A Flagbearer For Gay Pride
Visalia man who elevated the artform of flagging plans performance at this weekend’s Visalia Pride to commemorate 50th anniversary of milestone in gay rights movement
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – This Saturday, May 25 the LGBT+ community will gather at the old lumberyard in downtown for the third annual Visalia Pride festival. Hosted by The Source LGBT+ Center, the festival will feature many forms of entertainment and creative expression, including a mural, a popular drag show, and, for the first time, an after party. It will also feature a style of dance known as flagging that was born out of the gay rights movement and elevated as an art form by a gay man who grew up in Visalia, long before the town was ready to support his community.
“I fought to be who I was in a very conservative area,” said George Jagatic, who will be directing a flagging performance at the third annual Visalia Pride festival this weekend.
Flags have played an important role in the gay rights movement and the art of flagging pays homage to the struggle for people like Jagatic. It normally involves two rectangular pieces of fabric held in each hand and then twirled as part of a dance. The artistic dance is influenced by Chinese fan dancing but widely considered to have started in the gay community. Jagatic says there are many theories on origins of flagging in the gay community, but his begins in the 1950s when gay men were forced to meet in cellars, side alleys, and secret clubs.
“Being gay was illegal, and gay men were forced to go to these speakeasy type places until the cops found out about them and came in and arrested everyone,” Jagatic said.
Most of these places did not have air conditioning and men would take off their shirts to cool off, and then use them to fan each other or themselves. Jagatic can relate to the secrecy. Jagatic’s family moved to the extremely conservative San Joaquin Valley when he was 1 year old. They settled in Visalia where Jagatic struggled with few options to find other gay teens in high school. Right after graduating from Redwood High School in 1985, Jagatic moved to Los Angeles where he studied dance at California State University, Long Beach.
“I was always into physicality and movement,” Jagatic said.
He first came across flagging after moving to New York City in 1997. It was a time of great joy for the gay community following nearly 20 years of immense sorrow. The AIDS-related deaths in the U.S. surpassed 40,000 before the combination therapy known as HAART (highly active antiretroviral therapy) was introduced in 1995.
“Prior to the drug they were having die-in demonstrations in the middle of the street because thousands of people were dying each year,” Jagatic said. “New York City and San Francisco, more than any other places, were at the epicenters of this loss.”
To celebrate the first effective treatment for the disease, Jagatic said Circuit Parties were held all over cities across the United States. It was at one of these parties that Jagatic was entranced by a man swirling brightly colored flags in each hand.
“I was captivated by the movement,” he said. “The dancer in me began to study the moves and my mind began to think of ways to change it, build on it, and perform it.”
FLAGGING FOR FUNDS
While others may be credited with pioneering flagging as a gay artform, Jagatic introduced it to a much wider audience. He took the loose idea of the fabrics used in flagging and created standardized sizes. He sewed small weights into the outer seems of half of the fabric to open up the fabric as it swept through the air, giving it the effect of a flag waving in the wind instead of bunched up fabric. In 1999, Jagatic founded a professional dance group called Axis Danz. He choreographed flagging routines doing a wide range of performances from high-end birthday parties to opening acts for Las Vegas shows and became an annual act performing onstage at the MTV Christmas Party.
Jagatic’s commercialization of the art caused tension with other flaggers in the gay community who saw it as more of a spiritual exercise or a political performance. Flagging groups called Tribes began waving across the country, one of the most notable being Flagging In the Park, an annual event held earlier this month at the AIDS Memorial Grove of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Jagatic respected the emotional exuberance these groups represented, but he never saw flagging as anything more than a new form of dance until a few years ago.
“For me it was all about physicality and movement through dance,” Jagatic said. “I never had that spiritual connection to it until I reached a new phase in my life.”
Jagatic’s success in dance had led him to a life of addiction. Like many performers, he turned to drugs to deal with stress of grueling performance schedule, the anxiety of performing before large audiences, and to maintain his energy level for extremely uptempo acts. During an after party where he was performing under the influence, he had a moment of clarity while twirling the flags and was instantly sober. Something about the movement helped him refocus and find a new passion for dance therapy.
“The movement was the therapy I needed but interestingly pursuing this took me away from flagging,” he said.
During his studies of creative arts therapy in grad school, Jagatic began delving into the therapeutic and spiritual aspects of dance, such as Turkey’s whirling dervishes, or dance movement therapy to treat Parkinson’s disease.
“You’ve heard of people talking about being in the flow, this type of optimal state of being during an activity,” Jagatic said. “When you hold onto a fluid motion or creative process it creates a state of mind that is healing and therapeutic.”
FLAGGING FOR 50TH
Jagatic moved back to Visalia last year to care for his disabled parents. He said living here at a slower pace than he is used to has given him time to look back on his life, of which flagging was a huge part. Since returning to his hometown, Jagatic said he become increasingly involved with The Source LGBT+ Center, a resource and referral center for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered persons.
“I want to support them and what they are doing here,” Jagatic said. “Coming out was so much more difficult in Visalia than it is now. It’s wonderful to see how people have embraced them.”
He also recently returned to flagging, not as a job but as a form of therapy and a an art form born out of the gay movement in New York City. Jagatic has developed a flagging performance including two flaggers, three drag queens, and a collection of volunteers to commemorate a milestone in the gay rights movement. In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, a group of gay rights demonstrators fought back against a police raid at the Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan. Not only was it a symbolic moment when the gay community didn’t back down to authority, it also galvanized the separate LGBT communities into a single movement. A march is planned this June to officially celebrate the 50th anniversary in New York.
“This is what I can bring to the table for this event and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising,” Jagatic said.
The third annual Visalia Pride will be held from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, May 25 at the old lumberyard, 300 East Oak Ave. in Visalia. Tickets are $5 per person and can be purchased online at PrideVisalia.org. Children under the age of 10 get in free. The After Pride party will be held at the Republik Ultra Lounge, 115 N. Locust St. in Visalia. The event is 21 and over only. Doors open at 4:30 pm and you can party all night for a $5 cover. For more information, contact The Source LGBT+ Center by visiting TheSourceLGBT.org.