Hidden History: How MBU Helped Invent an International Gay Pride Flag

Mary Baldwin alumnus Craig Byrnes used his time at MBU to work with the Gay Bear community, and he gave back with a flag.

There exists a common misconception that men did not study at Mary Baldwin University (then college) before the institution went co-ed in 2017. In fact, men have been earning credits and degrees at Mary Baldwin since the 1970s, when the Adult Degree Program (ADP) started providing an opportunity for higher education to the broader community.

Craig Byrnes is proof that men did not only study at Mary Baldwin – they did groundbreaking, necessary, and meaningful work as an extension of their ambition in the classroom.

Byrnes came to Mary Baldwin from Virginia Beach in 1989. While studying psychology through ADP, he worked at the Staunton McDonald’s.

For his degree, Byrnes knew he wanted to research the Bear Community – a growing subculture in the broader gay community and a group that Byrnes identified as a part of.

Defining a Bear can be a tricky task, since everyone in the community is welcome to identify themselves as they please. The community formed sometime in the 1970s or 1980s after men who called themselves Bears found themselves unwelcome or turned away from conventional gay bars. Generally, Bears are sometimes burly, often hirsute, and always gay.

This research manifested in a few ways, including conducting a survey, researching a history of the community, and designing a flag.

What did the survey look like?

Byrnes shared his survey on some early internet forums popular in the Bear community, and asked questions about “bearhood” and the identification of oneself as a bear. In the end, the results were fascinating: “No one could tell me what it meant to be a bear. Throughout my career, people have asked me ‘am I a bear?’ and I always said the same thing – ‘that’s a question you ask in the mirror.’”

Here are a select few questions from Byrnes original survey: 

“In 50 words or less, please comment on your understanding and support of multi-level bear relationships. Husbears. Bear and Cub. Bear on the side?”

“In 50 words or less, comment on the sorts of bear activities you’re aware of?”

“How has HIV affected your life personally?

“Do you own leather?”

“Do you need to have a beard to be a bear?”

In 1993, Byrnes became a member of the Chesapeake Bears and subsequently participated in a number of Bear pageants, winning the ‘93 Mr. Baltimore Bear Cub Contest: “I bought a bunch of 50-cent teddy bears from someplace in Staunton and tossed them all around during the show – it brought the house down.”

After the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation in April 1993, Byrnes lost his job for being gay. Losing his income meant losing his housing, an apartment on West Beverley Street and losing his chance to finish out his psychology degree.

Byrnes was not demoralized, though, he had a community across the country that would support him, and he had a flag.

“I always knew I wanted to end the project by making a flag, so that’s what I did. I took a piece of paper and a little box of crayons and drew and colored the design in my head,” Byrnes recalled.

This is the surviving record of Craig Byrnes’ original, crayon drawing of the flag.

After Staunton, Byrnes started to travel the country and explore the bear community in all its forms. At the International Bear Rendezvous of 1996, he met a man named Lurch, the founding president of the San Francisco Bears. 

Lurch received one of Byrnes’ four original prototype Bear flags as a token of appreciation, but also clued him into an ongoing debate. Unbeknownst to Byrnes, there already were Bear Pride flags – two, in fact, vying for the right to call themselves “The Bear Pride Flag.” Byrnes had no interest in competing, so he took a different route.

He copyrighted his flag, not as the Bear Pride flag, but as the International Bear Brotherhood Flag. “I’ll never forget the copyright number – Visual Art Copyright 763-760. I’ve never enforced it, just held on to make sure it wasn’t abused.”

Byrnes went on to win more titles in the Bear Community, including Mr. D.C. Bear in 1998 and, finally, International Mr. Bear in 1999.

But how did his flag come to such prominence? “During bear pride in 1997, the people at the Gay-Lesbian Store in Chicago asked me for 25 bear flags,” Byrnes explained. This exhibition of his flag made the International Bear Brotherhood Flag the de facto Bear Pride flag. Since the late 1990s, Byrnes’ flag has been proudly displayed by the Bear Community at pride events and community events around the world. 

So the “bear flag” became a historical thing, and it got its start at Mary Baldwin.

Craig Byrnes

Since his stint in contests and pageants in the 1990s, Byrnes has kept a lower profile. He started a house-cleaning business while living in Washington D.C. and is now semi-retired. He never got a chance to complete his psychology degree. 

“What’s important is I really helped people in a time where we all needed it. Not just with bringing the community a little closer together with my flag, but I raised money for AIDS charities, I met a lot of interesting people and lifelong friends, and I’m proud of what I did.”

Mary Baldwin University is proud of stories like Craig Byrnes’ and excited to host such a diverse student body on our beautiful campus. For more information about the LGBTQ+ community on campus and in the area, visit our student experience page.

If you have a piece of Mary Baldwin “Hidden History” that you’d like to share, or any news or memories of Mary Baldwin, reach out to communicate@marybaldwin.edu.