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FLASHBACK: Gilbert Baker, Designer Of The Rainbow Flag, Is Born (June 2, 1951)

FLASHBACK: Gilbert Baker, Designer Of The Rainbow Flag, Is Born (June 2, 1951)

Today in 2SLGBTQI+ history…

Self-described as the “gay Betsy Ross,” Gilbert Baker was an American artist, an LGBTQ+ rights activist and the creator of the rainbow flag. His artistic work helped define and solidify the queer movement during a time when it was most needed.

Baker was born on June 2, 1951, in the small rural town of Chanute, Kansas. After graduating from high school, he attended college for a year before being drafted into the United States Army, where he served from 1970 to 1972. He was stationed as a medic in San Francisco and lived there openly as a gay man as the gay liberation movement was beginning to take shape. After serving a two-year term, he was honourably discharged and settled into the thriving activist community of San Francisco. During that time he became friends with activist Mary Dunn (who taught him how to sew) and Harvey Milk (the first openly gay elected official in California), and began using his skills to create banners for gay-rights and anti-war protest marches. He also participated in drag shows and joined the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a non-profit LGBTQ advocacy group whose members dress as nuns to bring attention to gender and sexual intolerance.

In his memoir, titled Rainbow Warrior: My Life in Color, Baker wrote about how the movement’s earlier pink triangle symbol needed to be replaced with something that more accurately represented the revolution in the late ’70s.

“As a community, both local and international, gay people were in the midst of an upheaval, a battle for equal rights, a shift in status where we were now demanding power, taking it,” he wrote. “This was our new revolution: a tribal, individualistic, and collective vision. It deserved a new symbol.”

It was later, at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, when Baker had an epiphany, recalling, “A rainbow. That’s the moment when I knew exactly what kind of flag I would make.

“A Rainbow Flag was a conscious choice, natural and necessary. The rainbow came from earliest recorded history as a symbol of hope,” he continued, adding, “Now the rioters who claimed their freedom at the Stonewall Bar in 1969 would have their own symbol of liberation.”

As interest grew in the gay liberation movement, Milk and others joined forces with Baker to create a symbol for the movement. When Baker created the Rainbow Flag in 1978, he refused to trademark it, seeing it as a symbol that was for the LGBT community. The group focused their efforts on creating a flag – because “flags are about proclaiming power, so it’s very appropriate,” Baker said in an interview that can be read on site at the New York Museum of Modern Art just after they acquired his original flag design in 2015.

Baker wanted the design to be beautiful, unique and an undeniable representation of the LGBTQ community. The first Pride flag was comprised of eight colourful stripes representing diversity: hot pink (sexuality), red (life), orange (healing), yellow (sun), green (nature), blue (art), indigo (harmony) and violet (human spirit). The first two flags flew in the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25, 1978.

After Milk’s assassination in November 1978, demand for the rainbow flag greatly increased. But the shortage (and expense) of hot pink fabric meant that the flag was reduced to seven stripes, later to be reduced again to six (red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet) to account for symmetry if the flag had to be split in half during parades and festivals.

On March 31, 2017, Baker died from hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease in his New York City home at age 65. His life is celebrated in the documentary Rainbow Pride (2003), and the sewing machine he used to create the first flag is on display at The GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco.

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