The rainbow flag is an iconic symbol recognized by people and communities worldwide. Gilbert Baker, the American artist who created the flag, died in March of 2017. But, a year earlier, I had the opportunity to talk to him about his life and work at the forefront of the battle for the rights of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
“I was always fabulous,” Baker announced with a laugh when we sat down to discuss his incredible story. From his childhood in Chanute, Kansas, to his eventual role as the creator of one of the most recognizable symbols of our time, Baker experienced a great deal of change in his life.
Baker was raised in a small town in Kansas in the 1950s, by a family whose values were informed by their humble beginnings. His parents started out with very little, but would eventually become respected middle-class community members. For Baker, the environment was stifling. Though he found ways to express his interests through art, his perspective was often poorly understood.
Growing up in the 1950s in Kansas was nowhere for somebody as gay as me.
After completing high school, Baker was ready to leave it all behind. Drafted into the United States Army at 19, he set his sights on studying medicine. But medicine, he discovered, did not allow him to be creative. That’s when San Francisco called.
After learning to sew on a friend’s machine, Baker began to make banners – lots of them. Harvey Milk1, who was a close friend of Baker’s, often called upon him to create banners for protest marches. Baker, along with many others, rejected the old symbol of the gay community – the pink triangle. For them, the pink triangle was the wrong symbol. It came from Hitler’s regime as part of a code of oppression and murder. The pink triangle was a badge used in concentration camps to mark those convicted under Paragraphs 174, 175 and 176 of the Reich Penal Code, which outlawed any same-sex acts of intimacy.
But, Baker reasoned, their movement did need a symbol. Reflecting on the American bicentennial in 1976, Baker began to think about what kind of symbol might best represent his community. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The first rainbow flag was raised in 1978. As Baker recounted, “the second it hit the wind, it changed my life forever.” For Baker, the rainbow flag was always a statement about human rights. But beyond that, it was “something that is torn from the soul of our people. The idea that we’re all of the colours, we’re all of the genders, we’re all of the sexes, we’re all of the races, all of it. The whole spectrum of our humanness. And that becomes a provocative, powerful statement when it’s about our sexuality.”
Although the flag gained Baker notoriety and fame, he remained an artist committed to his community. And despite the flag’s success, Baker faced hard times in his life too: “It hasn’t always been unicorns and glitter,” he explained, as our interview drew to a close. The flag, as public domain, certainly didn’t make him rich, at least in material terms. But for Baker it represented the achievement of a lifetime and is one of the ways he is remembered after his death. The flag that Baker created has become an important symbol for people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities everywhere, but there is still work to be done.
We are a global tribe, we exist everywhere but, we are not free everywhere.
1Harvey Milk is one of over 50 personalities featured in our human rights timeline exhibit which stretches along the entire north wall of our What Are Human Rights? gallery.