LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Defending the Rainbow Flag Creator

Photo: Courtesy Lee Mentley. Painting by Jim Campbell of 330 Grove Pride Foundation Gay Center where the flags were created in the Top Floor Gallery

In response to a “Letter to the Editor” regarding the true identity for the historic rainbow flag creator

My name is Lee Mentley, I was a member of the Executive Committee of the San Francisco Pride Foundation (NOTE: A Grouping of Lions is known as a Pride, thus The Pride Foundation.) at 330 Grove Street Gay Community Center and Director of the Top Floor Gallery where the Rainbow Flags were created.  Gilbert Baker and I were also roommates at the Heartbreak Hotel, South of Market off Folsom Street, in 1979, which was both a state of mind and a real place…!

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Mr. Beal, I read your letter concerning the “Woman Behind The Rainbow Flag”, Lynn Segerblom, known then as “Fairy Argyle Rainbow” on her official California Driver’s License. However, I don’t remember you being there…? Were you…?

I do remember Lynn Segerblom, Robert Guttman and James McManara coming into the Pride Office at 330 Grove Street to speak with Paul Hardman, President of The Pride Foundation. They presented Pride with the idea of making Rainbow Flags for Gay Freedom Day 1978 to decorate the dull gray San Francisco Civic Center. The parade committee had not received its federal non-profit classification and Pride Foundation agreed to allow the committee to use ours until their IRS# came through.

Photos: James McNamara. Gilbert Baker (left) and Lynn Segerblom (center) unfurl the rainbow flags a day before Gay Pride in 1978.  

This was the first year Gay Freedom Day adopted co-chairs of one woman & one man for all committees. Lynn Segerblom and Gilbert Baker were appointed co-chairs of the Decorating Committee. The Pride Foundation thought the Rainbow Flags were a great idea and Paul Hardman approached San Francisco Supervisors Harvey Milk & Quintin Kopp to ask for additional funds for this project. Thankfully they found funding through the Hotel Tax and awarded approximately $1000 for this new project.  Neither the parade committee nor any individual could ask for public funds without an IRS #501-c3. All Gay Freedom Day Parade funding came through the Pride Foundation’s IRS#501c-3 that year.

The Top Floor Gallery offered the gallery workshop as space to create the flags. I remember the day the Rubbermaid trash cans arrived; we filled them with water and watched Lynn mix the dyes for the flags. The dying process took many days with the help of the artists from the Eureka/Noe Valley Artist Coalition (E/NVAC). Yes, Gilbert was there and yes he helped but he was no Betsy Ross. Cleve Jones was a volunteer for the parade committee but not a known artist of the Top Floor Gallery or E/NVAC.  Gilbert to his credit worked endlessly to make the flag an international symbol and Cleve is most notable for the AIDS Quilt.

Gilbert worked one of the large Rainbow Flags by sewing it together along with over 100+ other artists who worked on creating several flags of different designs to surround the reflection pool and other flag poles at Civic Center. Gilbert also made a beautiful poster by using a blueprint of City Hall and silk screening it with rainbow colors. I believe he made 100 sign & numbered, I donated mine to the ONE Archive at USC.

ONE Archive at USC Doheny Library in Los Angeles is where Pride Foundation donated its papers and history to this oldest and largest of our Gay Archives & Library through Mattachine Society’s Jim Kepner & Morris Kight. I suggested to a sweet friend when I heard he was involved with Gilbert’s new book that he make use of ONE Archive to see how the flags were funded and created. Unfortunately he was not interested in doing any research on the artists who participated in making the Rainbow Flags as if that would damage Gilbert Bakers claim to fame. Again, lovely & talented as Gilbert was, he was not alone in this process as the creator…!

Photo: James McNamara. “The rainbow, to me, ecompasses everybody — doesn’t matter what your gender, your preference or your color,” Segerblom said.

It is important again to note 1978 was the first year the Gay Freedom Day Committee had co-chairs and that women were fully and joyfully involved in the process. So I find it dismaying that Lynn Segerblom’s concept for the flags has been diminished by people who were not there and have no desire to due diligence on the Rainbow Flags creation by interviewing Lynn or the artists who were there. The question has to be…, why…? Why deny Lynn Segerblom, the “Woman Behind The Rainbow Flag” her legacy and besmirch her reputation without even talking to her or the artists who witnessed the flags creation…?

Lee Mentley

(NOTE: Lee Mentley, In San Francisco was the first openly gay city employee at the Neighborhood Arts Program with San Francisco Arts Commission; President of Eureka Valley Promotion Association; Chair of the Eureka/Noe Valley Artists Coalition, one of the founders of the Castro Street Fair and Hula Palace Art Salons; a long-term member of the Gay Freedom Day Parade Committee; served on the Executive Committee of Pride Foundation at 330 Grove Street Gay Center; Director of Top Floor Gallery. Moving to Hawaii 1983, Lee became Curator of Kauai Museum; Chair of the Garden Island Arts Council, founder of END/AIDS; an educational network dialoguing AIDS; a founder of Kauai AIDS Project ‘Malamapono’, and sat on the Hawaii Governor’s Committee on HIV/AIDS. He was a Hawaii State Public Health Director, HIV/AIDS Kauai-Division, Chair of the ‘CCG’ National Community Constituency Group at National Institutes of Health NIAID for HIV/AIDS Research Washington DC. He served as one of two members of ‘Lambda Aloha’ as Kauai Representatives to Hawaii Statewide Committee for Same Sex Marriage. In 2000 Lee became AIDS History Curator for ONE Archive at University of Southern California Los Angeles. In 2001 he became Director of Cultural Tourism Marketing and Development for City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and author of his recently published memoir, “The Princess of Castro Street” 2016. Lee is now retired.)