In the 1970s, San Francisco had a largely gay and free radical underground. Where else would straight men go to gay bars in dresses to attract women?
Lee Mentley was part of that creative, sexy culture and Lee inspired others.
Naïve as it may sound, back in the day the impetus was commitment to community in a spirit of love. Enriched by the cross-pollination of the Civil Rights, anti-war and ‘Women’s Liberation’ movements, ‘gay lib’ emerged from the riotous Sixties in the dizzying period following Stonewall and San Francisco was the world capital of a revolution.
At its most loopy, a rigid orthodoxy held that artists seek no personal credit and accept no profit from anything created for community. For that reason, some pivotal people remained obscure while others who talked-the-talk persuasively juiced career opportunities.
A close friend of Harvey Milk, activist Lee Mentley stood at the epicenter of the gay community and the local art scene. Aside from founding the Castro Street Fair with Harvey, from 1973-1978 he hosted seasonal salons in his 14-room flat at 590 Castro St., where he showcased artists, poets, performers, community leaders and shamans.
He also ran a gallery — “The Top Floor Gallery,” at 330 Grove Street, in the Gay Community Center.
There, on June 24, 1977, a year before the parade where the rainbow flags first flew, Harvey announced his candidacy for the Board of Supervisors in the first iteration of his celebrated “Hope Speech.”
In 1974, Lee had inspired an 18-year-old new arrival from Southern California: Lynn Segerblom or Faery Argyle Rainbow as she was widely known (that name being on her California driver’s license). A tie-dye artist, she’d been making clothing often embellished with rainbows, since 1971.
Lee helped her integrate into the local scene where she flourished. In 1977, she rented a workspace at 330 Grove but lived above the Castro district with Gilbert Baker and James McNamara, longtime friends.
Lynn and I met in 1976 when she joined the “Angels of Light” free theater (an offshoot of the campy “Cockettes”), of which I was a member. In March 1978, she was in an Angels’ extravaganza; I was writing; Lee was curating art shows and Harvey was engaged in a ‘take-no-prisoners’ war with Anita Bryant, who demonized gays and lesbians in ways that smacked of McCarthyism and Donald Trump’s tactics today.
The battle was national news since a California State initiative on November’s ballot would determine if gays and lesbians would, or should, face legally sanctioned discrimination.
In April 1978, a month after being in the show, Lynn told me about her concept for eight-stripe rainbow flags as has been affirmed by some of the 30+ volunteers who worked on the project and who recognize her as originator of the design.
In May, Lee and Paul Hardman (president of the Pride Foundation, with Lee on its executive committee there being no formal parade committee), approved the rainbow design Lynn submitted at a meeting certified by two others present on that day. When Paul and Lee asked for money to fund the project, Harvey Milk gave them $1,000 after which Lee and Lynn went shopping for materials.
Lynn’s studio became ‘ground zero’ where fabric was dyed while Lee’s gallery space and the roof were used to dry great lengths of cotton; when hung from rafters, these became a splendid and lyrical installation. Solitary gold or silver lame stars on the indigo stripe on both sides of Lynn’s signature ‘American flag’ came from “Angels of Light” costume fabric as radical artists, politicos and neighborhood folk who just dropped by to pitch in coalesced in a collective fusion.
Out of San Francisco’s fabled diversity and its freewheeling culture celebrating liberation arose the inspiring images symbolizing gay freedom and universal human rights.
Lynn supervised dying and did the tie-dye stars while a team of three oversaw the sewing. These included: Lynn, Gilbert Baker and James McNamara. James’ then-partner, Paul Langlotz who was present at this historic moment, calls Lynn, “the woman who came up with the idea of a rainbow flag.”
Gradually, the rainbow gained traction as a potent symbol but Lynn had moved to Japan before Gilbert began devoting himself to promoting the flags. Still, a doubt existed about their genesis since Lynn had obeyed the “Angels of Light” diktat to act anonymously.
In fact, Gilbert didn’t conceive or design the 1978 flags. His accomplishment lies in transforming what began as local parade decorations into a global icon. But the ubiquitous flags he popularized so brilliantly were his own six-stripe variants of Lynn’s original eight-stripe designs.
In contrast to Harvey, Lee, Lynn, Gilbert, James McNamara and many others who did the work, I was a tangential witness and friend, but on June 25, 1978, I was onstage reading my poems to an estimated 400,000 people who packed the City Hall plaza, a crowd said to be the largest in San Francisco’s history, so huge that TV news stations had to send up helicopters to try to convey its scale.
High overhead, the splendid rainbow flags were billowing in a blue sky as the afternoon sunlight illumined their prismatic colors. This was to be Harvey Milk’s last parade.
Still, he saw the flags he helped midwife serving those he nurtured whole-heartedly, acting in concert with his walk-the-walk friend, Lee Mentley, Godfather of the Rainbow Flag.