Posted on www.SFgate.com
By C.W Nevius
The rainbow flag at the intersection of Market and Castro streets seems like an affirming and positive local icon. But this is San Francisco, where even toys from Happy Meals can seem sinister.
Inevitably, controversy has sprung up around the flagpole. That's a shame because, as Cleve Jones, longtime gay activist, says, the solution is simple: "It should fly at full-staff, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year."
In the past 10 years, exceptions have been made by merchants who pay for and maintain the flag and plaza; the most recent example was flying a "Bear" flag last weekend.
That has spurred Michael Petrelis, a self-described "brash hothead," to challenge the merchants, insisting that since they've lowered the flag to half-staff at times and substituted other flags, he should be allowed to come up with his own tributes.
This is the perfect time for the merchants to rethink their policy.
"There's one person who says there is a controversy," said Steve Adams, president of Merchants of Upper Market and Castro. "He wants to control the flag."
Not at all, insists Petrelis. He says Gilbert Baker is trying to control things. Baker created the flag to honor the election of Harvey Milk to the Board of Supervisors, but it wasn't dedicated at the Castro and Market intersection until 1997. Baker has since moved to New York.
"When did we decide that a guy living in New York can tell us what to do with our public space?" Petrelis said. "We could use that plaza to educate young people and turn it into a living classroom."
Flag honors Harvey Milk
Nonsense, said Baker. He handed over all flag and plaza responsibilities to the merchants, though he admits he wants to keep the flag and the plaza for its intended purpose, to honor Milk.
"This Petrelis fellow is a bully - and please quote me saying that," said Baker. "This whole campaign has been invented by one clown."
OK, but here's the problem. Over the years the rainbow flag has become the symbol of the Castro. Visitors come from all over the world to have their photo taken with it. But then someone had the idea of flying a leather flag during the leather and bondage week known as Folsom Street Fair.
"Regardless of what people think about the fair, it's a draw," Adams said. "It drives thousands of people to the Castro."
As a marketing idea, that makes sense. And so did the idea of putting up a bear flag to celebrate Bear Week, when thousands of muscular, often hirsute, men roll into town. But there was a problem.
"Both Gilbert and I warned the merchants at the time," said Jones. "It opened the door."
Once the flag was replaced for one event, it brought other possibilities into play. Petrelis is no stranger to the media. In 2001, after a series of articles about unsafe sex practices among gay men ran in The Chronicle, Petrelis was arrested for threatening Chronicle staffers and city health officials. The flag is his latest challenge.
He proposed raising a New York State flag when the state legalized same-sex marriages. He campaigned to have the flag lowered to half-staff when Elizabeth Taylor died. Both ideas were rejected by the merchants.
'A little game'
"I can't believe these guys are gay," Petrelis joked. "What gay man doesn't want to lower a flag for Elizabeth Taylor?"
You see the problem.
"If they put the flag to half-mast every time there is a request," said Supervisor Scott Wiener, who represents the district, "it would be down more than up. This has become a little game. Petrelis makes demands and then throws a fit when they don't do what he says."
While Petrelis hasn't paid for a flag, maintained the plaza, or done anything but complain about the way things are being run, the merchants only hurt the cause when they decided to make exceptions.
Now they are in a position of trying to justify every decision and face rants from someone like Petrelis when they aren't granted.
That's why Jones has the best idea, fly the flag all day, every day.
"People should just leave the damn flag alone," he said.