Everyone’s aware of the beautiful symbol of pride: the rainbow flag, but are they aware of the man behind the beautifully fitting symbol?
Gilbert Baker was born in Kansas and an avid lover of art since childhood. His parents discouraged him from pursuing the hobby, and despite winning awards and scholarships in school for his art, he ultimately wasn’t happy with his life in Kansas.
He was drafted into the army on his 19th birthday in 1970, and quickly got a taste of what the military had to offer. Back then, it was illegal to serve in the military if you were gay, and not being able to serve was highly frowned upon. During the initial intake interview, he was promptly questioned about his sexuality. The sergeant claimed he sounded like a homosexual, but Baker lied and said he wasn’t one. He was battered with homophobic slurs, but didn’t crack under the pressure, leading the sergeant to eventually sign off on his forms that approved him to enlist. During basic training, the homophobia worsened, including one of his drill sergeants putting a watermelon in front of a target that Baker missed, shooting it until it exploded and saying that’s what happens to gay people in the military, “they die.” He had enough of the harassment and one morning refused to hold a weapon, demanding to be discharged. After convincing from the staff sergeant, he was sent to medic training instead, which he did academically excelled in.
In 1970, he moved into military barracks at the Presidio. His weekdays were spent collecting blood and urine for testing from returning Vietnam soldiers. His free time was spent with a friend he made who had also worked in the same medic facility and lived in the same barracks, named Jim. They quickly hit it off and often enjoyed going on long walks across the Golden Gate Bridge or hiking together to admire the views. They adventured together, exploring forests and beaches in different areas. They soon fell in love, but Jim was too scared of getting caught. They were sent to different hospitals after completing their nursing programs, Jim being sent to Okinawa and Baker stayed in San Francisco. He later heard from a friend that Jim had moved back to Tennessee and gotten married, and he was devastated. However, this experience helped him shut the closet with a finality that he’d never felt before. That same year, he came out to his parents, and they disowned him.
After his honorable discharge in February 1972, he decided to stay in San Francisco and immerse himself in the growing gay community. He volunteered at the San Francisco Gay Community Center and joined the Gay Liberation Movement. During this time, he bought himself a sewing machine and taught him how to sew. He quickly became accustomed with the graphics committee at the community center, using his artistic skills to curate banners and signs for protests and marches. He met Harvey Milk, an openly gay politician, in 1975 while he was running for office, learning that Milk had also served in the military, but was dishonorably discharged because of his sexuality. Milk became the first openly gay person elected to office in 1977, a massive move forward for the community. Baker had quickly become known as the banner man, and after Milks election, urged him to create a “symbol of pride and hope to unite the community.” (ref 2.)
Before the rainbow flag that we recognize today, the queer community didn’t have an official symbol. At the time, some members tried to reclaim the pink triangle that was worn by homosexuals in Nazi Germany, while others, including Baker, weren’t too keen on that. He wanted something that the community could look at and see love, beauty, and diversity, not a former symbol of oppression. Because of the rich history of queer people in history utilizing bright and bold colors in fashion and in the way they presented themselves, he decided on the rainbow. “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!” (ref 2.)
Colored fabrics weren’t as readily available nor affordable in 1978 as they are in modern day, so he had to formulate the colors himself. He gathered around thirty friends and purchased over a thousand yards of fabric and dye, the thousand dollars it took having been donated by the Gay Freedom Day Parade Committee, and got to work. The group of men gathered in the attic of the gay community center and mixed all the colors themselves, utilizing trash cans filled with water, salt, and the dyes, to create what we now know as the rainbow flag. He created two versions: the eight striped rainbow flag, and a version of the American flag, but replaced the red and white stripes with the rainbow.
The bright, colorful, and cheerful nature of the flag wasn’t all that he intended to convey with the design. He also attributed a specific meaning to each color on the flag: hot pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for spirit.
On June 25th, 1978, the flag made its debut at the Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco. With the help of his friends, they flew the first pride flag with a newfound sense of joy and meaning as the queer community finally had a symbol to call their own.
When Harvey Milk was assassinated on November 27th, 1978, the community felt lost. Thousands grieved his loss at City Hall, and things only went downhill from there. Hate crimes against queer individuals increased, including Baker himself getting attacked. When he reported it to the police, they laughed at him. There was clearly still a long way to go for LGBTQ+ rights, but Baker wasn’t backing down anytime soon. He knew that the 1979 Gay Freedom Day Parade had to be bigger and better than the last, so he commissioned a local flag company ( Paramount Flags ) to help him make four hundred rainbow flags. The streets were lined with them during the parade, and its popularity didn’t end there. The flag company was selling out rapidly of the design, people displaying them in their homes and decorating The Castro with them. He was unable to patent the design due to all flag designs being public domain, but it didn’t bother him. He was just happy to have made a symbol that LGBTQ+ individuals could use as a tangible symbol of pride.
His activism didn’t stop there, though. He continued to utilize his art and drag for political activism. His career was thriving; holding a stable job at Paramount Flags doing window displays and curating flags for various political events, such as diplomatic visits, and being an active member of drag groups that were calling attention to discrimination and homophobia. Unfortunately, this was the time of the AIDS epidemic flourishing. He lost many friends to the virus and despite trying to distract himself with work and activism, the grief and weight of it all became too much.
He made himself known again for the first time in years in 1994 for the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. He reconnected with old friend and collaborator, Cleve Jones, to scheme up something massive. The duo created the longest pride flag in history, spanning an entire mile long. They spent a year planning it, between permits, fighting in the community, and corporate partnerships. The community’s goal was to march down 5th Avenue in New York, a prominent and busy street. However, the city pushed them to 1st Avenue, a much more subdued and quieter location in attempt to once again silence the voices of the queer community. The pride parade took place on 1st Avenue, but when finished, Baker and some friends cut up ten long pieces of the flag and brought them to 5th Avenue where a counter pride march was being held out of rebellion. ACT UP ( AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power ) was hosting the counter march, and Baker had joined the group while living in New York. The act of civil disobedience made national news and brought the rainbow flag into the mainstream. It was a true celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.
He spent the remainder of his life working in activism, continuing to push gender norms and boundaries. He was personally invited to the White House and dyed a small, personal rainbow flag for Obama in 2016. On March 31st, 2017, he passed away at sixty five years old.
Gilbert Baker led a life full of tragedy and misfortune, but also beauty and pride. His precious gift to the community will never be forgotten, and his bravery and dedication of fighting for LGBTQ+ rights was more than admirable.
May he rest in nothing less than rainbow paradise for all eternity.