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The Story Behind the Rainbow Flag

Photo by Ink Drop
The Story Behind the Rainbow Flag
Published June 6, 2018 by Laura Feinstein

From Provincetown to San Francisco, and throughout much of the world, the rainbow flag has come to symbolize the power and inclusiveness of queer culture. Less than a half-a-century old, it was created with love and purpose by one man, Gilbert Baker, who through art and design helped to spearhead a movement of enduring pride and acceptance. Baker, a thriving artist and activist until his death last year from cardiovascular disease, is credited with helping to “define the modern LGBT movement” by former California state senator Scott Weiner. Today, the Museum of Modern Art considers his creation to be as recognizable and culturally significant as the ubiquitous recycling symbol. But who was the man behind the flag?

Baker was drawn to art and fashion from an early age. Born in Chanute, Kansas in 1951, he joined the U.S. Army to escape the stifling limitations of his small, conservative town, and was sent, serendipitously, to San Francisco just at the height of the gay rights movement. Here, he quickly threw himself into local culture and activist causes, working on the first-ever marijuana legalization initiative, California Proposition 19, and turning to sewing and graphics as a unique way to resist and protest. During this period, he created banners for gay-rights and anti-war protests, becoming a close friend of San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk.

Spurred on by his community, Baker began to search for a symbol that could be used in the gay rights movement. The existing emblem, the pink triangle emblazoned on prison uniforms in Nazi Germany, was seen as too dark. “Artie Bresson, the filmmaker who created GAY USA, pushed Gilbert to come up with a symbol. He came upon the idea of a flag,” said Charley Beal, a longtime friend of Baker who currently oversees his estate. Beal explains that the 1976 bicentennial’s use of the American Flag was an important inspiration. “Soon after, Gilbert was dancing at the Cow Palace with Cleve Jones and, amidst the swirl of colored lights, he was overwhelmed with the diversity of people out dancing and came up with the idea of the rainbow flag. I believe there was LSD involved.”

“He had a very deep understanding of history and politics, and had quite an intellect to go along with the drama and glitter.”

In an attic of a San Francisco gay community center, Baker began to work with a band of volunteers and friends to dye and sew the first rainbow flags, the originals including eight colors representing different aspects of the community: sex, life, healing, sunlight, nature, magic/art, serenity, and spirit. Later, Baker removed pink (sex) and turquoise (magic/art)  because those fabrics were harder to come by, leaving behind panels of red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple to act as a universal beacon of pride for the LGBTQ community.

“Cleve Jones helped get the money from the parade committee for the flags,” continued Beal. “Fairy Argyle was the ‘queen of tie-dye’ who instructed him on proper dying techniques.” Others helped with the endless ironing. On June 25th, 1978 Baker and his community hoisted their banners in United Nations Plaza to fete that year’s San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade.

“We needed something beautiful, something from us,” Baker later said. “The rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in terms of race, gender, ages, all of those things. Plus, it’s a natural flag—it’s from the sky!”

“He was very delighted and excited that he had achieved his vision,” explained Cleve Jones, one of Baker’s closest friends and the mastermind behind AIDS Memorial Quilt project. “Rainbows have been used as long as people have been creating art. But it was Gilbert, and Gilbert alone, who imagined the rainbow flag as the symbol of the people now called the LGBTQ. It was his sole mission on this planet to spread that sort of symbol around the world.”

Over the decades, nothing brought Baker greater joy than seeing photographs of his flags in “unexpected” cities, from Moscow to Beijing and Havana. Gilbert, as friends described him, could be “quite difficult, quite challenging, often opinionated and quite imperious,” but with a gentle, caring side. “He was one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever known,” Jones told us. “He had a very deep understanding of history and politics, and had quite an intellect to go along with the drama and glitter.”

After the success of the rainbow flag, Baker began working for the Paramount Flag Company, his work catching the eye of then-mayor Dianne Feinstein, who later commissioned him to design flags, banners, and materials for her inaugural ceremony. Afterwards, Gilbert went on to create flags for the presidents of France, Venezuela, and the Philippines, the King of Spain, and numerous Gay Pride events across the country. But one of his proudest moments was when he designed flags for the 1984 Democratic National Convention.

In 1994, Baker moved to New York City where he crafted what, at the time, was the world’s largest flag, a mile in length, which was later carried by 5,000 people in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. In 2003, to celebrate the Rainbow Flag’s 25th anniversary, Baker outdid his own record, crafting a gigantic flag for Key West Pride that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean, and was later cut into sections and distributed across more than 100 cities around the world.

“I think Gilbert’s lasting importance is that he created a symbol of hope and inclusion for an oppressed minority at a time when their efforts at liberation were new,” said Beal. “He then worked tirelessly for almost 40 years to ensure that this symbol would be recognized and understood worldwide.”

"At that time, and in that location, it was an act of courage to display this symbol.”

“The rainbow flag has become such a potent and immediate symbol of pride and solidarity with the LGBTQ community,” says Tim O’Brien, Assistant Director of Exhibitions at the SFO Museum
, which currently has up an exhibit of Baker’s work. “Many of us here in the San Francisco Bay Area take it for granted, as if the symbol has always been with us and has always been easily displayed. When I was growing up in a smaller town outside the immediate Bay Area, the flag made a tremendous impact. Just seeing it flying in front of a home or as a car’s bumper sticker immediately indicated that this person was a member of a tribe of sorts. At that time, and in that location, it was an act of courage to display this symbol.”

Baker’s flag has also left an impression on younger members of the LGBTQ community. Jordan Eagles, 41, is an artist whose work highlights the plight of gay men who pursue blood donation. In the United States, gay men must remain celibate for a full year before being eligible to donate, which most members of the community see as discrimination, given advanced screening processes. Like Baker, Eagles uses art and design to combat oppression and celebrate queer culture. “I don't remember the first time I saw a pride flag. I feel like it has been in my consciousness forever. I haven't always found it to be visually appealing, yet I have always understood that it stands for something good, and that is the most important. Gilbert Baker's flag is iconic and a symbol of gay pride and probably will be forever.”

Mike Devlin, manager of the Blood Equality, a pro bono campaign by FCB Health, is a fellow artist who’s been working with Eagles to fight the blood ban, both legally and ideologically. “Our message is, if we’re serious about LGBTQ rights, it’s time to get serious about Blood Equality. And selectively choosing some rights to support, while ignoring others, does not equate to actual support.” So far, Devlin and Eagles’ work has garnered praise and press and, more importantly, brought the government to the table to discuss and advance policy. “We’re in the midst of hopefully executing research and studies that will spark the conservative (i.e. slow) decision makers to action, providing the evidence they say they need to lift the ban.”

While Devlin is pleased with the campaign’s successes, he realized that he needed an easily recognizable signifier to serve as an icon for this struggle. Inspired by Baker, he has helped to conceptualize and create BLOOD FLAGS, a series of all-red banners to be unfurled at this year’s Blood Donor Day. “The pride flag was the centerpiece of our team’s inspiration: the colors meant to symbolize and unify, yet the colors of the national flags in which LGBTQ men remain stigmatized sits in sharp contrast to the strength of the pride flag below. All in the context of the one color – red – the color of all of our blood. We are the same, one in our blood, yet our blood is not seen as equal.”

Today, a full range of identity-driven flags exist, from those celebrating the leather community to asexuality, to a modification of the rainbow flag itself with additional black and brown stripes added to protest discrimination against people of color in Philadelphia gay bars.

Ultimately, Baker was a street activist who saw the use of protest banners and flags as a political tool. “Gilbert worked his entire adult life to make this happen,” says O’Brien. “I’m sure if he were here today, he’d take understandable pride in this achievement. But I’m guessing he’d read the news about someone somewhere being harassed, abused, evicted, etc. for displaying the rainbow flag, and he’d remind us all that the work remains unfinished.”

More about Laura Feinstein

Laura Feinstein is a writer and editor, covering the intersection of art, technology, and global culture.

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