The Progress Pride Flag flies below the U.S. flag outside the Santa Cruz County Office of Education on Tuesday.
The Progress Pride Flag flies below the U.S. flag outside the Santa Cruz County Office of Education on Tuesday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
K-12 Education

Why rainbow flags are going up at schools across Santa Cruz County

Rainbow flags are going up across most school districts in Santa Cruz County this week to commemorate Harvey Milk Day and show support for local LGBTQ youth.

Look up next time you’re driving past a local school, and you might see a rainbow.

In honor of the May 22 birthday of gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk, schools across Santa Cruz County are raising rainbow flags — and hoping to raise awareness around the unique struggles, and successes, of local LGBTQ+ youth. Flags (either the traditional rainbow or the newer Progress Pride Flag) will fly at participating schools and district offices through the end of June, which is LGBTQ+ Pride Month.

The collaborative event is a first for county schools, with at least seven of 10 local districts, several charter schools and the Santa Cruz County Office of Education participating.

Schools have been encouraged — though not required — to celebrate Milk’s birthday across California after the state legislature designated May 22 as Harvey Milk Day in 2009. But until this year, there had never been such a coordinated effort across local districts.

Education officials are also sharing related curriculum activities and encouraging the community to raise their own rainbow flags and post them to a shared Padlet with the hashtags #SCRainbowFlag or #SCHarveyMilkDay.

Building momentum

The idea for this year’s commemoration came out of an LGBTQ+ task force composed of representatives from all local districts, according to Celeste Gutierrez, the county office of education’s student leadership and engagement coordinator.

Standing in solidarity with the community is particularly important this year because of unique mental health challenges LGBTQ+ youth faced during the pandemic, she said.

Some queer youth reported finding relief in remote learning, Gutierrez said. “There are other students that are experiencing the opposite,” she added, “where they’re at home and they can’t really be themselves because their parents aren’t supportive of who they are.”

Once a sign-up sheet started circulating, Gutierrez said she was thrilled to see how many schools and districts began jumping on board. “Slowly it just grew, until finally, it became a thing,” she said.

Raising the rainbow flags also fits squarely into schools’ countywide framework for focusing on equity, according to Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah.

Equity “is not just a word,” Sabbah said Tuesday at a kickoff ceremony in front of the county office of education in Santa Cruz. “It’s about actions that we take every day to ensure that our schools are more equitable and safe and inclusive for all our students.”

County office of education staff help run the virtual flag-raising ceremony from the office's parking lot on Tuesday.
County office of education staff help run the virtual flag-raising ceremony from the office’s parking lot on Tuesday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

And the event neatly coincides with the virtual “Queer Santa Cruz” exhibit ongoing at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, which offers a look at the impact and history of the local LGBTQ+ community.

Legacies live on

Harvey Milk became the first openly gay elected official in California history when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. He was assassinated during his second year in office.

Several Santa Cruz County politicians have played their own historic roles in LGBTQ+ representation — legacies remembered in an ongoing virtual exhibit at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.

In 1983, John Laird was part of a historic trio of the first openly gay mayors in the U.S. when he stepped into the leading role on the Santa Cruz City Council. Laird, now representing the region in the state Senate, also made history as an openly gay official when he was elected to the state Assembly in 2002.

In 2018, Adam Spickler became the first openly trans man to win an elected office in California after running unopposed for a seat on Cabrillo College’s Board of Trustees.

The current mayors of Santa Cruz County’s two largest cities are making their own marks in the ledger of local LGBTQ+ history. In December, Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers and Watsonville Mayor Jimmy Dutra became the first lesbian and gay mayors of their respective towns.

Speaking at the virtual kickoff ceremony Tuesday, Spickler said Harvey Milk Day is, among other things, a reminder of the importance of coalition-building. That’s a lesson he said Milk himself learned as he was seeking endorsement from an early LGBTQ+ advocacy group.

“We, as LGBTQ human beings, now really rely on that good coalition-building so we and our partners can work together to achieve equity for everybody,” Spickler said. “And that’s the legacy of Harvey Milk, and why I’m so proud to be here and be part of that legacy of raising the flag with you today.”

Gutierrez said she hopes the flag-raising will also accomplish the amplification of living history.

“The reason we chose Harvey Milk is not only because he was the first openly out person in politics,” she said. “It’s also to remind people that just because you’re the first doesn’t mean you’re going to be the last.”