A big rainbow flag flaps lazily outside the gay community center in Manhattan's West Village. It’s a rarity, hand-sewn and oversize, with eight colored stripes. I'm there to meet its creator, Gilbert Baker, a gay rights icon who created the pride flag nearly forty years ago, and is the force behind its adoption as the now ubiquitous symbol of the LGBT rights movement.
As we walk inside, he points above our heads — “That’s one of mine” — and then leads us up to a classroom (he’s an active volunteer at the center and greets several people on the stairs) to tell me how the pride flag came about.
It was 1978. Anita Bryant, the beauty queen turned conservative activist had just finished her nationwide anti-gay rights crusade. Baker was living in San Francisco, which had become a haven the gay community fleeing less tolerant locales. “It was a wonderful time,” he says. “Harvey [Milk] hadn’t been murdered yet and gay artistic empowerment — you had gay chorus, gay band, gay theater, gay film, all of this stuff — was just flowering.”
It was Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in the states, who invited Baker to make a flag for a gay rights march he was organizing — just months before his assassination that fall. “Because I loved to sew, my role in the movement became to make banners,” Baker says. “That’s really how I ended up making the first flag — I was the guy who could sew it.”
Until we had a flag, the symbol for our movement was the pink triangle, which was put on us by Hitler.
“He came up with the idea of flag,” says Cleve Jones, a longtime gay rights activist and Baker’s roommate at the time. Jones remembers it as a very DIY affair. “There was a gay community center at 330 Grove Street, now long gone. We did it all by hand with big garbage barrels of dye to color the fabric and then we dragged it out onto the roof to dry.”
They made two flags that day — the rainbow flag and an American flag with rainbow stripes instead of red, white and blue — and hung them in San Francisco’s U.N. Plaza for a pride parade on June 25, 1978.
“I can still see it. There was a good wind blowing. Gilbert started tugging on the rope, the wind caught it and it was just stunning.” Jones tells me over the phone from his home in S.F.,“The parade arrived, and as people started marching under it, you could see them looking up and smiling. At that moment, the rainbow became the symbol of the community.”
People started marching under the flag, and you could see them looking up and smiling.
And it indubitably has. As an experiment, I’d counted how many rainbow flags I’d seen, making my way from the subway to our meeting point that afternoon. It was six — albeit in a particularly gay-friendly part of a gay-friendly city — but still notable on a less than five minute walk. When I ask Baker how it feels to have created something so ubiquitous, he laughs. “The first thing I found out is there are no royalties for a flag, so I’m not rich.”
But, in seriousness, he seems both honored by and proud of the impact the flag has made. He tells me that a few years before the first flag, during the 1976 U.S. bicentennial, he’d realized the power and symbolism of the American flag. “Now, if there’s a news story about Iran, the graphic has the Iranian flag. Whenever they do a gay story, there’ll be the rainbow flag. Just as if we were a country. It’s amazing.”
Baker says he can pinpoint the moment it really hit as an international symbol. For the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in 1994, Baker made a mile-long flag for the parade. Coverage of the event was widespread and gay rights were moving into a new stage of public acceptance. “That was the pivotal moment,” he says, “they started to have these little rainbow stickers that people would put in their store windows. Like ‘we take Visa and Mastercard.’ At first, I was like, ‘What the fuck is that? We are not a credit card,’" he says, laughing.
In the years since, Baker’s made flags and banners for events and heads of state — from the 1984 Democratic National Convention to the Premiere of China and the King of Spain. But, it’s the pride flag he keeps coming back to. “All along, ever since 1978, I have never stopped working on the rainbow flag. Every year, every chance I get, I develop it.”
All along, ever since 1978, I have never stopped working on the rainbow flag.
Gilbert Baker was born in Chanute, Kansas, in 1951. His grandmother owned a women’s clothing store and he grew up wanting to learn to sew — but nobody in straight-laced 1950s America was interested in teaching a boy a domestic skill. He left home to join the army, and after he was discharged, landed in San Francisco.
“Once I was finally liberated from my Kansas background, the first thing I did was get a sewing machine.” He says, “Because it’s 1972 and I have to look like Mick Jagger and David Bowie every single second,” he says. “Taffeta jumpsuits.”
He’d come out at 19, which he still says was the single hardest thing to do. “My parents didn’t talk to me for ten years, but it allowed me to get past my own suicidal urges, it allowed me to become the artist that was inside of me and it allowed me to say, ‘Well, you know, I can have a dream and I can go for it,’” he says.
It's 1972 and I have to look like Mick Jagger and David Bowie every single second. Taffeta jumpsuits.
The first step of that dream was looking fabulous. Baker was starting perform as a drag queen, and admittedly broke, the easiest way to find great costumes was to make them himself, so he learned to sew. “I ran with a pretty amazing crowd then.We’d be hanging out looking at Vogue magazine, and thinking like, ‘Ah, wouldn’t it be great to look like this?’” (Years later, his drag persona would take the name Busty Ross, a nod to another famous flag-making seamstress.)
He’d been an activist for years, but after that 1978 rally, his contribution to the cause crystallized. He was going to make the flag a symbol. Baker got a job at the now-defunct Paramount Flag Company in San Francisco, where he’d work for the better part of a decade. There, the flag lost two of its original eight colors (turquoise and pink, it turns out, aren’t common flag colors, and made it too difficult to manufacture) — and gained official recognition as the official flag for gay pride, as the result of Baker’s work.
His flag has always been recognized for its artistic significance, perhaps culminating this month, when it was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. "One of MoMA's goals is to acquire the art of our time," Paola Antonelli, senior curator of Architecture and Design, told us. “For the past almost 40 years, the rainbow flag has stood as a politically powerful, meaningful, and also aesthetically effective symbol."
Years later, his drag persona would take the name Busty Ross, a nod to another famous flag-making seamstress.
Yet, it’s also been a commercial juggernaut — it’s public domain, so actual sales are difficult to estimate — but it’s a fixture in bar windows and souvenir shops worldwide. Baker sees himself as an artist first and foremost, but he’s not averse to the commercial. The day we meet, he’s accompanied by a photographer from Lab Series (a men's line from Estée Lauder) who’s taking shots of him for the brand's Pride initiative. (Baker met Joseph Grigsby, who runs marketing at Lab, through a friend in Baker's gay sailing group — the perfect hobby for a man who loves flags).
Later that month, Baker spoke about the flag at a party the brand threw — where he makes a point of telling me that he believes in spreading the message of the movement far and wide — whether via hand-sewn art or skin-care products. “Having corporate partners has always been a little bit controversial in the gay movement — people complain about how commercialized the gay prides are.” He says, “I’m like, 'Argh!' It’s important! It spreads the message farther — and that’s what we need, to spread it out from here to straight teenagers out on Long Island and Indiana."
When we first meet, it’s late May, about a month before the Supreme Court is likely to strike down the ban on gay marriage in all 50 states — a huge victory for the gay rights movement, and one that, for many in Baker’s generation, long seemed incomprehensible.
I’m happy that I’m living long enough to see this, but I wanted to. I wanted to see this so much!
When Baker left the army, a gay man could still be imprisoned or subjected to electroshock therapy for homosexuality — the American Psychiatric Association didn’t drop “homosexuality” as a disorder until 1974, and the year before Baker made his flag was the year of Anita Bryant, the beauty queen turned anti-gay crusader whose “Save our Children” campaign in 1977 is considered the first organized opposition to gay rights. It wasn’t until 2003, decades after the riots at Stonewall, that the Supreme Court’s Lawrence decision struck down Texas’s sodomy law, making gay sex legal in all fifty states.
On the eve of what will very likely be another epic decision, Baker is circumspect. “The idea that gay rights are 'mainstream' doesn’t really add up real wide when you look at Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and the world. So let’s just make that caveat.”
More than that, Baker says, “It wasn’t an accident — it was the work of a lot of people over generation,” and it wasn’t always easy: “So many people died along the way,” he says, referring to the AIDS crisis. “Half my friends died. It was a really dark time.”
Yet, looking back, he sees it as an optimistic story. “I’m amazed at the steel within our community; inside all that sorrow and all that setback, there’s this core of courage and bravery at so many people’s hearts.” Baker says. “I’m happy that I’m living long enough to see this, but I wanted to. I want to see this so much!"