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Unsung Heroes of the Gay World: Vexillographer Gilbert Baker

 

The Gay Betsy Ross
 

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Gilbert Baker does not roll off the tongue as a name that everyone knows – as a giant of worldwide community of gay men and women, like Elton John or Ellen DeGeneres.

Mention Gilbert Baker when you pop into the pub or bar tonight and you are more than likely to get a “Gilbert who?” response.

But then, what this gay man gave the world is instantly recognisable – and not only to the international LGBT community, but to most people on this planet.

Flashback 30 years to San Francisco.

A couple of days before the City’s then Gay Freedom Day Parade – now Pride – on June 25, 1978, Harvey Milk called his friend Gilbert Baker and said that what the Parade needed was a logo.

“I turned that into the idea of a flag,” he told UK Gay News.  “So while I loved Harvey, he was a great inspiration and teacher – the flag was not his idea.

“He, like every one else that saw it first on June 25th 1978, instantly recognised the value and importance of having a flag and using it as a visibility tool and power channel and from that day on it has exploded.” 

The Rainbow Flag is recognised by the International Congress of Flag Makers and today is the most visible and recognized symbol of ‘gay pride’.

Born in Kansas in 1951, Gilbert Baker served in the US Army between 1970 and 1972.  He was stationed for most of his brief military stint in San Francisco – and at the time when the gay liberation movement first started in earnest.

His soldier’s story is told in Randy Shilts book Conduct Unbecoming (St. Martin’s Press – available from Amazon USA).

After being honourably discharged Baker stayed in San Francisco and taught himself to sew.

It was this skill that he put to use making banners for gay and anti-war street protest marches, often at a moment’s notice, at the behest of his friend Harvey Milk who was later elected to office in San Francisco and assassinated Nov 27, 1978.

Harvey Milk rode triumphantly under the first Rainbow Flags that Baker made at their debut on June 25, 1978, for the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade (now San Francisco Pride).

Baker credits Milk for inspiring his work with the message of hope.

Early this year, Baker returned to San Francisco to recreate the banners and flags he made in the 70’s for the feature film Milk starring Sean Penn.

Mr. Baker is quoted in the 2007 book The American Flag, Two Centuries of Conflict and Concord saying “Flags are torn from the soul of the people.”

His creation of the Rainbow Flag is in the public domain – as are all flags – and its explosion as a commercial product in endless variations began all most immediately.

The original Rainbow Flag had eight “stripes” – pink, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, indigo, and violet.  Within a year, the flag had shed two of its stripes – pink and violet.

There are a number of theories why two of the stripes were dropped, with some of then almost mythology today.

The closest to the truth of the demise of the pink stripe is that Gilbert ran out of pink.  “[Actually], we ran out of pink dye,” he says.

As for the loss of the violet, this was for basic mathematical reasons.

Continued below

 
■ The original Rainbow Flag with eight colours (above), and below the flag as it is today.
 

Parade organisers in San Francisco had the idea of splitting the “flag” into two and to decorate the parade route in 1979.  And that meant the flag had to have an even number of stripes.

In 1979, Baker went to work at Paramount Flag Company in San Francisco, at first doing flamboyant window displays which caught the attention of then Mayor Dianne Feinstein who commissioned him to design flags for her first elected inaugural. 

From there, he began designing flags as the centrepieces of formal civic and state events, creating fantastic displays for the Premier of China, the President of France, the President of Venezuela, the President of the Philippines, the King of Spain, among many others.

His work making flags and their protocols interesting and new opened the way for him to design the flags for the 1984 Democratic National Convention.

While his list of establishment credits is long, Baker has never stopped working on the Rainbow Flag.

A committed gay activist, he became an industrial artist in residence at Paramount Flag Company, who he credits with giving him the education and opportunity to make the Rainbow Flag known and demanded.

When Paramount closed its doors in 1987, Baker continued creating flag spectacles for The San Francisco Symphony Black and White Ball, rock shows in Golden Gate Park, and fabulous stages and street display’s for San Francisco Gay Pride.

In 1994, he moved to New York City where created a mile long Rainbow Flag for the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riot 1969.

Measuring a staggering 30 by 5,280 feet, and carried by 5,000 people, it broke the world’s record for largest flag ever.

Unfurled past the United Nations Building before a crowd of millions, Baker’s ‘magic with fabric’ became a worldwide media event.

Today, Google lists more than 2,600,000 references to the Rainbow Flag and another catalogued 241, 000 images.

In 2003, the Rainbow Flag’s 25th anniversary, Baker broke his own world record for the largest flag, creating a new one that stretched sea to sea – from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean in Key West.

He then sent sections of this flag, sponsored by Absolut Vodka, to more than 100 cities around the world.

In addition to traditional textile work, Gilbert Baker began creating fine art celebrating the Rainbow Flag and the gay community starting in 1978 with his first series of signed limited edition silkscreen posters – 22 x 35 oil on linen.  A second series followed in 1979.

He worked with photographers to document the Rainbow Flag and created subsequent posters and paintings every year to mark its birth.  One of his 1992 silkscreens 22 x 35 oil on linen was given to the Clinton White House where it hung in the West Wing Office complex.

In 2000 Baker staged his first exhibition of photographs and fine art celebrating the flag in Rome for World Pride.  Two years later, he mounted an extensive showing, 180 pieces, at the New York Gay Community Center where more than 80,000 people saw the collection. 

This exhibition was expanded in 2003 and showcased in two simultaneous exhibitions at the San Francisco Public Library and the San Francisco LGBT Community Center.

Baker has contributed essays, articles, interviews, and photographs about the flag to LGBT and mainstream publications.  In 2003, he and his Key West project was the subject of “Rainbow Pride” a feature length documentary by Marie Jo Ferron, bought by PBS National and debuting in New York on WNET.

He gives speeches and lectures about the Flag and LGBT history in cities large and small around the world.  His message is about human rights. He has written an unpublished memoir about his life as the creator of the flag – a story he says is still unfinished.

Four years ago. Baker created “Out 2 Vote” a collection of Rainbow Flags that are all variations of the State and Territory flags of the US.  Free to down load from his website, www.gilbertbaker.com , this edition links to voter registration sites in every state, where thousands of LGBT voters have signed up. 

In 2006 Baker took his love of flags another direction working with the Knickerbocker Sailing Association, New York’s LGBT sailing club, creating the “Stonewall Parade of Sails” on the Hudson River following the traditional 5th Avenue march, with hundreds of thousands watching from the Manhattan shore.

For 2008, the flag’s 30th anniversary, Baker has created a new collection of Rainbow Flag paintings, each in series of 30, of varying sizes and media, more than 500 new works.

He has been named the 2008 Grand Marshall of the New York and Vancouver Pride Celebrations, June 29 and August 3 respectively.

Baker has also written a number of new essays about the Rainbow Flag and gay history  which he plans to publish during the 2008 pride season – a ‘taster’ will be published tomorrow by UK Gay News.

Today, Gilbert Baker lives in New York City, continuing to evolve the Rainbow Flag, making iconic fine art, hundreds of videos, writing, and is, importantly,…

... Still sewing!

SEE ALSO

Rainbow Flag Is Unfinished, Says Designer of the ‘Gay Flag’.  By Gilbert Baker.  Our movement is built on the shoulders of individuals who stand for freedom and equality. One at time, in every town, in every country, people who live openly, truthfully.  Each one of us is a drop of water in a wave of change for human rights and justice.  Indeed we are a rainbow of hope, love, and liberation that wraps around the Earth. (UK Gay News, April 18, 2008)
 

 
■ One of Gilbert Baker's more recent flags – incorporating the original eight colours of the Rainbow flag into the California state flag.  He has created flags for all the American states and territories These can be seen on his website.
 

 

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.  

Posted: 17 April 2008 at 23:30 (UK time)
Updated 18 April at 20:00

 

 


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