3 min

Rainbows removed, now flying proudly around Orcas Island, WA

Brown Bear Baking received uncertain welcome in Strait of Juan de Fuca

Brown Bear Baking on Orcas Island, off the northwestern coast of the US. Credit:

It was not until days after David Ellertsen and Lee Horswill’s car crashed into the ocean that the trouble really began.

The accident happened on June 30. It was Horswill’s birthday and blazingly hot. In Seattle, 112 kilometres away, 120,000 people crowded the streets for Pride Fest. But on Orcas Island, in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Ellertsen and Horswill were busy renovating their new bakery. On the courtyard flagpole, they flew a rainbow flag below the stars and stripes.

Brown Bear Baking was going to be their new life, far away from Las Vegas, where Ellertsen had built a career as an architect and Horswill as a casino executive. “I think I’m home,” Ellertsen had said, as they first looked out from the little Episcopal Church overlooking the water of East Sound. And so they had rushed back to Nevada to draw up an offer for the little bakery by the ocean.

That evening in June, they were driving home to Deer Harbour from the bakery when the car sped off the road and plunged into the water. Ellertsen, who had been driving, kicked out the window. When he surfaced, he realized Horswill was still in the car.  

Ellertsen dove down again and pulled his partner from the car. On the beach, he pumped the salt water from Horswill’s lungs, breaking two of Horswill’s ribs.

In the intensive care unit at St Joseph’s Hospital in Bellingham, they first heard someone had taken issue with their flagpole.

The news that trickled into their hospital room in Bellingham was that one of the workmen renovating the exterior of the bakery had asked for the key to the flagpole. The key to the flagpole? Why? Because, the workman had answered, some people on the island don’t like this sort of thing.

When Horswill and Ellertsen returned to the island, no one said a word to their faces. They decided they would fly the flag 365 days a year.

It was just after Brown Bear Baking opened that the next message arrived. It was mid-July, and the new bakery was humming with new business. The big woodwork table stood in the front room, so Horswill and Ellertsen could talk to neighbours who came in to grab a slice of quiche or a dozen scones for their houseguests. Everyone seemed so friendly.

“It’s like Stepford wives,” Ellertsen laughs. “They’re almost too nice.”

The next message was passed anonymously through their landlord; they never learned who sent it: “We’re okay with you being gay, just don’t throw it in our faces.” Someone else wanted the rainbow flag to come down.

“We made a business decision to take it down the next day,” Ellertsen says. “We’re new to the island. We wanted to be good neighbours; we didn’t want to ruffle any feathers.”

The response to the missing flag started slowly but picked up speed. First there was the odd question. Where had the flag gone? Why didn’t they put it back up? Who on Orcas would want to get rid of a rainbow flag?

When word got out to two local businessmen, artisan potters Michael Rivkin and Jeffri Coleman, they wrote a blistering letter to the local paper, The Islands' Sounder.

“If these folks felt so uncomfortable in asking for its removal as to not ask the bakery boys personally, or to reveal their identity, then surely they knew they were doing something of questionable motivation and little value,” they wrote. “If you are too insincere or too cowardly to acknowledge your position, then you lose all credibility entirely.”

The Sounder’s editor, Colleen Armstrong, says she had never seen such a reaction to a story before. Hundreds of letters poured in, and the outrage spilled over onto The Sounder’s online message boards — and into Ellertsen and Horswill’s daily conversations with local business owners on their way to work every morning.

What if, Ellertsen and Horswill began to suggest to their neighbours, we did something to show the community how people from Orcas really feel about diversity?

By Labour Day, rainbow flags were popping up on storefronts around Orcas, in front of the café and the grocery store, the real estate agent, and even just hanging from the crosswalk signs. Ellertsen and Horswill bought 18 flags, but in the end there were about 30 flying around town.

The rainbow flag flies every day now at Brown Bear Baking. Horswill likes to say it’s not just for one pair of gay bakers, but for all the diversity of the islands, and to remind everyone how a community came together. That’s just the sort of place Orcas is.