LEE MENTLEY

GAY ACTIVIST

LYNN SEGERBLOM AKA FAERIE ARGYLE RAINBOW

RAINBOW FLAG ARCHITECT, ARTIST, ACTRESS

THE TRUE ORIGINS
OF THE
RAINBOW FLAG

Lynn Segerblom AKA Faerie Argyle Rainbow is the erased and unknown architect of the LGBTQ Rainbow Flag. She dedicated her artistic career to tie-dye, rainbows and acting. She was a member of the Angels of Light, a “free theater,” off-shoot of the Cockettes. The Angels of Light were the most radical theater group in the history of California. They were forbidden to accept or promote named credit for their work. 

Lee Mentley has fought for LGBTQ rights for close to 50 years. His entire creative and professional career has been based on his community activism. Lee's initial impact was made when he founded The Top Floor Gallery at 330 Grove, an early "Gay Center" in San Francisco. 330 Grove served as a safe space for the gay community, and a place where Angels of Light, poets, artists, politicians and everyone in between came together. 330 Grove was where the Rainbow Flag was created. 

LEE: One day in 1978, Lynn came to 330 Grove with a couple of her friends, James McNamara and Robert, 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 in San Francisco. We thought that it sounded like a great idea.

 

There was no real 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 previous years and we got $1,000. 

 

LYNN: 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 [the man who claimed he singularly created the Rainbow Flag - Ed.] 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. 

 

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 never could 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 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, he should be given great love.

LEE: The community donated the sewing machines we used. We asked people in 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 both San Francisco at City Hall and in 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 the New 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 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 was going to 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 ringing 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.

 

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 120 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.


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 120 flags had been stolen. 

It would have taken more than one person to carry the flags. For the Parade, it took three people to carry one folded up flag, 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: Prior to 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 of 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. 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 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.