coin laundry down the street to dry it completely. Then came the process of sewing the strips of various colors together. McNamara was the master at sewing, but Baker. Segerblom, and others sewed as well. She also put stars on one of the flags, making it a gay “stars and stripes,” using wood blocks to print the stars.

During the dyeing, she notes, you couldn’t just leave the fabric in the vat; you had to be moving it around. Both she and McElhinney recall being up to their elbows in dye, as many volunteers were. When they’d take visitors to the workroom, McElhinney says, “people were just amazed. … It was a humming workshop.”

In addition to the two giant flags that flew at the U.N. Plaza, various artists created 18 other, smaller flags that were displayed around the reflecting pool at the city’s Civic Center. These were not rainbow flags, but bore images and messages of each artist's choice. Many of the creators came from the Eureka/Noe Valley Artist Coalition, founded by Harvey Milk, Scotty Smith, and Lee Mentley. At least one of these flags is still in existence, says Segerblom, and in the hand of its creator, Jim Campbell, in New York City.

The fate of the original rainbow flags remains unknown. Differing accounts indicate they were lost, stolen, or destroyed, the latter possibly because it was mildewed after a roof leaked. “There is no conclusive story,” says Beal.

It took several years, but the rainbow flag eventually caught on as a universal LGBT symbol, and Baker tirelessly promoted it. McElhinney, who’s now making a documentary about the first flags’ creation, says she and Baker remained close friends and worked on several more projects together. Segerblom took her life in a different direction, moving to Los Angeles to pursue her dream of an acting career, then working in a business that created murals and signs.

They and others also note that just a few months after Gay Freedom Day of 1978, the San Francisco gay community had more than flags to concern them— in November of that year, Milk, the city’s first out elected official, and Mayor George Moscone were shot to death in City Hall by Dan White, a disgruntled former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, where he served with Milk. Then, a few years later, came the AIDS crisis.

All those involved with the first flags, though, say they’re honored to have been a part of LGBT history, although they mourn the destruction of 330 Grove, which in the early 1980s was sold to a developer and, in a case of paving paradise, torn down for a parking lot. But they’ll never forget the work that took place there.

“The flags were made out of love,” says McEihnney. “The flags were a response to the hatred of Anita Bryant and John Briggs,” referring to the singer who became an antigay activist and the man who sponsored a ballot proposition that sought to keep gays and lesbians from teaching in California public schools. It failed.

“We knew it was special,” she says of the flag. “We just didn’t know how special.”

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