Scarlot Harlot



Carol Leigh called herself Scarlot Harlot. She was an artist and prostitute who planned to create a prostitutes union for sex workers rights. She was also two hundred and fifty lbs. decked out in spandex. We met up at a protest of a cocktail party at the Mayor’s home to raise money for the Pontiff’s visit to San Francisco. We were among a dozen protesters corralled behind police barricades. I held a sign reading “Way to go Diane” with a traffic arrow pointing down towards hellfire.

When Scarlot arrived, she slammed a boombox on the roof of an unmarked police car and pushed a button. Really loud music played and she walked right through the barricades to the big iron gates in front of the gothic house. The police didn’t stop her, as she looked wild-eyed and dangerous. With everyone riveted on the scale of her derriere, Scarlot suddenly whipped around. Holding a battery-operated microphone, she belted out “Pope, don’t preach,” parodying Madonna’s hit. When she got to the chorus where Madonna sings, “I’m keeping my baby,” Scarlot loudly sang, “I’m terminating my pregnancy.” Shock theater had a new star.

After she finished to thunderous applause, she approached me, wiping sweat away. Scarlot gleefully introduced herself, adding, “I’m a whore.” She knew who I was and asked, “Would you make me a dress?” I kissed her hand and said it would be an honor. In fact, I would do it for free. That’s when Sadie crushed her stiletto into my toe, as I always charged her at least a hundred.

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 Scarlot Harlot (continued from above)

“Fifty-one inches,” I said, reading from a yellow cloth tape measure. I was conducting a fitting for Scarlot and had just miraculously managed to fit the tape around her breasts. “I think you should get a corset, with big steel bones.”

She was way ahead of me, pulling a beige bustier, elastic and deeply-boned, from one of her many shopping bags. She also brought out a video camera. “I’m thinking maybe this new dress will inspire me to become a more complete artist.”

“It all takes money,” I said.

“What about you?,” she said. “You’re an artist; you should be rich.”

“You’re buying dinner.” I reminded her.

Scarlot pulled her long red hair up in a Gibson Girl style and I hooked up the metal fasteners of her bustier, squeezing her massive torso into an hourglass. She took a deep breath and I adjusted it higher until her tits looked like Mount Rushmore. “You’re making me the Queen of the Barbary Coast.”

From the top down, I worked my magic. From a big American flag, I cut out the blue field. The white stars would hit the crest of her nipples. This would be a bodice so patriotic, it could sell war bonds. But for the outfit to fit tightly, this required every single stitch to be done by hand. The skirt detached and a sheath of more stars opened all the way to the crotch, accented by the slightest train. Then there was the bustle, all bold red and white taffeta stripes, stuffed bows four feet wide in every direction, and streamers that could trail twelve feet. As icing, I trimmed it with gold fringe and tassels. The finished frock framed the rhinestones.

“This is so beautiful. I’m going to come.” Scarlet twirled in front of the full-length mirror and faked an orgasm. “You made a dress to last a lifetime.”

At that moment, I decided to make a copy for myself. It was ideal for Betsy Ross. And one for Sadie, too.

When Scarlot, Sadie and I debuted our stars-and-stripes gowns at the Haight Street Fair, it was like wearing fireworks. We were a whore and a couple of drag queens wearing the American flag. Some drunk redneck hippies threw beer cans at us, but everything just bounced off the padding. Even our elaborate white hairdos were like helmets. One of the more disgusting of these monsters ran up close to me. But when I gave him the evil eye, he literally fell over backward, stoned out of his mind. The police got us away from the mob. It was exciting, provoking that kind of reaction. Even on Castro Street, people were openly disgusted.

People called it desecration, but they didn’t know what that really meant legally. Cutting up and even burning the American flag were protected as free speech under the Constitution. We had every right as artists to express ourselves using this sacred symbol. There was a big fuss over the matter of genuine desecration in the Sixties; the Supreme Court ruled that if you said you were desecrating the flag, then you were desecrating the flag. Otherwise, you were free to go.

The hippies wore jeans made out of flags; Hustler publisher Larry Flynt wore it as a diaper in the Supreme Court; protesters burned it on the streets of foreign capitals and in front of government buildings right here at home. Wearing the actual flag was a statement about freedom; it announced you as a radical, a revolutionary. The Fourth of July was an occasion to dress up in the motif of the flag for everyday people. But these were toned-down facsimiles, reflecting the red, white, and blue color scheme — not the genuine flags, as we were sporting.

Scarlot Harlot had suggested shooting a movie – as a political statement — that featured her new stars and stripes dress. So, on Memorial Day, Sadie, Scarlot, a cameraman named Sean, and I climbed into her VW bus, carefully packing our dresses around us so I could shove the door closed. We drove to the National Cemetery on a bluff at the Presidio to get shots for our little movie. For the holiday, thousands of flags had been placed on each and every grave. But the wind coming off the Golden Gate had blown down most of them. So, we respectfully restored the flags, demonstrating our demented patriotism in a simple act, as Sean filmed.

Out of nowhere, military police in green army fatigues ran toward us, guns drawn, yelling, “Stop right there!” Scarlot raised up her fleshy arms, asking, “Wow, are we getting arrested?” She ordered Sean to keep filming.

Nobody had an ID, so we braced for the worst.

The MPs were very aggressive, barking orders. They patted us down, searching for weapons. Each time they touched Scarlot and Sadie, the two squealed provocatively just to unnerve the enlisted men with guns. I tried to explain that we were just making a movie and fixing the flags. The one in charge gave me a little shove back and grabbed my arm, saying, “You are desecrating the flag.” He was so angry, his spit spattered my face as he yelled.

Sadie went ballistic, “Do you know who we are?” she asked, as if she were Jackie O. These soldiers had never heard of the Sisters. “We have every right to be here, as average citizens; this is public property and we aren’t doing anything wrong.”

“You are insulting the dead,” he countered. “We don’t want homos here. This is federal property, not public. You are under arrest.” The obvious homophobia coming from our captors had me burning with anger. I tried to deliver a quick lecture on the legal definition of desecration, but they hauled us in.

The base commander was not going to interrupt his holiday with our nuisance. As the MP hung up the phone, he snarled at the others about the paperwork facing them. They took a Polaroid of each of us, filled out some forms, and, an hour later, let us go.

The whole adventure had been recorded by Sean on Scarlot’s new super VHS camera. Even though the picture tumbled around like a bad light show, the sound was very clear. We sat down later to watch it, drinking Cokes and eating ice cream. It was eventually included in an exhibit about flags at the Art Institute. Life didn’t imitate art; it was art.

Scarlot’s philosophy about the way we’d invented ourselves as these anti-superheroes was that it was necessary. Dressing up to blow people’s minds was better than being a movie star, because the streets were better than the screen for scaring the shit out of everyone. The real connection to the public happens with confrontation at the boundaries of fear. Art is like a gun that way. The shooting of sacred cows began in earnest.

I had a new identity: Betsy Ross, flag desecrator. I loved that; it summed up the extremes in my life. But it was a complete myth, as nobody loved the American flag as much as I did. Working on projects like the Democratic Convention let me pour my soul into creating the most beautiful displays of patriotism. But I was always the first to light a match — never to desecrate, but always to instigate.

The duality of my creativity confused people. Sadie wanted to be fabulous and for people to love her, but in the end she scared them sick with her sacrilegious superficiality. Scarlot was more successful in her art; putting the American flag on a hooker was pretty good. In 1991, she got national publicity by challenging prostitution laws when she went to Wall Street and solicited financiers at the Stock Exchange.

On the day of our adventure at the Presidio, I fell down my home stairs. I somehow landed on my feet instead of my face. My foot hurt, but I was a trouper all through the ensuing arrest. Later, it turned out that the five-inch steel shank of my pump had fractured my heel bone. High heels were my whole drag act. Without the red shoes, Dorothy was nothing. It would take a long time to heal. Meanwhile, I looked in the mirror and there was another chin. I looked more like Barbara Bush every day.

Almost forty, I thought maybe it was time to hang it up. There wasn’t going to be a movie career. And my art work was headed for the trash bin, not the museum. Fuck all of this, I finally decided. I’m just going to do the one thing that makes any sense: make more Rainbow Flags. Because when my hands made something, anything, light shined in my creative prayers. I would put my faith into my work and the future.




Today, the Rainbow Flag has become a worldwide symbol of LGBTQ+ diversity and inclusiveness, and its rainbow hues have illuminated landmarks from the White House to the Eiffel Tower to the Sydney Opera House. Gilbert Baker often called himself the “Gay Betsy Ross,” and readers of his colorful, irreverent and deeply personal memoir will find it difficult to disagree.