“One Human Family” — not only is that the (un)official motto of Key West, but it’s also the pervading philosophy of our island home. Ever since its early days as a tourist hotspot, Key West has been a paragon of inclusivity and our universal acceptance is never on display more than during Pride Week, when individuals of all orientations are welcomed to the paradise and encouraged to let their freak flag fly. And while figurative flags will be flapping all over town, the Rainbow Flag — the adopted symbol of gay pride — will also be waving in solidarity atop buildings across Key West.
The Rainbow Flag was created by fabric artist Gilbert Baker in 1977 at the request of influential gay leader Harvey Milk, who specifically requested a symbol of pride for the gay com- munity. The original, eight-striped gay pride flag first flew in the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25, 1978, almost exactly five months before Milk was assassinated in his City Hall office on Nov. 27, 1978. At the time of his death, Milk was 48 years old and the first openly gay public official elected in the state of California.
The anguished protests by the gay community and numerous supporters following Milk’s death served dramatically to publicize the Rainbow Flag around the world as a symbol of solidarity for the gay community. Demand for reproductions of the flag increased and the Paramount Flag Company began selling a version of the flag using stock rainbow fabric consisting of seven stripes of red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, blue and violet.
But why a rainbow? Myth and Wikipedia offer a number of possibilities, ranging from “gay icon” Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow” to a peace flag created by 1960s hippies to a racial unity flag, with stripes of — from top to bottom — red, white, brown, yellow and black that college activist groups used in campus demonstrations. Whatever the inspiration, Baker assigned each of the original eight stripes a “specific meaning”: hot pink for sexuality; red for life; orange for healing; yellow for sunlight; green for nature; turquoise for magic/art; indigo/blue for serenity/ harmony; and violet for spirit.
Under the tailoring tutelage of Mr. Baker and at the invitation of local Key West LGBT leaders Gregg McGrady, Heather Carruthers and Susan Kent (among others), and with the assistance of a small cadre of sewers and a legion of folders, packers and (finally) unfurlers, a rainbow flag of a scale theretofore unfathomable was unfurled during PrideFest in Key West in June 2003, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico along one and one-quarter miles of Duval Street. The unveiling of the “Sea to Sea” Rainbow Flag cemented in Key West a special bond with the Rainbow Flag and, in fact, awarded Key West with the record for the longest such flag, beating the mile-long, six-striped banner Baker was commissioned to construct for New York’s “Stonewall 25” march in 1994.
Mr. Baker passed away on March 31, 2017, which prompted the Key West Business Guild, organizer of Key West Pride for the past seven years, to formally honor Mr. Baker throughout the week’s pride festivities last year. “Each year, we carry a 100-foot piece of the Rainbow Flag in our Pride Parade and last year we dedicated that piece to Gilbert Baker,” explains Matt Hon, former executive director of the KWBG. And during Key West Pride last year, Key West Mayor Craig Cates proclaimed June 15 Gilbert Baker Day in honor of the creator of the famous Rainbow Flag and the legendary debut of the Sea to Sea Diversity Flag on June 15, 2003. The proclamation itself reads, “Gilbert Baker, the ‘Gay Betsy Ross,’ now dances in the sky amongst the beautiful rainbows and we will always remember June 15, 2003, the day that changed our island forever.”
There were various modifications to the Rainbow Flag over the years, but now the conventional, six-striped flag is seen throughout the world as a universal symbol of LGBTQ Pride. Without doubt, the use and recognition of the Rainbow Flag is now worldwide and Key West’s very own 25-foot-long Section 93 even made a momentous appearance at last year’s National Pride March on Washington, D.C., which took place on June 11, 2017.
Mark Ebenhoch, project director of the Sacred Cloth Project and founder of the new nonprofit organization Hope, Unity & Global Equality Inc., is perhaps best known as Section 93’s biggest champion and general porter on what has so far been a wide-ranging world tour. “Section 93 was sewn in Key West and lives here but it has traveled the planet,” Mr. Ebenhoch marvels. “In 2016, the flag was even vetted for display by the White House, which was a big deal, and from there we went immediately to Orlando to memorialize the tragedy at Pulse nightclub. Section 93 has been to the Supreme Court of the United States, to Kentucky, and last year the U.S. Ambassador to Australia even carried it in the world’s longest Pride celebration. The whole story just shows Section 93’s haphazard wild ride, which will culminate in its display this year at the National Museum of American History.”
Mr. Ebenhoch doesn’t hesitate to wax poetic about what Section 93 and the Rainbow Flag means to the world. “We are a global community, we are One Human Family, and that flag stands for those principles. We made history when we crafted the Sea to Sea Flag back in 2003 and, to me, the Rainbow Flag is a larger advertisement of the warm, open, and accepting Key West community. If we can teach the world that Section 93 belongs to Key West and wherever it goes it represents this community, we will have done our jobs.”
A portion of Section 93 will be making its annual appearance in this year’s Pride Parade on Sunday, June 10, at 5 p.m. A full schedule and description of all of the Key West Pride events can be found at www.keywestpride.org. ¦