Gilbert Baker: The Gay Betsy Ross
Day 6 of the Pride 30 Project for Pride Month, 2018.
Gilbert Baker, creator of the rainbow flag, was born on June 2nd, 1951 in Chanute, Kansas. His grandmother owned a women’s clothing store and as a self-proclaimed “geeky kid,” he grew up fascinated with colors and fabrics and wanted to learn to sew. But in conservative 1950s Kansas, no one was particularly keen on equipping a boy with domestic skills. He was a confident child, but was artistic and sensitive, admonished for his feminine tendencies. Realizing he was gay, he inwardly felt like an outcast, suffering bouts of depression and thoughts of suicide. Coming out in 1970, at the age of nineteen, was the hardest thing he ever did. His parents didn’t speak to him for ten years, but he used that time to become the artist he knew himself to be.
In 1970, the tornado of the Vietnam War plucked Gilbert from Kansas and deposited him somewhere over the rainbow in the magical land of Oz, otherwise known as San Francisco. He was drafted into the Army just as the Gay Rights Movement was flowering. He worked as a medic, treating soldiers who had been injured in Vietnam. When Gilbert was honorably discharged in 1972, he remained in San Francisco and integrated himself into the gay scene. The first thing he did was buy himself a sewing machine and teach himself to sew. He wanted to look fabulous like his glam-rock icons Mick Jagger and David Bowie, decked out in brightly-colored taffeta jumpsuits. He ran with an artistic crowd, and his talents grew as he made his own drag costumes and emulated high-fashion clothing from the pages of Vogue magazine. But there were bigger things in store for Gilbert than becoming a fashion designer. He was in the wrong town for fashion, but the right one for gay liberation.
Gilbert began using his talents to create pro-gay and anti-war protest banners, and community leaders sought him out because he was the guy who could sew. His passion was finally seen as an asset, not as something that marked him as an oddball, as it did during his youth in Kansas and later in the military. It was 1977 and Anita Bryant, a former beauty queen turned Florida Orange Juice spokeswoman, was using her celebrity and influence to launch an anti-gay crusade called “Save Our Children.” While in her television commercials she proclaimed that: “A day without orange juice is a day without sunshine,” at her anti-gay rallies she portrayed gays, gay men in particular, as child molesters, claiming that “gays can’t reproduce, so they must recruit.” Bryant’s campaign had been successful in repealing legislation that protected gays and lesbians from discrimination in Dade County, Florida, and she was building momentum, her sights set on the rest of the nation. Harvey Milk, who had come to San Francisco in 1972 amid a migration of gay men to the Castro, was successfully elected to the city Board of Supervisors, becoming the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States.
At the urging of Milk, who knew Gilbert because of his reputation as the “banner guy,” gay leaders asked him to create a symbol of pride and hope to unite the community. Just as a rainbow appears when light hits water droplets in the perfect way to produce a spectrum of color, Gilbert was in the right place at the right time to make a difference. He decided to create a flag, because flags represent sovereignty and power. A flag would proclaim that gays were a people, a family, a tribe. And flags meant visibility.
While some gay organizations attempted to reclaim the pink triangle, a symbol used to mark gay men in concentration camps in Nazi Germany, Gilbert felt the community needed a symbol to represent its beauty, diversity, and love — its soul — not a former mark of oppression. He wanted something cheerful and celebratory. Gays had long used bright colors as proclamations of sexuality, such as the green carnation worn by Oscar Wilde in his buttonhole to covertly flaunt his love of men. “We need something beautiful, something from us,” he told his friends.
“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!”
In 1978, colored fabrics were not commercially available, so Gilbert and about thirty of his friends took over a thousand yards of cotton and bottles of dye, purchased with the thousand dollars donated by the Gay Freedom Day Committee, and assembled in the attic of the gay community center on 330 Grove Street in San Francisco. He wanted the flag to have a birthplace connected to the community. The group used trash cans filled with water, salt, and hot pink, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, indigo, and violet dyes to create what would become the stripes of the flag. Fairy Argyle, a hippie girl known as “the queen of tie-dye,” helped Gilbert dye stars on squares of indigo cotton in an approximation of the American flag.
Covered head to toe in color, Gilbert and his friend Cleve Jones, a Harvey Milk protégée who was soon to become an activist in his own right, dragged the fabric onto the roof to dry before taking it to a local laundromat to rinse out the dye. Fabric dyes were prohibited in public washing machines, but they had no choice. Fearing they would turn someone’s underwear pink, they poured Clorox bleach into the machines and then split. Gilbert sewed two flags that day: an eight-stripe rainbow flag and a version of the American flag with fifty stars and rainbow, instead of red and white, stripes. He also attributed a special quality to each of the flag’s eights colors: hot pink for sex; red for life; orange for healing; yellow for sunlight; green for nature; turquoise for art; indigo for serenity; and violet for spirit.
The flags made their debut in San Francisco’s U.N. Plaza as part of the Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25th of 1978. A perfect amount of wind was blowing as Gilbert tugged the rope to hoist the rainbows into their rightful place in the sky. “It was just stunning,” Cleve Jones would later reminisce. And as the parade arrived in the plaza, each marcher looked up and smiled. At that moment, the rainbow became not only the symbol of the gay community, but a piece of the global struggle for human rights. Though taken from the sky, the flag was not an entirely spontaneous symbol. Rather, it was birthed from “the soul of the people”: the ethos of 1970s San Francisco melded with Gilbert’s artistic vision.
Following the assassinations of Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone at the hands of Dan White, a disgruntled member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the Gay Freedom Day Committee decided the rainbow flag should be flown on Market Street during the 1979 parade in honor of Milk. On that day, rainbows hung from every light pole up and down both sides of Market — banners of colorful hope against a bright blue sky.
Gilbert fully embraced his new role as the gay community’s own Betsy Ross, and for the rest of his life he never stopped working on the rainbow flag. Referring to himself as a vexillographer — a professional flag maker — he sewed a revolution, stripe by stripe, color by color. In 1994, he created a mile-long rainbow flag for the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Inn Riots. He also handmade a rainbow flag for President Barack Obama, which was on display in the Obama White House. Shortly before his death, he created a new nine-stripe version of the flag, adding a lavender stripe to the top of his original 1978 design to represent diversity in all its forms. He hand-sewed 39 copies — to commemorate the flag’s 39th anniversary — that were exhibited in San Francisco during Pride Month.
Though in 1978 Gilbert couldn’t have known, the rainbow symbolizes the history of the Gay Rights Movement itself. Progress made was met with new struggles and attacks (the assassination of Harvey Milk in 1978; the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s). The community then gathered its strength, creativity, and resolve and pushed ahead, always finding the rainbow in the sky after the gray uncertainty of the storm.
The flag as a material object has also evolved with the consciousness of the community — both the versions made by Gilbert himself and those created by others to represent different subsets of the LGBTQ community, such as the Philadelphia Pride flag, which adds brown and black stripes to give visibility to LGBTQ people of color. Rainbow flags are no longer made from hand-dyed cotton. While beautiful, this method is temporal — the colors run when wet. They are now made from nylon, a durable fabric that catches the light, creating an effect similar to a stained-glass window. But the original flag, and its creation story, stand as a beautiful moment in time, a testament to the creativity and resilience of a people.
The dreams that Gilbert Baker dared to dream as a boy in Kansas — that art and action could create change — really did come true. This month, the 40th birthday of the rainbow flag, let us hope Gilbert, who died on March 31st of 2017, is resting in power and in peace — somewhere over the rainbow.
“Our sexuality is a human right,” he always insisted, “no matter what color that may be.”