It was a patch of blue in the dark storm stalled over the divided states of America. On Feb. 5, California Gov. Gavin Newsom parted the pall and pardoned Bayard Rustin, mentor to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. Though President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Medal of Freedom in 2013, the gay civil rights icon still had the stain of a 1953 “morals charge” arrest in Pasadena on his lifetime of achievement.
“In California and across the country, many laws have been used as legal tools of oppression, and to stigmatize and punish LGBTQ people and communities and warn others what harm could await them for living authentically,” Newsom said in a statement. “I thank those who advocated for Bayard Rustin’s pardon, and I want to encourage others in similar situations to seek a pardon to right this egregious wrong.”
Excerpt of the pardon certificate
Rustin’s pardon launches a new clemency initiative for people who were prosecuted in California for being gay. In 1970, after the Stonewall riots and the movement for Gay Liberation, Assemblymember Willie Brown introduced the Consenting Adult Sex Bill to repeal the sodomy law and decriminalize gay sex. Five years later, with help from San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, the bill was finally passed and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on May 12, 1975. But those convicted of engaging in consensual adult sexual conduct remained on the Sex Offender Registry until 1997, when a new law established a process enabling individuals to request removal. However, the original criminal conviction remained.
Newsom’s announcement acknowledges the systemic persecution of LGBTQ people and offers legal reparation.
“In California and across the country, charges like vagrancy, loitering, and sodomy have been used to unjustly target [LGBTQ] people. Law enforcement and prosecutors specifically targeted LGBTQ individuals, communities and community spaces for criminal prosecution. Now, as a proudly LGBTQ-allied state, California is turning the page on historic wrongs,” says the press release.
“There’s a cloud hanging over him because of this unfair, discriminatory conviction, a conviction that never should have happened, a conviction that happened only because he was a gay man,” state Sen. Scott Wiener, chair of California’s legislative LGBTQ caucus said Jan. 21 at a news conference with Assemblymember Shirley Weber, chair of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus, formally asking for a pardon.
“I’m thrilled that Governor Newsom is pardoning Bayard Rustin and that he acted so quickly and decisively in response to our request. I also applaud the Governor for broadening this work to provide other criminalized LGBT people with a path to clear their records of wrongful convictions on homophobic charges. These actions are consistent with the Governor’s deep and longstanding support for the LGBT community,” Wiener said in a statement. “Generations of LGBT people – including countless gay men – were branded criminals and sex offenders simply because they had consensual sex. This was often life-ruining, and many languished on the sex offender registry for decades. The Governor’s actions today are a huge step forward in our community’s ongoing quest for full acceptance and justice.”
“On behalf of the Black Caucus, I want to thank the Governor for granting this posthumous pardon. The Arc of Justice is long, but it took nearly 70 years for Bayard Rustin to have his legacy in the Civil Rights movement uncompromised by this incident. Rustin was a great American who was both gay and black at a time when the sheer fact of being either or both could land you in jail,” said Weber. “This pardon assures his place in history and the Governor’s ongoing commitment to addressing similar convictions shows that California is finally addressing a great injustice.”
“Civil rights champion Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘The time is always right to do what is right.’ For our friend Governor Newsom, that time is today. We are grateful to the governor for demonstrating our California values by pardoning civil rights hero, Bayard Rustin — a trusted aide to Dr. King — and for creating a system for other LGBTQ+ people to seek pardon from unjust convictions, said Equality California Executive Director Rick Zbur. “Today, Governor Newsom, and indeed the entire Golden State, did the right thing.”
That the pardon comes at the beginning of Black History Month is notable. On the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote on The Root: “I ask that if you teach your children one new name from the heroes of black history, please let it be Bayard Rustin.”
“For decades, this great leader, often at Dr. King’s side, was denied his rightful place in history because he was openly gay,” said President Obama, presenting Rustin’s medal to his longtime partner, Walter Naegle on Aug. 8, 2013. “No medal can change that, but today, we honor Bayard Rustin’s memory by taking our place in his march towards true equality, no matter who we are or who we love.”
Born in 1912, Rustin learned about racism early on learned from his a Quaker grandmother in his West Chester, Pennsylvania hometown. She was also a member of the NAACP and intellectual civil rights leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson were house guests.
Seventeen-year-old Bayard Rustin, 1929. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Estate of Bayard Rustin.
In high school, Rustin challenged the racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws by defying the rules to sit in the segregated balcony of a movie theater — for which he was arrested, as he recalled in the documentary Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin.
“I once went into the little restaurant next to the Warner Theatre, and—can you believe it?—there was absolute consternation. That was the first occasion in which I knew West Chester had three police cars. They surrounded the place as if we were going to destroy motherhood. I purposely got arrested, and then I made an appeal that all the black people and white people who were decent-minded should give 10 cents to get me out of jail. And I got out, because they took up a collection.”
February 7, 1986 issue of the Washington Blade, featuring Peg Byron’s interview with Bayard Rustin
Rustin knew he was gay in high school, he told Washington Blade reporter Peg Byron on Feb. 5, 1986. But he remained closeted until 1947 after an encounter with a child on a bus trip in the South:
“One of the reasons that I decided that I should no longer remain in the closet came from an experience I had as a black. One day, in 19…, way back as far as 1947, I walked into a bus in the South, all prepared to do what I had always done in the South. Take a seat in the rear.
As I was going by the second seat to go to the rear, a white child reached out for the red necktie I was wearing and pulled it. Whereupon its mother said, “Don’t touch a nigger.”
Something happened, and I said to myself, If I go and sit quietly in the back of that bus now, that child who was so innocent of race relations that it was going to play with me, will have seen so many blacks go in the back and sit down quietly that it’s going to end up saying, “They like it back there, I’ve never seen anybody protest against it.” That’s what people in the South would say.
So I said, I owe it to that child, not only to my own dignity, but I owe it to that child that it should be educated to know that blacks do not want to sit in the back, and therefore I should get arrested letting all these white people in the bus know that I do not accept that.
Now, it occurred to me shortly after that that it was an absolute necessity for me to declare homosexuality, because if I didn’t I was a part of the prejudice. I was aiding and abetting…
Peggy Byron: Sitting in the back, yeah…
BR: … the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me. And that in the long run the only way I could be a free whole person was to face the shit.
But from my own experience I know how long it can take till you free yourself. Thirty-four years is a long time to free yourself.”
During those closeted years, he organized strikes in college, advocated to free the Scottsboro Boys, in 1936 joined the Young Communist League which fought segregation but left disillusioned when they dropped fighting Jim Crow to fight to get the US into World War II. Rustin then found two other pacifists – A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and A. J. Muste, leader of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), who both became mentors.
By now Rustin was on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s radar. Muste hired him to handle race relations. In 1941, the three pacifist socialists proposed a march on Washinton to protest segregation in the military and employment. After a meeting with President Roosevelt in the White House, FDR issued Executive Order 8802 (the Fair Employment Act) banning discrimination in defense industries and federal agencies. As an act of good faith in response, Randolph cancelled the march over Rustin’s objections. The military was finally desegregated in 1948 by President Truman, meaning black Americans fought racism and the Nazis and fascism, only to come home to Jim Crow.
Meanwhile, Rustin came to California to try to help Japanese Americans who were losing their property and their rights as the federal government imprisoned them in internment camps. He also foreshadowed the Freedom Rides by trying to desegregate interstate bus travel in 1942, for which he was arrested outside Nashville, beaten but never charged.
By 1948, the year after he came out, Rustin was well-known enough to be invited to India for an international pacifist conference.
“Mahatma Gandhi had been assassinated earlier that year, but his teachings touched Rustin in profound ways. ‘We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers,’ he wrote after returning to the States. ‘The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn,’” Prof. Gates writes.
The incident for which Rustin was pardoned happened in 1953. By now a respected organizer, Rustin traveled around the country giving speeches. After a speech one January night in Pasadena, police officers found him having sex with two white men in a parked car. Rustin was arrested, sentenced to jail for 60 days and was forced to register as a sex offender for the “morals charge.”
The arrest severely damaged his career in a country terrified by McCarthyism. He was forced to cancel speaking engagements and resigned from his leadership position with Muste’s Fellowship for Reconciliation.
Bayard Rustin (right) and Walter Naegle, 1986. Credit: Photo courtesy of Walter Naegle/Estate of Bayard Rustin.
He struggled to find work, resorting to manual labor as a furniture mover, Naegle said later.
“I know now that for me sex must be sublimated if I am to live with myself and in this world longer,” he wrote in a March 1953 letter.
In 1955, Rustin secretly wrote “Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence.“ In 1956, he found his way back into the civil rights movement, traveling to Alabama to advise Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on how to organize his Montgomery Bus Boycott using Gandhi’s principles of non-violence. The two were introduced by Rustin’s friend Coretta Scott.
“King really had a very, very limited idea about nonviolence,” Julian Bond, who helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman. “It is Bayard Rustin who really tutored him, who said, ‘This is what you have to do.’ Rustin was horrified to see these pistols in King’s home, you know, and these armed guards around King’s home, because it just went against everything he believed in about nonviolence. If it hadn’t been for Bayard Rustin, Dr. King wouldn’t have had any understanding, I don’t think, of nonviolence. And Rustin tutored him and made him into the person we know he became.”
But that arrest record and the “open secret” of his homosexuality haunted him. Rustin was forced to resign from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he co-founded after the powerful New York Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. threatened to tell the press that he and King were lovers.
“Bayard himself was very aware that given social attitudes towards homosexuality and gay men and lesbians, he couldn’t wear it on his sleeve. He couldn’t, you know, be out there with the rainbow flag. This was before gay liberation. So Bayard himself was perfectly happy to keep this in the background and to move out of the way, if that was going to be good for the movement.
What made him unhappy and what made him feel like he had been done wrong was when people disavowed him. And there was a point, in 1960, when Rustin and Mr. Randolph and Dr. King were part of organizing major demonstrations at the presidential conventions, Republicans and Democrats, and at that point Representative Adam Clayton Powell from Harlem didn’t like the fact that these radicals, someone like Bayard Rustin, was getting so much attention and moving into his sphere in the Democratic Party.
And he put out the word to Dr. King that if you don’t distance yourself from Bayard Rustin, I am going to claim that there is something going on between the two of you. And that scared Dr. King, and Bayard made the decision to resign from his position. But he also expected at that point that he would be defended. And when he wasn’t defended, it was—it was painful. It was very painful. And he spent a couple of years, mostly—in the early ’60s, mostly involved in the peace movement rather than in the civil rights movement because of that rupture. And it’s the March on Washington that brought him back into the center of things.”
“That was around 1962,” Rustin told the Washington Blade via the special Making Gay History podcast. “And, naturally, I took the position that if people feel that I am a danger to some important movement, I would leave. But the thing which distressed me was that if… if Martin had taken the strong stand then that he took a year later, in ’63, vis-à-vis Strom Thurmond, he could have overcome it and kept me. But I understand his doing it, and I hold no grief with him about having done it. I just wish that he had shown the strength in ’62 that he showed when he backed me completely in ’63. But he was a year older and had another year’s experience.”
Rustin in his role as deputy director of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, pointing to a map of Washington, D.C., as he explains the route to march marshals on August 13, 1963. Credit: Everett Collection/Alamy Stock Photo.
A. Philip Randolph brought Rustin back into the fold to organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom but NAACP’s Roy Wilkins saw Rustin as a liability and forced him to take a deputy position.
But then FBI Director J. Edger Hoover slipped Rustin’s arrest record to rabidly anti-gay South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond – who had secretly fathered a child with his African-America maid. Three weeks before the march, Thurmond went public, trying to destroy the unprecedented event by denouncing Rustin as a gay communist and placing his arrest record in the congressional record.
Rustin told the Washington Blade:
“Now this became very clear to me in 1963, when I was organizing the March on Washington. And Strom Thurmond stood up in the Senate of the United States and for three-quarters of an hour, attacked me as a draft dodger, which was untrue, because I was a conscientious objector and well known as being a Quaker opposed to all violence. He attacked me as a former member of the Young Communist League, which was true. I had been. He attacked me as a homosexual. Which of course I was.
PB: You were the original commie-pinko-fag of the day, I suppose.”
BR: Yeah, exactly. Now, there were 10 leaders of that march. One of the most important Jews, the most important Catholic, the most important Protestant, Walter Reuther representing the trade union movement, and six black civil rights leaders.
When he attacked me, I had absolutely no basic apprehension and for a very good reason, because I had spent a great deal of my life defending prejudice against Catholics, against trade unions, against Jews, against blacks, against Protestants, and therefore I inwardly knew that those leaders, knowing of my history, had to come to my defense. And they did. And the important thing was that they voted that only one person should speak, and that was the founder of the march, Mr. A. Philip Randolph.”
For what spans five pages in the Congressional Record, Thurmond not only submitted the arrest record but the news articles about the arrest and conviction.
“The article states that he was convicted in 1953 in Pasadena, California, of a morals charge. The words ‘morals charge’ are true. But this is a clear-cut case of toning down the charge. The conviction was sex perversion,” says Thurmond.
“The senator is not interested in me if I were a murderer, a thief, a liar or a pervert. The senator is interested in attacking me because he is interested in destroying the movement. He will not get away with this,” Rustin said.
Sen. Strom Thurmond (Photo via the Equal Justice Initiative)
King and the other Big Six backed Rustin up this time because the attacks came from one of the worst Southern white supremacists. But after the march, Rustin was quietly denied his role as the seventh in the Bix Six group of civil rights leaders who called for the march: A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Jim Farmer, Whitney Young when the chief organizer of the march was disinvited to the White House to celebrate with President John F. Kennedy.
And yet, according to an extensive CNN report commemorating the 50th anniversary of the march, it was Rustin who saved the march for the organizers – from a Kennedy take over.
“The Kennedys were almost morbidly afraid of this march. They understood there’d been nothing like it,” Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-District of Columbia, who helped plan the march, told CNN.
“The Kennedy administration was afraid that if there was violence on the march, it would mean that the Civil Rights Act, which John F. Kennedy had just introduced, would never get passed,” said march planner Rachelle Horowitz. “When we first began planning the march, there was a concerted effort by the Kennedy administration to get it called off and to not let it take place.”
“They kept a watchful eye on the planning of the march,” said John Lewis, the 23-year-old elected to lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. “They stayed in touch with the (march) leadership,” which had been broadened to include four white leaders, representatives of the Protestant, Jewish and Catholic faiths, and civil rights advocate and United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther.
Reuther was recruited by the White House “to infiltrate the march and steer it away from radical rhetoric and direct action,” wrote Charles Euchner in his book “Nobody Turn Me Around,” about the historic march. “And so he did.”
President John F. Kennedy, right, with his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, in May 1963, via CNN.
Though JFK had come around to the idea of the march, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s office inside the Justice Department’s room 5110 “was the command center,” Jack Rosenthal, who was the department’s assistant press officer at the time, told CNN.
“There was a proposal on the table that Kennedy speak to the March on Washington,” march planner Courtland Cox told CNN. “And Bayard knew this would have been a disaster because it would’ve been taken over by (Kennedy) just because he’s president. It would’ve been Kennedy’s march.”
“So, Cox said Rustin and he excused themselves from that particular meeting and took a walk to the bathroom. Clearly flummoxed about the problem, Rustin took a sip from his back-pocket flask and came up with an idea on the fly.
“And Bayard got back into the meeting and he literally made this up,” Cox recalled. “He said that he heard … if the president spoke the Negroes were going to stone him.”
After that, the idea of Kennedy speaking at the march was never considered.”
None of the feared outbreaks of violence occurred.
“After the March on Washington was over, President Kennedy had invited us back down to the White House,” Lewis said. “He stood in the door of the Oval Office and he greeted each one of us. He was like a beaming, proud father. He was so pleased. So happy that everything had gone so well.”
Kennedy told King: “And you had a dream,” added Lewis.
Bayard Rustin, deputy director of the March on Washington, speaks to the hundreds of thousands of marchers surrounding the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial, 1963. Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images.
Rustin’s role was overshadowed – as were his remarks at the march that August 28, 1963:
“We demand that segregation be ended in every school district in the year 1963! We demand that we have effective civil rights legislation—no compromise, no filibuster—and that include public accommodations, decent housing, integrated education, FEPC and the right to vote. What do you say? We demand the withholding of federal funds from all programs in which discrimination exists. What do you say?”
Rustin died of a perforated appendix on August 24, 1987, survived by Walter Naegle, his partner of 10 years.
One last thing, Julian Bond told Amy Goodman:
“I could not think of anybody else who at the time would have stepped forward, taken hold of this March on Washington, pull together all these hundreds of thousands of peoples, the buses, the trains. You know, I saw something just recently: They made 800,000 sandwiches. Imagine that. And it was all done at Bayard Rustin’s desire.
One thing I think we’re not hearing about Bayard Rustin is his sense of humor. He once said that Dr. King couldn’t bring vampires to a bloodbath. That was the kind of organizer Dr. King was not. But Bayard Rustin knew he was an organizer and was just wonderful at getting people to do things that they didn’t think they could do or didn’t know they wanted to do. He was just a great, great person….
I think those of us who were there in 1963 didn’t immediately realize how significant this was. As you said during the program, we didn’t see many people there early in the morning. The crowd grew and grew and grew. But even when they were all there, you had no idea how many there were. You know, you can’t look out at this mass of people and say, “This is 250,000 people.” You just have no idea who they are. And I think, for me, driving back to Atlanta later that day and then reading newspapers the next day in Atlanta and hearing what other people had to say about it, only then would we began to understand the significance of this thing—the largest gathering ever at a civil rights protest.
People came together to demand civil rights in America, and that was tremendously significant. But, as you say, if you compare these demands that Bayard read at the march with where we are today, you can see that clearly most of these things have not been achieved, and we still have a long, long way to go.”
While Rustin didn’t attend the White House meeting, he and A. Philip Randolph did make the cover of LIFE magazine.
Bayard Rustin (right) and A. Philip Randolph on the cover of LIFE magazine, September 6, 1963, after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Credit: LIFE magazine.
“Rustin was one of the most important social justice activists in the U.S. in the 20th century,” says historian John D’Emilio.
Bayard Rustin’s Presidential Medal of Freedom. Credit: Photo courtesy of Eric Marcus, creator of Making Gay History.
That 1953 arrest record hung like an invisible chain around Rustin’s neck. Now he is really, finally free.
If you think you are eligible and would like to seek clemency, you can apply for a pardon and receive updates and information on the clemency initiative at www.gov.ca.gov/clemency
Top photo: 1950s publicity photo of Bayard Rustin. (Via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsca-38045, courtesy Making Gay History)
Marking slavery’s end, a historic event now marks a Federal holiday
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free”
GALVESTON, Tx. – In the early summer of 1865, on a clear crisp June morning, the lead elements of the Federal Army of blue-coated soldiers of the 13th Army Corps occupied the island city of Galveston, Texas on Monday the 19th.
Led by Union Army Major General Gordon Granger, who had recently taken command of the Department of Texas, the 13th Corps was tasked with enforcement of the emancipation of slaves in the former Confederate state.
The bloody civil war had ended officially with the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia commanded by Robert E. Lee to Commander of Union forces, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia on April 9, 1865.
The warfare between the last elements of the Confederate and Union troops however, dragged on for another month or so culminating in the Battle of Palmito Ranch, which was fought on May 12 and 13, 1865. The fighting occurred on the banks of the Rio Grande east of Brownsville, Texas on the Texas-Mexico border some 400 miles Southwest of Galveston.
It took approximately another two weeks for Confederate Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner to surrender his command of the Trans-Mississippi Department (which included Texas) to Union Major General Peter J. Osterhaus on May 26, 1865.
General Granger was then tasked with implementing the order to free enslaved African Americans.
Once Granger’s Federals had taken control of the port city, he and his command staff headed to Union Army Headquarters located at the Osterman Building, once located Strand Street and 22nd Street.
It was there that General Order No. 3 was first publicly read out loud to a gathering of now newly freed Black Americans and other citizens of the city.
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
Sadly it would take nearly two years before all of the enslaved African Americans would actually be freed in Texas by white plantation owners and others who simply didn’t tell them or defied Federal authorities.
In 2014, the Texas Historical Commission placed a subject marker at the corner of 22nd and Strand, near the location of the Osterman Building, where General Granger and his men first read General Orders, No. 3.
While many Black Americans across the former Confederate States would celebrate their freedom granted by The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln on Sep. 22, 1862 during the height of the war, in annual celebrations still others yet would annually mark the date of passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by Congress on January 31, 1865, which abolished slavery in the United States.
Yet on Galveston Island, the tradition of marking their first learning of The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Lincoln with General Granger’s General Orders, No. 3, was the benchmark for ongoing annual celebrations and as the years went by as the Black Americans from the Lone Star state migrated ever Northward, it would be that seminal moment that ultimately would lead to the creation of a federal holiday and recognition some 156 years later.
One observer also wryly pointed out that the June anniversary was seasonally tied to better weather than the other two dates and more conducive to celebrations and large gatherings, hence its popularity in being established as the federal holiday.
Information and photographs provided by the National Archives, the City Of Galveston, Galveston Historical Foundation, the Library of Congress, and State of Texas, Texas Historical Commission.
50 years ago Atlanta’s nascent gay rights movement marched
“It was mostly about feeling good,” said Phil Lambert. “That we’re not a bunch of sick people. That we’re not the problem.”
ATLANTA, Ga. – This Sunday, exactly fifty years ago to the day on a bright Sunday morning, about a hundred brave gay and lesbian Atlantans from the Georgia Gay Liberation Front, unfurled a lavender colored banner made from a bedsheet with the intertwined symbols representing male + male, female + female with the a raised fist of defiance and the words ‘Gay Power’ emblazoned on it and they marched.
The group inched its way up Peachtree Street to a soundtrack of chants, kazoos and a tambourine.
Mindful that stepping off the sidewalks could get them arrested — the city of Atlanta had turned down their request for a permit and the police were closely watching for jay-walkers — the marchers stopped at every corner until they were given the crossing signal, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the average estimated crowds in attendance at Atlanta Pride is upwards of 300,000 plus. But at the time the Journal-Constitution noted, even in the city that had just birthed the civil rights movement and was home to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., LGBTQ rights was considered a radical issue that the Georgian liberal political establishment, including many Atlanta progressives, wanted to stay away from. At that time, gay sex was still illegal under state law, and the American Psychiatric Association characterized homosexuality as a mental illness.
For those GAGLF Atlantans who participated in that first pride march on June 27, 1971, the event was a turning point, a moment when, for the first time, they could publicly celebrate a part of themselves that society had long demanded they keep hidden.
“It was mostly about feeling good,” said Phil Lambert, a Vietnam veteran who was in attendance. “That we’re not a bunch of sick people. That we’re not the problem.”
Read the entire fascinating story: 50 years ago, Atlanta’s gay rights push took to street for first time
LGBTQ rainbow flag was born in San Francisco, but its history is disputed
On that day in June 1978, it felt as if the rainbow had always been a symbol for the LGBTQ community, it just hadn’t revealed itself yet
By August Bernadicou (with additional text and research by Chris Coats) | NEW YORK – Many enduring symbols that establish an instant understanding and define a diverse community are intrinsically linked with controversy, confusion, and ill-informed backstories dictated by vested interests and those who told the story loudest. The LGBTQ rainbow flag is no different.
While it was the work of many, the people who deserve credit the most have been minimized if not erased. Gilbert Baker, the self-titled “Creator,” screamed the story and now has a powerful estate behind his legacy. Before his death in 2017, Baker established himself as the complete authority on the LGBTQ rainbow flag. It was his story which he lived and became.
While there are disputed accounts on the flag’s origins, one thing that is not disputed is that the LGBTQ rainbow flag was born in San Francisco and made for the Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25, 1978.
For all of human history, rainbows have mystified and inspired. A greeting of light and serenity after the darkness and chaos of a storm. They have symbolized hope, peace, and the mysteries of existence. For a moment, we can see the invisible structure, the “body” of light, made visible. A secret revealed, then hidden again.
Though it may seem like a modern phenomenon, rainbow flags have waved throughout history. Their origin can be traced to at least the 15th Century. The German theologian, Thomas Müntzer, used a rainbow flag for his reformist preachings. In the 18th Century, the English-American revolutionary and author, Thomas Paine, advocated adopting the rainbow flag as a universal symbol for identifying neutral ships at sea.
Rainbow flags were flown by Buddhists in Sri Lanka in the late 19th Century as a unifying emblem of their faith. They also represent the Peruvian city of Cusco, are flown by Indians on January 31st to commemorate the passing of the spiritual leader Meher Baba, and since 1961, have represented members of international peace movements.
Now, the rainbow flag has become the symbol for the LGBTQ community, a community of different colors, backgrounds, and orientations united together, bringing light and joy to the world. A forever symbol of where they started, where they have come, and where they need to go. When many LGBTQ people see a rainbow flag flowing in the wind, they know they are safe and free.
While the upper class and tech interests rule the city now, in the 1960s and 70s, San Francisco was a wonderland for low and no-income artists. The counterculture’s mecca. By the mid-1970s, the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood that had once been a psychedelic playground of hippie art, culture, and music had fallen into disarray. Hard, dangerous drugs like heroin had replaced mind-expanding psychedelics. Young queers and artists needed a new home, and they found it in the Castro.
Lee Mentley (1948-2020) arrived in San Francisco in 1972 and quickly fell in with the oddball artist and performers in the Castro neighborhood, donning flamboyant, gender-fucked clothes, performing avant-garde theater, and creating their own clubhouses. He was on the Pride Planning Committee in 1978 and ran the Top Floor Gallery on the top floor of 330 Grove, which served as an early Gay Center in San Francisco.
Lynn Segerblom (Faerie Argyle Rainbow) was originally from the North Shore of Hawaii and moved to San Francisco where she attended art school at the Academy of Art. Her life changed when she found a new passion in tie-dye and rainbows in the early 1970s. Entrenched in the free-loving technicolor world of San Francisco, in 1976, Lynn legally changed her name to Faerie Argyle Rainbow. She joined the Angels of Light, a “free” performance art troupe where the members had to return to an alternative, hippie lifestyle and deny credit for their work.
Shortly after the original rainbow flags were flown for the last time, both Lynn and Lee moved out of San Francisco. Lee moved to Hawaii and Lynn moved to Japan. When they returned, they were shocked to see how their contribution to history was becoming a universal symbol. They remain passionate about defending their legacies and giving a voice to the mute.
LEE MENTLEY: “One day in 1978, Lynn came to 330 Grove with a couple of her friends, James McNamara and Robert Guttman, and said we should make rainbow flags for Gay Day to brighten up San Francisco City Hall and Civic Center because it’s all gray and cold in June. We thought that it sounded like a great idea.”
To get over the first hurdle, money, the young artists went to Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the history of San Francisco, California, for help.
LEE: “There was no actual funding for it. We contacted Harvey Milk and another supervisor, and they asked the city if we could get a little funding. They found some leftover funds from the previous year’s hotel tax, and we got $1,000.”
LYNN SEGERBLOM: “I remember having a meeting where I presented the idea of making rainbow flags. I had some sketches. At that meeting, there was just a handful of us there, and I remember, and even my friend assured me, that Gilbert Baker was not at that meeting. I don’t know where he was, I didn’t keep track of him, but he was not at the meeting where I suggested rainbow flags. We decided, yes, rainbow flags sounded great.”
The committee approved the rainbow imagery and made the decision to make two massive 40’ x 60’ foot rainbow flags to be flown at the Civic Center along with 18 smaller rainbow flags designed by different, local artists, to line the reflecting pool putting rainbows into the grey sky.
For the two large flags, one would be an eight-color rainbow starting with pink and including turquoise and indigo in place of blue, and the other a re-envisioning of the American flag with rainbow stripes which became known as Faerie’s flag.
Gilbert Baker’s name on his memoir, Rainbow Warrior, it says “CREATOR OF THE RAINBOW FLAG,” leaving little debate that Gilbert claimed full ownership for the concept and design of the legendary symbol. He never denied Lynn or James MacNamara’s involvement in the flags’ construction and speaks briefly and fondly of them and their talents in that same book.
LEE: “We didn’t need one person saving our ass, and it certainly wouldn’t have been Gilbert Baker. He was no Betsy Ross. He was a very good promoter, and I give him all the credit in the world for making the rainbow flag go international. He did a great service, and he was a very talented, creative man, but he could never have done all of the work by himself; no one could have.
We never considered ownership. There was never this big ownership debate until Gilbert started it. Because AIDS hit us so fast after this, most of our leadership either went into HIV activism or died.”
LYNN: “The story is that a white gay man did all of this by himself, but, in fact, that is not true at all. He just promoted it. For that, though, he should be given great love.”
Making the two original rainbow flags was no easy feat. With a limited budget and limited resources, the group had to improvise and figure it out as they went along. While Lynn had dabbled in flags before, a project of this scope and importance was far beyond her comfort zone.
LEE: “The community donated the sewing machines we used. We asked people at the Center if anyone would like to volunteer. All sorts of people from all over the country helped us with the flags, over 100 people, which, to me, is an amazing story. That’s where it came from. It came from regular artists who wanted to have fun and make something pretty for gay people.”
LYNN: “The Rainbows Flags were hand-dyed cotton and eight colors. I made two different types. The one with just the stripes and then the American flag one, which I designed myself. There was a group of us that made them, James McNamara, Gilbert Baker, and myself. Originally they were my designs. I was a dyer by trade, and I had a dying studio at the Gay Community Center at 330 Grove Street.”
LEE: “People would come and help as long as they could. Then, somebody else would come and help as long as they could. We opened up the second floor of 330 Grove to people who came to be in the Parade and march. People came in and made posters, banners and did art stuff.”
LYNN: “We made the flags on the roof because there was a drain up there. There was a wooden ladder that led up to the roof. The hot water had to be carried up to the roof because we didn’t have hot water up there. We heated it up on the stove in pots. We put the hot water in trash cans on the roof.”
LEE: “We had trash cans and two by fours, and we had to keep agitating the fabrics in the dye. Since they were in hot water, they had to be poked and agitated for hours.”
LYNN: “We had to constantly move the fabric in the dye, so the dye penetrated the fibers that weren’t clamped tight. We had to make sure there would be blue, and it wouldn’t just be white on white or white with a very murky, pale blue.
After they were washed and dyed, they went through the washer and dryer. Then, we ironed them. If the fabric stays out too long, once you take it out of the water, if it sits on itself even for just a few minutes, it starts to make shapes.”
LEE: “Lynn’s flag, the new American flag, was a similar rainbow, but it had stars in the corner. I have photographs of that flag flying at gay events in San Francisco at City Hall and Oakland.”
LYNN: “I always liked the American flag. I thought, oh, wouldn’t that be nice? I knew with some luck I could make it.”
LEE: “I thought the one with the stars was more interesting because it symbolized a new flag for the United States.”
LYNN: “For my American flag, I decided to flip the order of the colors, so pink was at the bottom and purple was at the top in an eight-color spectrum. That was intentional. I wanted them to be different.
I made the stars with wood blocks and clamps. I got the white fabric and washed it, and folded it a different way. When I was making it, it looked like a big sandwich. The bread would be the woodblocks, and the fabric was in between. We immersed the whole flag in dye and swished it around. I wasn’t sure if it would come out right because it was the first time I did that fold. I was lucky. It worked.
I sewed lamé stars into one stripe with leftover stars from my Angels of Light costumes. On one side of the blue stripe, there was a star with silver lamé, and on the other side, there was a star with gold lamé.
I got all these ideas because I worked with these mediums on a daily basis: paint, dye, fabric, and glitter.”
LEE: “We worked for weeks dying fabric, shrinking fabric, and sewing fabric.”
LYNN: “We worked on them for seven weeks. I was worried that we weren’t going to finish on time. We worked hard and long hours. Towards the end, we decided we didn’t have time to go to the laundromat, so we started rinsing them on the roof and wringing them dry. We also ran out of quarters. We draped them off of the Top Floor Gallery’s rafters, and they drip-dried. They looked great. They were beautiful.”
Until that day, the pink triangle, used by the Nazis to label homosexuals in their genocidal campaign, was the most commonly used symbol for the LGBTQ movement, a symbol in solidarity with our fallen ancestors. But the triangle came from a place of trauma, it was a reminder of the storm while the rainbow was the hope that came after. The promise of brighter days ahead.
On that day in June 1978, it felt as if the rainbow had always been a symbol for the LGBTQ community, it just hadn’t revealed itself yet.
LEE: “We went out, flew the flags, and blew everybody’s fucking minds. People were blown away. The flags were so beautiful. They were waving warriors. The biggest ones were 40’ by 60’ feet. The Parade marched through the flags to get to Civic Center. We instantly proclaimed that this was our symbol. It wasn’t planned. It was organic.”
LYNN: “It was just what I wanted: a touch of magic, a touch of glitter, and a little bit of Angels of Light.”
LEE: “We weren’t creating this huge symbol. We were decorating Civic Center. We weren’t thinking of marketing our entire futures. It was an art project.”
LYNN: “We looked at the rainbow flags as a work of art, and we wanted them to be beautiful and unique. After the Gay Parade, the flags were a big hit. People loved them. Everybody loved them.”
In the pre-technology world, people and property could just disappear. There were no surveillance cameras. Lynn didn’t even have a phone.
Even though no one could have known the flag would become an eternal symbol for a worldwide community, it was clear even then that they were a piece of history to be coveted.
In his memoir, Baker hypothesizes that the Rainbow American flag was stolen shortly after it was hung up on the front of the Gay Community Center for Gay Freedom Day in 1979. He suggests it might have been a construction crew working on the new symphony across the street and in a homophobic act, stole the flag and buried it in cement.
LEE: “Later in 1979 or 1980, you can find it somewhere in the minutes for a Pride Foundation meeting, Gilbert came to us and asked to borrow the two large flags, and we agreed. We never saw them again.”
LYNN: “I went to work one day at 330 Grove, and Gilbert came in and said that the two 40’ by 60’ flags had been stolen.”
Images published in the San Francisco Chronicle, videos of the march, and other widely distributed photographs only add to the mystery. They show both the classic rainbow flag of eight stripes and the American revision flying at the Civic Center on June 24, 1979 and not at the Gay Community Center.
As for the original eight-stripe flag, there are even fewer answers. In his memoir, Baker says that while they were taking down the flags from Civic Center, he was hit on the head on knocked out. “When I came to on the muddy ground,” he says “I saw people all around me hitting each other and screaming obscenities. They were fighting over the rainbow flags, pulling on them like a game of tug-of-war, tearing them.”
LYNN: “It would have taken more than one person to carry the flags. It took three people to carry one folded-up flag for the Parade, and we needed a van. They weighed a lot, and 330 Grove did not have an elevator. Whoever stole them had help—one person could not do it on their own.”
LYNN: “Before the rainbow flag missing, Gilbert came to one of my workshops. He wanted to watch me dying fabric all day and see how I did everything.
I was like, oh yeah, I’ll show you, come in.
I said, here, put some gloves on and do it with me.
He was like, oh, no, no, I don’t want to get my hands dirty.
He was only trying to figure out how I did the dying.”
LEE: “Gilbert went to these places like MoMa and told them these outrageous stories about how he made the rainbow flag all by himself. He said this about the flag he donated. When you look at it, you can tell that it was bought at a craft fair. It flat out wasn’t one of our flags. It was polyester.”
LYNN: “It was polyester, it wasn’t the same size, and it wasn’t hand-dyed. My flags were different. The rainbow flag at MoMa was a beautiful flag inside a frame, but it wasn’t an original, not from 1978, not even a piece from 1978. I was hoping, oh, my God, maybe this is a piece of it.”
LEE: “It wasn’t even the original colors. MoMa said they were original flags, but they weren’t. It was a commercially produced rainbow flag with a primary color rainbow. The plaque cited Gilbert donating it as an original flag.”
LYNN: “I read online that Gilbert Baker said he named me “Faerie Argyle Rainbow,” a complete lie. Bethany the Princess of Argyle named me. I chose the name Rainbow because I was known as a rainbow artist.”
LEE: “Even Lynn’s driver’s license said her name was “Faerie Argyle Rainbow.””
LYNN: “In 1976, I filled out a form at the DMV, and my name became Faerie Argyle Rainbow. Back then, they didn’t ask you for a birth certificate. The employee just said, “This is your name now,” and gave me a driver’s license that said Faerie Argyle Rainbow.
It all sounds crazy now, but back then, it wasn’t.”
LEE: “I had my arguments and fights with Gilbert Baker because he claims he came up with the rainbow flag. If you go through all of his different interviews, you see that his story changes over and over and over again. He even said Harvey Milk came to him and asked him to create a symbol for the movement. No—I read that, and no such thing happened.”
LYNN: “Just look at his interviews. His takes on what the colors in the rainbow flag mean are all in his head. The rainbow represents everyone, no matter what gender or race you are; that’s how I looked at it. Rainbows are in nature and beautiful. People love them, and I love them. I knew they would be great color healing.
Gilbert assigning meaning to each color is ridiculous. I think anyone could make up what each color means. If I wanted to, I could do the same. It wasn’t what I was thinking. I was thinking that rainbows encompass everybody, the whole group, unity.”
LEE: “I have tried to convince people that the rainbow flags were made with tax-payer dollars. We made them as a non-profit.
Not even Gilbert owns them. I have always thought that anyone who sells anything rainbow should give a portion of the profits to homeless gay youth. We need to take care of our own kind because no one does. The whole concept of taking care of gay people has disappeared.”
August Bernadicou is a 27-year-old gay historian and the President of the LGBTQ History Project Inc. Chris Coats is an editor and producer.
Together, they produce the QueerCore Podcast and will shortly be releasing an episode that is the definitive story on the rainbow flag featuring Lee Mentley, Lynn Segerblom, and Adrian Brooks.
August Bernadicou is presenting a Pride event in NYC this year that all folks are cordially invited to attend- its virtual;
Here is the link for the event: https://www.lgbtqhp.org/pride-protest
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