If ever there was a day to put the flags out, its today, because this is World Vexillology Day. Vexillology is the study of flags, and the word comes from “vexillum”, which is the name of the square flag the Romans used to carry at the front of their legions.
There are hundreds of
flags used by the lgbt community. A lot of them have been featured on this
blog, and if you want to know more about them please go to the labels list and
There are some lgbt
vexillologists (people, like myself, who study flags) involved in the world of general
flag studies as well as lgbt flags. I featured one, Mark Ritzenhein, on the blog a few months ago. There have also been
some lgbt vexillologists who have designed flags for the wider community or for
specific organisations. One of the earliest of these flags is that of the
Society of the Cincinnati (below).
This Society was formed in
1783 in the newly independent USA and membership was open to descendants of soldiers
who fought against the British. Two of its founders were George Washington and Baron Friedrich von Steuben (1730-1794). The baron, who
went to America after years of being sacked from several German armies because
of his gay affairs, was instrumental in turning the Continental Army of the
revolutionary colonists into a formidable opponent to the British Redcoats.
I’ll be returning to Baron von Steuben later in the year. Incidentally, the
city of Cincinnati takes its name from this society.
The baron designed the
Society of the Cincinnati flag. The design varied over the years but the
stripes have remained constant. The stripes are a tribute to the 12 original
colonies, as also represented on the Stars and Stripes. The light blue colour
of the stripes is said to represent America. It is likely that this is in
tribute to blue and buff uniforms worn by the revolutionaries, the colours I
wrote about earlier in the year.
In the 20th century
another lgbt flag designer of note was Paul
Mills (1924-2004). He was Director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art,
California, from 1970 to 1982. He had a lively enthusiasm for modern art, and
under his leadership the museum became a vibrant gallery. There’s too many of
his projects to mention here, so let’s just look at three which were
specifically about flags.
In 1976, the year of the
American Bicentennial, Paul devised the New Glory project. In what was arguably
the first national flag designing contest in the USA, Paul asked flag and
graphic designers to submit new designs for flags of a state, city or
organisation of their choice. The 24 winning designs were turned into half of a
touring exhibition called “New Glory”. The exhibition catalogue of these flags
can be seen here. The other half of the exhibition consisted of replicas of
historical US flags.
When the exhibition closed
the flags were given to Paul Mills for his next project, the Santa Barbara Flag
Project. This is one of several legacies he left that is still very much alive
Paul chose the breakwater
at Santa Barbara’s harbour to relocate the flags permanently. The idea was to
introduce specially designed flags of local charitable non-profit organisations
and community groups. The idea took off spectacularly, and Paul Mills
supervised the regular rotation of flags personally until his death in 2004.
Across the harbour at
Stearns Wharf is another line of flags that are part of the Santa Barbara Flag
Project. They were raised in memory of one of its members, Cedric Boeseke
(1907-1994), and are the replica historical flags used in the New Glory
Following Paul Mills’
death in 2004 the breakwater flags were not replaced and the poles remained
bare until 2007 when the project was revived by the Santa Barbara Yacht Club.
At the rededication ceremony Paul’s three children were guests of honour, and a
special flag commemorating Paul was raised. One of Paul’s children is
film-maker Mike Mills.
Following the death of his
wife Jan in 1999 Paul came out as gay to Mike during Thanksgiving. After Paul’s
death Mike began to write a film based heavily on their relationship as a son
and gay father called “Beginners”. Described as a romantic comedy drama it was
released in 2010 and starred Ewan McGregor as the character based on Mike
himself, and Christopher Plummer as the character based on Paul. Christopher
Plummer won an Oscar for his role.
Even though Paul Mills
left us in 2004 his biggest flag project out of the three which still survives
was an attempt to introduce flags to the city streets of Santa Barbara called
the State Street Flag Project. State Street is the main thoroughfare heading
from the harbour.
As with the breakwater
flags the State Street project displays local charity flags in rotation. It has
become a welcome symbol of pride for all those who take part.
There’ll never be enough
room to go into Paul’s many other flag projects, including one which involved
the present King of Spain, so I’ll finish with flags which Paul designed
Because the flags in the
State Street project are flown vertically rather than horizontally the little
castle on the city flag (left) is on its side when flown vertically. Paul
adapted the design to make it more vexillologically correct (centre). This flag
is still flown every year during fiesta week. The two flags on the right were
designed by Paul for the city of Monterey. They are based on two historical
coats of arms associated with the city. The top version is the official
municipal flag and the plainer version underneath is the citizens’ flag (a bit
like national flags, where many countries have a state flag used by the
government and a simpler civil flag used by the public).
However you feel about
flags you have to admire Paul Mills’ dedication to vexillology. Other than
Gilbert Baker with his Rainbow Pride flag I cannot think of another lgbt person
who has made such a huge legacy and impact on a community.