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June 6, 2008

Fabulous at 30

The flag of modern Pride celebrations has seen three decades of change

“Flags are torn from the soul of the people,” said rainbow flag designer Gilbert Baker on the symbol’s 30th anniversary. “This one was born in a moment of celebration.”

When the rainbow flag debuted in San Francisco on June 25, 1978, Baker knew it was special, but had no idea it would become one of the most recognized symbols in the world.

That year was the city’s fifth annual Gay Freedom Day parade, which drew 240,000 - 375,000 participants, depending on whose estimates are to be believed. With the looming Briggs initiative--a ballot measure to ban gays and lesbians from working in California schools--and the election of the first openly gay city supervisor, Harvey Milk, eight months earlier, people came out.

“No other single political event of the decade drew such a crowd in San Francisco, if not the nation,” according to Milk biographer Randy Shilts. “It was the signal event of the gay emergence in San Francisco during the late 1970s.”

“Harvey Milk was a friend of mine,” Baker said, “a teacher.”

“Harvey wanted a logo for the event,” said Baker. “I wasn’t sure about a logo. A flag is a political symbol. It is an action.”

Baker first came to San Francisco eight years earlier under another flag, that of the Army. He left his hometown of Chanute, Kansas when he was drafted in 1970.

But he was afraid of guns and wouldn’t pull the trigger of an M16. Soon, he refused to even carry one.

Baker’s captain in boot camp threatened to send him to Vietnam and put him on the front lines.

“You can, but I’m not going to carry a gun,” Baker replied.

Finally, Baker agreed to be a medic. Another private shot for him at the range, to make it look like he qualified to pass basic training.

The Army shipped him to the Presidio, a base at the northern tip of San Francisco. There, Baker began to discover the gay nightlife. Wrestling with his sexuality, Baker attempted suicide.

“After the Army I fell in love,” said Baker, who decided to stay in San Francisco. “It was the first time I questioned the shame I grew up with in Kansas.”

“God was on my side,” Baker said. “Gay was good!”

“I met Harvey [Milk] around 1974 or 75,” Baker said. “Harvey was smart, a regular guy, kind of a goof, but he had a star quality which allowed him to communicate.”

“When Harvey spoke, you felt like your voice was going through him. He was a divine instrument, yet he was not aware of the kind of effect he had on people,” Baker said.

“Harvey changed all of us.”

Cotton and dye

From the time he was a child, Baker loved fashion. Today, at 57, he considers himself an artist. In the mid 1970s, he was sewing banners for Milk’s political rallies.

“It took me longer to embrace being an artist than being gay,” said Baker. “I wanted to be a doctor, but by the time I got through college, I hated medicine.”

“But I was good with my hands, so I turned into sewing. It’s how I plugged into the [gay] movement,” Baker said. “Sewing was activism.”

Baker chaired the decorating committee for the 1978 Gay Freedom Day event and was given a budget of $1,000.

“We blew it on fabric and dye,” Baker said.

“We filled a laundromat in the dead of night,” Baker remembered. “You know, ‘No dying.’ We rinsed the machines with bleach when we were done so no one would get pink underwear.”

“The original flags were made of real muslin cotton dyed in all-natural dyes,” Baker said. “The fabric was thin, so when the sun hit them, they looked like silk.”

Baker grows quiet recalling those first flags, which rotted from rain and have since been discarded.

“You gotta love the rainbow,” Baker said. “It was a natural flag. It’s found in nature. It was obvious. It expresses joy.”

The two original flags, hand-stitched by Baker and 30 volunteers measured 40 feet by 60 feet and had eight stripes. Each color represented a component of the gay and lesbian community: hot pink for sexuality, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sun, green for nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for spirit.

“It was sexy. It was beautiful. It was pretty,” Baker said.

The flag lost two stripes when Baker approached the Paramount Flag Company to manufacture flags for the 1979 parade. Hot pink material was not available for the mass-produced flags made of nylon, so that stripe was removed.

The parade committee didn’t like a flag with seven stripes. They wanted an even number so half the colors could line each side of the street. The turquoise was subsequently removed and the indigo changed to royal blue.

Today, Baker is re-introducing the original design alongside the common six-color version. In 2004 he created flags for all 50 states and U.S. territories using the eight-color motif as a gimmick to promote LGBT voter participation.

The state flags are not generally mass produced.

Design was never copyrighted

Baker bristles at any suggestion that it’s his flag.

“It’s our flag,” he says, thrilled that it has been interpreted so many ways, including designs for Leather Pride and Bear Pride. The Victory over AIDS flag is a rainbow with a black stripe attached to the violet stripe in memory of those lost to AIDS. When a cure is found, the black stripes are to be removed.

“Go for it. Whatever you want,” is Baker’s answer to anyone looking to interpret the design.

He has fought to keep the design in the public domain even though it has meant he has never collected any royalties for it.

To ensure that no one else could ever copyright the design, Baker applied for a copyright himself in 2002 so the patent office would have to issue a letter declaring the design public domain.

“I never made money,” Baker said. “I always had to struggle to pay the rent.”

Baker’s second most notable flag design graced the 1984 Democratic National Convention.

“I did it for respect,” said Baker. “That way I wasn’t just the gay flag guy, and it gave me the ability to be taken seriously and take the rainbow farther. The rainbow flag is my life.”

Flag assumes a new meaning

“The flag was born in a moment of celebration, but its meaning began to evolve,” Baker said.

The first time it evolved was five months after its debut, when Milk was assassinated in City Hall with San Francisco mayor George Moscone, by former supervisor Dan White.

Milk had thought White was a closet case and dangerous. When White resigned, then weeks later asked to be reinstated, Milk opposed it.

White, a former police officer, was backed by conservative business interests. His vote made a majority against Milk and Moscone’s progressive city vision. Without White on the board, Milk had the votes to pass his rent control ordinance, angering the realtors White courted.

White disliked Milk and disliked gays. Their animosity toward each other grew.

Milk worked on Moscone, telling him that he would lose the gay vote if he re-appointed White, and White knew what Milk was doing.

A few days before White killed Milk, Charles Morris, the publisher of a small gay newspaper, ran into White at a political fundraiser.

“There are some in the gay community who think you might be anti-gay,” Morris commented to White.

“Let me tell you right now,” White replied, “I’ve got a real surprise for the gay community--a real surprise.” He turned and walked quickly away.

On the morning of November 27, 1978, White entered City Hall through a men’s room window to avoid metal detectors. He shot Mayor Moscone to death, then loaded his revolver with special bullets for Milk, hollow-tipped rounds that expand on impact. He entered Milk’s office and shot him four times, the final shot to the head.

“After that, the flag took on a defiant tone,” Baker said. “We were not going back.”

“I remember where I was when I heard the news,” he added. “I was shopping in Haight-Ashbury for fabric and I heard it on the radio.”

“I ran back to City Hall where a huge crowd was gathering. It was insane. It was wrenching. We saw the bodies get carried out and we couldn’t believe it. It was wrenching.”

Baker said after a while the crowd left City Hall and went to homes and other meeting places to plan the demonstrations that night and the following days, where the rainbow flag would also be present.

“Other gay people were getting murdered, too,” Baker said. “And Milk’s murder was a reminder that the violence around us was real and ever-present.”

“A few years later, when half my friends died of AIDS, I was more prepared to deal with it,” Baker said. “We were aware of death and now about to fight it.”

That’s when the flag evolved again, according to Baker.

“AIDS was 24/7/365. Gay Pride was one day a year,” Baker said.

“There’s a grey area between AIDS and gay,” Baker said. “That’s why I liked the ACT UP ‘Silence = Death’ triangle as a symbol, too.”

“The rainbow expresses light, the triangle is dark,” said Baker.

Banner is now Baker’s life

The rainbow flag has become Baker’s life focus. His time is now spent promoting it, and finding new ways to make statements with it.

In 1994, Baker created a mile-long rainbow flag for the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City. He sewed the entire banner himself.

Recently, he has taken up sailing, and has designed floating rainbow installments along New York’s Hudson River.

He also travels.

“The flag has allowed me to experience Gay Pride in other countries,” Baker said.

“We have old people running the movement here,” he said. “It’s not like that in Europe. It’s very different there.”

“It’s not important that young LGBT people know who we were,” Baker said. “They have Google for whatever they need to know. It’s important that they know who they are, and they do. That’s how we move forward.”

Baker has also organized a program with Absolute vodka of rainbow specialty items, including a decorative case that fits around their bottles, to raise money for InterPride, the International Association of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Pride Coordinators. The money will also be used for scholarships.

The website for that project goes up June 11.

Baker gives credit for the rainbow flag’s success to all who display it and all who photograph it.

“Gay photographers helped propel the image around the world,” Baker said. “Pride is an image. It’s not just an event.


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