Torn From the Soul of the People
An Interview with the Creator of the Rainbow Flag
By Joselle Vanderhooft
Like many people, artist Gilbert Baker recalls the day the rainbow flag his most famous creation debuted at the 1978 San Francisco Gay Freedom Day parade.
“I wasn’t even sure people were going to get it was a flag, actually,” he laughs. “But when I realized that day that people loved it I mean, you can’t imagine this amazing moment when you realize that something you’ve made is taken to the hearts of so many people. You could almost somehow see the energy. [The crowd] looked at it and they owned it. They took it right to their souls. As the creator, that changed me. I knew then that my whole life would be about this.”
But Baker’s life wasn’t always about rainbows. As a “very outgoing, gregarious and effeminate child” in the 1950s and 60s, Baker describes his childhood as “pretty tough”.
“It was a different time for gay people, especially where I come from in Kansas, which is small town America,” he recalls. “When I grew up I was the only one, or at least I thought I as the only one. And there was that whole mindset in American that homosexuality was a disease that can be cured, so I lived with the threat of electroshock therapy.”
Though living a “life of lies” was a tall order for a teenager, Baker found strength from the 1969 Stonewall Riots, which happened during his senior year in high school.
“It was like a light that shined into my whole life, and it gave me the courage to realize I might be able to find a way out of my situation in Kansas.” But he never imagined the “way out” would involve being drafted.
At age 19, Baker was stationed as a medic in a San Francisco just coming down from the Summer of Love. He toured the city during his days off and fell in love with it, remaining long after his honorable discharge in 1972. At this time he joined the Democratic Party and got involved in the city’s politics, including Proposition 19, a measure to decriminalize marijuana (an issue in which Baker has been involved ever since). He also did drag, and took up sewing to make his own gowns a skill which soon became indispensable to the city’s burgeoning gay rights movement.
“[Sewing] became my activism,” he explains. “As the movement progressed we would have actions. My friend Harvey Milk or Cleve Jones would call me up and say ‘Gilbert! We’re having a march in 3 hours! We need a banner right now!’”
All too soon, Baker graduated from sewing “three hour wonder banners”. Inspired by the American flag, which had been prominently displayed during the nation’s Bicentennial, and the flags of the Black civil rights movement, Baker decided it was high time the gay community had a flag of their own. He and thirty volunteers spent several hours hand-stitching and dying to large flags for the parade route flags that looked a little different from those at most parades today.
Baker’s prototype flag consisted of eight color stripes: pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sun, green for serenity with nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for spirit. As the flag’s popularity grew, particularly after Harvey Milk’s assassination later that year, Baker teamed up with flag making companies to mass-produce it. At this time the pink stripe was dropped because the fabric needed to make it was unavailable. In order to make a flag that could divide down the middle for a later parade, Baker also removed the turquoise stripe and replaced the indigo stripe with dark blue. The result is the six-striped flag used today. Still, Baker is quick to point out that no version is the “right” one, or the “final draft”.
“I think the rainbow flag is a work in progress, actually,” he says. True to this definition, Baker has designed several different flags for festivals all around the world giving him two Guinness Book records. The first he received in 1994 for a mile long flag made in honor of the Stonewall Riots’ 25th anniversary. He broke that record in 2003, after making a flag in Key West that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. Along with these “large displays of public art”, Baker has also designed posters for this year’s World Pride Festival in Jerusalem, and anticipates creating a flag project involving water and boating sometime the near future.
Along with such obvious influences as The Gates creator Christo Baker says his work has been inspired by several artists including the Rolling Stones, Barbara Streisand (“who fought to be kooky and different”), novelists Randy Schultz, Phyllis Burke and Amsted Maupin (Tales of the City). He also says friends like Harvey Milk and AIDS Quilt Project founder Cleve Jones played a huge part in the art work he creates.
Still, he attributes the Rainbow Flag not to his own work, but to meaning given to it by the gay community.
“There’s an old saying we have in the world of flags, that a true flag cannot be designed, it has to be torn from the soul of the people,” he says. “I think that’s very true. I made banners and many things to make the movement visual and powerful, and the flag was something I thought was logical. We’re a people, we’re an international nation, a tribe, and flags are very fitting for us. Also, flags sometimes are born in revolutions. And there’s a nice parallel there for us…The rainbow flag is an action. It’s a direct visibility action in a sense that when people put the rainbow flag on their house or a bumper sticker on a car or wear a ring or whatever. They’re telling the world “this is who I am” and that is its true beauty.”
In the end, what’s it like being Gilbert Baker?
“I’m a lucky guy. My life isn’t always a rainbow, but it’s pretty pink today,” he laughs.
Rainbow Pride, a 2004 documentary about the Rainbow Flag directed by Canadian filmmaker Marie-Joe Ferron, has aired on PBS. It was made largely with footage from Baker’s archives.Q