Monday, 18 June 2018

Flag Poles and Tuning Forks

During US Pride Month one visible change you’re likely to notice in major US cities is more Rainbow Pride flags on display. Most of the flags I’ve featured over the years have been adopted, created and used in the lgbt community. Collectively they have created a whole new area of research to vexillology, the study of flags, which could not have been possible until the 1980s. There are many different specialist areas already established in vexillology – religious flags, military flags, political flags, yacht club flags, flags on stamps and even flags on tattoos, to name a few. Sexuality and gender is the newest area of research, still in its early days, thanks to the many Pride flags that have been created since the Rainbow Pride flag in 1978.

More often than not the reason why a flag was adopted in the past, and the name of the designer, wasn’t considered important enough to be put on record, not unless it was something as important as a national flag. That’s where vexillologists do their work and carry out research.

Several lgbt vexillologists have contributed to flag research outside the lgbt world of Pride. Today I want to concentrate on a man who was the first to research five specific flags which were included in the ground-breaking book “Canadian City Flags”, revealing the cultural and socio-political stories behind each of them.

Mark Ritzenhein was born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1958. In the 1980s he studied for a degree in music from Michigan State University in East Lansing. From there Mark went on to become a professional piano technician (he tuned and repaired pianos). Mark was in the right place at the right time to be an openly gay man. Just a decade earlier East Lansing became the first place in the USA to include homosexuality in legislation that was protected from discrimination. Just a few miles away in Ann Arbor its citizens elected the first four openly gay politicians in the US.

Despite being a pioneering city there was still homophobia among East Lansing’s elected representatives. In an interview Mark recalled that one councillor said that every “queer” belonged in San Francisco. “You go to San Francisco”, was Mark’s thought, “This is my home and my community, and I have every right to be part of it and to stay here”.

Mark moved just a mile away to Okemos in the 1980s. It was at a gay bar there in 1982 that he met his life partner and future husband Stephen Wilensky. They moved in together shortly afterwards and they lived there until Mark’s early death.

In late 2011 Mark was diagnosed with a brain tumour. With great dignity and peace of spirit Mark prepared for the inevitable. He said his official goodbyes to family and friends while he was still able to. He contacted a local sculptor, Jim Cunningham, and together they created a sculpture of a huge tuning fork entitled “Clang Tone”. Following Mark’s death his partner Stephen donated the sculpture to Michigan State University, and it can be seen there today.

Mark and Stephen were both avid collectors. Steve had collected lgbt literature since the 1970s. Mark collected anything from cook books to t-shirts and, of course, flags. Over 2,000 items from their collections were selected by the couple which they donated with a cash endowment to Michigan State University. The collection of literature alone provides an unbroken chronicle of gay literature from its rise in the 1970s in small independent bookstores located in “gay villages” to mainstream publishers and multi-national bookstores of today.

It was during his illness that Mark left his mark in vexillological history. As a proud out gay man he had paraded in Pride marches with a flag held high. Like the majority of we vexillologists Mark was a knowledgeable enthusiastic amateur. That is not to say that we have no academic discipline. There are very few full-time paid vexillologists.

Mark was a member of the North American Vexillilogical Association (NAVA) from 1986. NAVA published a book of US city flags in 2005. When they began compiling a follow-up book of Canadian city flags Mark Ritzenhein jumped at the chance to, as he put it himself, make “…his first – and likely last – scholarly contribution to vexillology”. He knew he was dying and threw his enthusiasm for flags into researching some of the most obscure municipal flags from some of Canada’s remotest communities. While not all have any official status as cities these communities are the largest in the terrority.

The editor of “Canadian City Flags”, Edward Kaye, remarked that the flags from the five largest communities in the territory of Nunavut were perhaps the most difficult to research. Kaye also remarked that of the nine contributors to the book Mark delivered his before the others.

On the accompanying map you can see the locations and flags of the five “cities” Mark researched. On a purely vexillological note you may notice that all five flags take the Canadian pale as their basis (pale is the heraldic term for a vertical stripe), made famous by the Canadian national flag. Canadian pale has become an official term in both vexillology and heraldry for a central stripe that is twice the width of one on either side.

Mark’s research gathered together information from many sources and uncovered details about the emblems, designers and histories. Together with historical flags used by the five cities Mark’s research provides the first major study of Inuit flags in the world. You can read his research for yourself, for “Canadian City Flags” is available from Amazon, etc.

Fortunately, Mark was able to see his research in print, and can be rightly proud to have called himself a “proper vexillologist” and flag expert.

Mark succumbed to his illness on 6th July 2013, content in the knowledge that he had been able to say his goodbyes and establish a legacy for future generations.

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