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    The World’s True Monument to Freedom, Inclusion, and Equality

    By Andrea Shorter–

    To our beloved and late Gilbert Baker, thank you.

    Thank you, brother, for creating what now stands as the most powerful, most enduring, and timeless monument to freedom, equality, justice, inclusion, and diversity known to man: the rainbow flag.

    In this racial deconstruction period inspiring the literal tearing down with bear hands, dismantling the cursed and wretched looming presence of the myriad of towering iron monuments to men and bygone eras that fought and stood for the perpetual enslavement, oppression, destruction, and decimation of whole races of people in the name of white supremacy—if we did not thank you and praise you plentifully in this earthly life, thank you, dearest Gilbert, for gifting us and empowering the progressive social justice movement with the rainbow flag.

    In November 1997, one of my greatest honors was to have been among the first—along with Gilbert, then Mayor Willie Brown, Jr., Leslie Katz, and others—to lay our hands to hoist that initial big, bright, and beautiful rainbow flag that flies above the Harvey Milk Plaza at Market and Castro. The rainbow flag commemorated the 20th anniversary of the election of Harvey Milk to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. At the base of the flag is a plaque commemorating the elections and appointments up until that time of LGBT people since Milk’s election and assassination. I am proudly and humbly amongst those named, as a then member of the Board of Trustees of the San Francisco Community College District.

    Years before that historic moment in time, the rainbow flag came to mean the world to me, as it did for many queer kids. It meant as much if not more to me than the national flag of stars and stripes. Any sighting of that brilliant rainbow in the form of a flag, button, bumper sticker, belt buckle, a t-shirt decal … no matter how it was presented to me, I knew that I was likely in the company of someone either queer like me, or accepting of someone queer like me. That display of rainbow colors gave me comfort, confidence, and hope. To be among the pairs of hands to display the flag on that day with Gilbert was heart-pounding happiness, sheer joy, reverence, and overwhelming humility.

    The original eight striped colors of the flag corresponded with sex, life, healing, sunlight, nature, magic/art, serenity, and spirit. Since its first designs in the 1970s, it is a flag that welcomes variations and additions to it that continue to evolve towards greater inclusion of the LGBT diaspora around the world expressing bisexual, transgender, pansexual, asexual, people of color, Bears, leather, and on and on.

    The rainbow flag was born of gay liberation, revolution, and movement, yet it transcends nations, territories, and boundaries of pride; it belongs to everyone allegiant to the ideas and practices of inclusion, acceptance, dignity, respect, and equality. It remains one of the few, if only, internationally recognized flags created by an American who has come to intentionally symbolize, embrace, and activate inclusivity, equality, justice, and peace. It is no wonder that it is ever present, waved, displayed, and carried along front and center at protests and uprisings for justice, equity, and humanity the world over.

    In 2020, the state of Texas still celebrates a Confederate Heroes Day. It is among twelve southern states that celebrate an official cultural Confederate Memorial Day since the Civil War. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are thousands of public symbols of the Confederacy erected and strewn by majority throughout the southern states, with trickled representations into the northern and western states as well.

    I grew up in Indiana, an official state of the Union. It boasts the most multiple generations of war monuments in the nation. Still, one could see their fair share of confederate-tinged monuments here and there, especially slipping into the southernmost areas of the state. Not as oppressive a presence by sheer volume as experienced by our kinfolks to the actual south, such memorials still had a shared meaning: the glorification and signification of a past and future white supremacist nation. These are symbols of terror.

    Photos by Paul Margolis

    These symbols are vestiges, glorifications, and celebrations of parts of histories. No statue, no inscription can tell the whole story of any one person’s life, one state’s struggles, or one nation’s invention. All histories are far more dimensional, angular, jagged, and course than what is reduced to the artistic grace of a shiny white marbled statue. Monuments are erected to commemorate the ideal valiance of a man, or people, in a finite period in time, especially that of wars won, and wars lost. To memorialize is to make timeless, to help imbed the best of the ideals through symbol into institutions of culture, governance, commerce, thought, moral compass, and aspiration.

    No amount nor size of statues praising “great” men can fully erase the histories of the slaughters of the indigenous peoples of their pillaged and stolen lands; wars of the American Revolution, and Civil War over the social, economic, and moral consequences of building an empire on the backs of slave labor, internments, and canons of cruelty and ruin visited upon non-white peoples in the name of their freedom and liberty.

    Still, for all of the iron, brass, stone, or marbled monuments in praise of famous acts and fetes of racism that I have seen over the years, the symbol that strikes the most sense of terror and disgust is the Confederate flag.

    One can hardly physically drag around 2,000 pounds of iron statues of explorers, conquerors, colonialists, Andrew Jackson, this Confederate general or another, but like any other flag, the Confederate flag’s mobility makes it all at once present, insidious, unabashed, and undeniable. Aside from a KKK robe or hood, it by far remains the chief universally recognized, pedestrian symbol of racism. No matter how bearers of it want to defend it as a passive emblem of “southern heritage and pride” (in what exactly?), it is a potent emblem of racism and terror. Whether on a baseball cap, a bumper sticker, or at NASCAR, there is little that can nullify what it signifies except its absence.

    Decades before the slaughter of nine African American churchgoers at the historic (Mother) Emanuel AME Church by a young white supremacist, it was already well past time before that July 2015 when the Confederate flag that had flown over the capitol of South Carolina was finally put out of commission. Other public or official commissions of the Confederate flag—all signifying the heralded “the South shall rise again” after Civil Wartime states of the Confederacy fell to the Union—have since expired throughout the American South. In June 2020, the last stalwart stronghold finally gave up the ghost in Mississippi, the birthplace of my father, his father, and his father.

    Whether one agrees or not with the manners by which only a fraction of a wholesale lot of public statues, buildings, and erected structures in homage to predominantly “great” men who forged America’s predominate narrative of Anglo-dominion are being taken down, it is well past time that these forged symbols of explicit racism, hatred, and racial supremacy be retired and laid to rest once and for all. Gone with the wind, as it were.

    It has not gone without note that in the recent bold displays of “Black Lives Matter” onto major streets, including in front of the White House, how quickly white discomfort seeks to demolish, erase, paint over, and destroy these temporary monuments to freedom, inclusion, and equality. Wow, what it must be to live with the “tyranny” of a “Black Lives Matter” stenciled banner on a street for all of two weeks. That is nothing compared to living under the banner of Confederate symbols for 150 plus years.

    Of course, gestures of retiring symbols and monuments of hate do not make for actual revolution towards building systems for a more just society. All the same, for what it is worth, perhaps the absence or suppression of their oppressive, looming presence in public spaces means we can breathe a little freer as we work for meaningful progress. In the meantime, there is plenty of room under the rainbow flag to inspire and elevate those seeking a humane way forward towards justice, inclusion, and equality.

    Andrea Shorter is a Commissioner and the former President of the historic San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women. She is a longtime advocate for criminal and juvenile justice reform, voter rights and marriage equality. A Co-Founder of the Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition, she was a 2009 David Bohnett LGBT Leadership Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

    Published on July 16, 2020