LEE MENTLEY: June 2, 1948-January 20, 2021
SHOOTING THEM DOWN WITH HAIRSPRAY
Lee Mentley, the Princess of Castro Street and Godfather of the Rainbow Flag, passed away on January 20, 2021 at his home in Sonora, California. He was 72 years old. The cause of death was congestive heart failure.
Lee was born June 2, 1948, and raised in East Los Angeles at a time when its inhabitants had to act confidently and fight for their safety. His mother, knowing he was different, called him by the feminine name Lorraine which he shamelessly embraced. His family had guns for protection, and his mother told him to always keep hairspray in his car—it can be used as a weapon—one of the numerous precautions he took throughout his life. His childhood instilled in him a we-must-fight-to-survive mentality, and while he always maintained that he “wasn’t a martyr,” he was never afraid to make his stance known and take his cause to the street.
In 1972, Lee moved to San Francisco and threw himself into the art and activism scene. Inspired by the work of activists in Los Angeles like Donald Kilhefner, Lee and a community of activists opened the city’s first LGBTQ services center called the Gay Community Center at 330 Grove St. On the spacious top floor, Lee opened an art gallery called the Top Floor Gallery. The Top Floor Gallery and the salons he hosted at his Hula Palace featured celebrated artists like Dan Nicoletta, William McNeil, Caldwell Brewer and countless other local artists. To further develop his stance as an art opportunity granter, he became the first openly gay city employee at the Neighborhood Arts Program with San Francisco Arts Commission. In 1978, Lee served on the Executive Committee for the Pride Foundation at 330 Grove Street and took on his most significant art project, facilitating the creation of the rainbow flag, which has since gone onto symbolize LGBTQ people worldwide.
The major catalyst for his life’s trajectory was the death of his two friends, Harvey Milk, the first publically elected out official in San Francisco, and Robert Opel, the enfant terrible who was suspiciously murdered after he exposed an alternative narrative for Milk’s assassination. The story goes, Lee got the tip that Dan White, an ex-cop and city council member, was plotting Milk’s assignation and, on that fateful day, Lee approached him outside of the City Capital and warned him. Harvey shooed away his advice, and shortly after, he was assassinated. Only June of the prior year, Milk had announced his candidacy at 330 Grove in a speech titled “You’ve Got to Have Hope.” Lee’s new understanding of hope and its opposite, death, cemented in him that his path in activism was as an organizer, rallier and administrator.
By the end of the 1970s, Lee began tour managing San Francisco art-punk bands such as Tuxedomoon and the Mutants and accompanied many of them on their cross-country tours. In a 2019 interview, he recalled touring with Tuxedomoon in New York. As he carried their cash profits in a briefcase on the subway, he also carried a gun. He never forgot the threats to his mission and life and remained suspicious of all political, social and economic threats.
In 1983, he fled to Hawaii and, in the beginning, lived without access to radio and television and traveled on dirt roads. In Hawaii, he became the Curator of Kauai Museum, Chair of the Garden Island Arts Council, the founder of END/AIDS, a co-founder of Kauai AIDS Project, sat on the Hawaii Governor’s Committee on HIV/AIDS and was a representative for the ‘Lambda Aloha’ to Hawaii Statewide Committee for Same Sex Marriage. He did all of this while being a landscaper for the folk singer Buffy St Marie. He also claims that he coined the now widely circulated phrase “gay marriage.”
In 2000, after he resurfaced in his home state, Lee became the AIDS History Curator for ONE Archive at the University of Southern California Los Angeles. In 2001, he became Director of Cultural Tourism Marketing and Development for the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs.
Like his time at One Archive, Lee also dedicated his life to preserving his and others’ legacies. In 2016, he published his memoir The Princess of Castro Street, which he wrote in New York City, following in the footsteps of his beatnik hero, William S. Burroughs. While he later claimed that he was retired, he was never afraid to push his own beliefs and polarize because he realized that it was up to him to create the change he needed and wanted to see.