BRATTLEBORO — When Mark Ebenhoch heard the news of a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado, he knew what he had to do.
The retired Marine and part-time Brattleboro area resident began working the phones and social media from his winter home in Key West, Florida, connecting with his network of friends and associates who by and large are LGBTQ people - who Ebenhoch simply calls “the community.”
Within a day, Ebenhoch had made arrangements for Section 93 - a 25-foot segment of what began as a massive, 1.25-mile-long, 14-foot-wide rainbow flag - to head to Colorado Springs to be unfurled on the Colorado Springs City Hall and hang there, in the spirit of love, solidarity, and healing, for two weeks.
Section 93 arrived just in time to serve as the backdrop to a ceremony on Nov. 23 to publicly acknowledge, honor, and grieve the multiple victims of the shooting that took place just three days prior, including the memories of the five people who were killed.
Where LGBTQ people are celebrating on a massive scale, the flag is there, almost always hand-delivered by Ebenhoch.
And the same is true when the community suffers loss of life, loss of dignity, loss of safety and security - just as it did on Nov. 20.
“The flag is also supposed to be uplifting,” he said. “But as long as it's needed for a tragic event, it will be there.”
“We offer [Section] 93 as a consolation, to tell those people that are hurting that the larger community is with you, we see you, we feel you,” he said. “So therefore the flag is with me 24/7, and wherever I'm at the flag is at.”
“Because we don't know when something's gonna come up,” he said ruefully.
A symbol of a civil rights milestone
The flag got its start as a piece of the Rainbow25 Sea to Sea Flag, created in 2003 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the creation of the original eight-color rainbow flag.
Gilbert Baker originally designed the flag in 1978 and told the Miami Herald that it was inspired by Harvey Milk, San Francisco's openly gay city supervisor. The original flag flew in the city's Gay Freedom Day Parade that May. In November, Milk would be assassinated at City Hall.
Twenty-five years later, Baker created the mammoth flag, which was stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean - sea to sea - with the help of more than 2,000 volunteers.
The sprawling flag was dismantled into 250 pieces, which were distributed to community organizations. Key West got Section 93, and Ebenhoch became its keeper, first under the auspices of a nonprofit organization and now as his own personal mission, The Sacred Cloth Project.
Over the years, the flag has marked triumph and tragedy for the LGBTQ community, especially after it developed international recognition when it appeared in front of the Supreme Court in April of 2015. Justices were hearing oral arguments in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, and their ruling in June would eventually establish marriage equality as the law of the land.
Ebenhoch was there, along with a cadre of people who were closely associated with the marriage equality movement - including the couple from Key West whose case resulted in victory: the overturning of Florida's 2008 anti-gay-marriage ban. And they wanted to bring Section 93 to Washington, D.C.
So Ebenhoch did.
Early that April morning, pro-marriage-equality activists unfurled the flag in front of the Supreme Court, in front of a group of plaintiffs from marriage equality litigation from all over the nation who had bonded over the years and had come to bear witness. As photographers from news sources worldwide covered the historic oral arguments, the flag became an important thematic and visual backdrop in still images and videos from that day.
“Immediately, the attention it demanded and attracted was overwhelming to feel and see,” Ebenhoch said. “Everybody that was on the steps of the Supreme Court wanted to take photographs with themselves with it.”
As described in a short history of the flag on its Facebook page, “With those plaintiffs proudly clutching that flag, the Obergefell plaintiffs and lawyer teams jubilantly walked past with thumbs up and confidence in that symbol of equality and justice, the crowds went wild.”
Section 93 has appeared in Pride parades, the wedding of two of those who fought at the Supreme Court for that right, and other celebrations.
In 2015, it also appeared as a powerful symbol of solidarity in Rowan County, Kentucky, where a county clerk defied the law and refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The next year, the flag reappeared in Rowan County, this time in its first Pride parade. There, members of the community, moved to tears, started to call Section 93 “the Sacred Cloth,” from which Ebenhoch's project gets its current name.
Comfort in a time of grief
“This single piece of flag has been touched and seen by more people on this planet than any other single rainbow flag on earth,” Ebenhoch said.
When then-President Obama held his administration's last LGBTQ presidential reception in 2016, the flag was displayed at a Democratic Party event following the reception.
Ebenhoch left Washington, D.C. that day with Section 93 intending to deliver it to New Orleans, where it was scheduled to appear at a memorial for the 32 victims who died in an arson fire in the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans in 1973.
But while en route, Ebenhoch learned of that 49 people, most if not all LGBTQ, had died after a gunman attacked the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida.
Within a day, Section 93 was in Orlando at the request of the city's mayor. The flag flew over the Orange County Administration Building and was hoisted just in time for Obama's presidential visit to a city in grief in the wake of a national tragedy.
In Orlando, the flag “changed people's lives,” Ebenhoch said.
He described one politician there as a Republican who had “really kind of discounted the LGBTQ community, wanted nothing to do with them - you know, the whole nine yards, right?”
But Ebenhoch describes this politician as “a very close friend of mine now and has been ever since.”
“And she admitted that it changed her life to discover that the community was a wonderful group of people with huge hearts and they weren't what she was told or been been been groomed to think, because she had no idea that people she's known all of her life were part of that community until then,” he continued.
“She has changed completely,” Ebenhoch said. “She is a staunch ally now. And if that flag can do that, the interaction with that flag can change somebody's life forever.”
'I just put the call out'
After decades of hands-on activism at the highest levels, Ebenhoch has built a network of community members, friends, and allies - and when it comes to getting Section 93 somewhere it needs to go, he leverages those connections.
“In basically almost every large metropolitan area city, I have direct lines into the major players in in the community and the movers and shakers within the political spheres,” Ebenhoch said.
So, immediately after the shooting, “I just put the call out saying I need somebody on the ground right there in Colorado Springs right now, and it happened - we made it happen.”
The virtual bat signal even made it through the walls of the White House.
“I'm glad I only use those connections when I absolutely have to have them,” he said. “But it does allow for immediate response.”
Ebenhoch couldn't travel to Colorado Springs with the flag, so in a break of protocol, he shipped the precious cargo via FedEx to the city.
The next day, he exhaled when he received word that the package had arrived safely, along with its unboxing. Captured in a photo is a somber city employee as she gently and reverently takes the fabric from its box.
Ebenhoch didn't stop with the flag.
Even though he couldn't be on the ground in person, he continued connecting city officials with those who knew something about navigating the municipal waters after a violent catastrophe.
The people in Orlando.
“I'm watching the same event happen - exactly the same,” Ebenhoch said. “Just different people in a different city. And to me that was emotional for me because it's like, I don't want to do this again. I will, but I don't want to.”
Communication, confrontation, and understanding
The bring-it-on attitude is on brand for Ebenhoch, whose time in the military kept him deep in the closet in the era of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. He described himself as having grown up “as part of the community that was beat to a pulp by the church.”
He lived through the AIDS epidemic. His coming out undermined his career as an actor and a military consultant who appeared in Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and other films.
It's the price of doing what's right, he said.
“I just know I am who I am and that my life's experiences have molded what I do,” Ebenhoch said. “It it all just culminates in the fact that I'm a fighter, and I'm not gonna quit fighting.”
He sees the need for communication and confrontation in an era of political polarization and escalating hateful rhetoric from the political right targeting the LGBTQ community.
For him, the Club Q shooting came as no surprise.
“What has to happen is this straight, Republican, Christian population that sees this and doesn't agree with it needs to stand the hell up,” Ebenhoch said.
He describes reasonable Republicans as “the only ones that can stop this - by calling it out amongst themselves.”
“And that means even losing friends, family, community - because it's that important,” said Ebenhoch, who described how he walked away from a 35-year friendship with one of his Platoon castmates over his ex-friend's insistence that being gay is a choice.
“Thirty-five years down the tubes,” Ebenhoch said. “It's not a choice if you're straight. You don't know what it's like to be gay, because I don't know what it's like to be straight.”
'This is my kind of community'
Ebenhoch said that after taking an exit “off the freaking freeway,” he discovered Vermont and Brattleboro and saw Pride flags while he was en route to the gas station. And there he saw that day's Brattleboro Reformer with headlines about community outrage over hateful, racist graffiti.
“I went, 'Oh, this is my kind of community,'” he said.
He described with wonder how he can drive to his remote property and still see rainbow flags flying “in the middle of the woods” - and his amazement at being able to live in a rural environment that is also accepting, where being LGBTQ is “a non-issue.”
But as a winter resident of Florida, a state that is rapidly turning deep red, Ebenhoch worries about younger generations of his community, for whom acceptance of a fluid continuum of sexuality and gender is markedly easier.
“You know, we would go around saying, 'Well, it won't happen here in Colorado Springs.' Well, they were proven wrong. So when I hear people down here in Key West sit there and say, 'Oh, it can't happen in Key West' - um, yes, it can. So I hope I never hear anyone in Brattleboro - or [elsewhere in] Vermont, for that matter - say it won't happen here.”
Ebenhoch hopes that the flag will be retired as an artifact of a watershed time in U.S. civil rights history. “Hopefully, someday we can retire her and have her forever taken care of by the Smithsonian institution,” he said. “That would, I think, do this community wonderful.”
In the meantime, Section 93 is subject to wear and tear, including a foot-long tear that occurred in Colorado Springs from high winds.
City officials squirmed at telling Ebenhoch.
“I said, 'Relax, it's a battle scar - you're not the first ones [to damage the flag], and you won't be the last ones. We'll have it sewn up.”
Ebenhoch takes the battle scars in stride as a price of letting people be hands-on with Section 93. He also is not unaware of another potential price - a very real possibility that the flag could be vandalized.
But he is resolute in keeping Section 93 out and proud.
“You know, we'll put it right back up even with the damage,” he said. “You can waste your time trying to vandalize it because you're not gonna stop it - we'll hang it vandalized. I don't care.”
That comes from his Marine Corps background, he said.
“If I've got a mission to take care of? I've got an objective?” Ebenhoch said. “You may injure me, but I'm not stopping the fight.”
“I treat the flag the same way,” he said.