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Gilbert Baker, Creator of the Rainbow Flag, Died

by Rob Blauwhuis in History & Politics , 13 mei 2017


On March 31st, Gilbert Baker died in his sleep in his house in New York City. He was sixty-five years of age. “The cause of death is hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease,” Julie Bolcer, spokeswoman of the New York City medical examiner’s office stated. Baker has earned a place in our history for designing the rainbow flag in 1978.



Gilbert Baker was born in Chanute on June 2, 1951, in the US state of Kansas, and spent his childhood and adolescence in Parsons, Kansas. His grandmother owned a women’s clothing store, and at an early age, young Gilbert became fascinated by clothing and fabric. But in the conservative, small-town environment he grew up in, he was not given the opportunity to learn how to sew.

In 1970 Baker left Kansas to serve in the army. Fortunately, fate stationed him in San Francisco, where the gay rights movement was becoming ever louder. “We’re not in Kansas anymore” he must have thought after an honorable discharge from the army. In an interview, Gilbert stated: “Once I was finally liberated from my Kansas background, the first thing I did was get a sewing machine,” adding: “Because it’s 1972 and I have to look like Mick Jagger and David Bowie every single second.”

He soon became involved in the gay rights movement. In a 2015 interview with Michelle Millar Fisher of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, which had just added the original flag to its collection, he said: “I was a big drag queen in 1970s San Francisco. I knew how to sew. I was in the right place at the right time to make the thing that we needed. A flag starts with some fabric in the wind. I knew how to sew - as I said, it came from being the drag queen that couldn’t afford the clothes I liked so I had to make them all. That translated, because I was in San Francisco in the early ’70s, into being the guy that would make banners for protest marches. My craft became my activism.”



In San Francisco, Baker became friends with Harvey Milk in 1974. Milk had moved from New York to California’s hippy city in 1972, became politically active, and was elected to the board of city supervisors in 1977. After eleven months in office and co-responsible for strict regulations on gay rights in the city, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by Dan White on November 27, 1978.

In a sense, Harvey Milk was partly responsible for the creation of a Pride flag, because, aClive Joness Baker said in the interview with MoMA: “He carried a really important message about how important it was to be visible, how important it was to come out, and that was the single most important thing we had to do. Our job as gay people was to come out, to be visible, to live in the truth as I say, to get out of the lie. A flag really fit that mission, because that’s a way of proclaiming your visibility, or saying, ‘This is who I am!’”

In a commemorative article on Baker in the Bay Area Reporter, Clive Jones, a personal friend of Baker’s, fellow activist and author of the memoirs “When We Rise: My Life in the Movement” (2016), says: “There was truly a conversation going on at the time about a need for a symbol.” One of the options, according to Jones, was the Greek letter lambda, but, “people would say, ‘What does that mean?’ Nobody really knew. I still don’t even really know the answer to that.”

Especially the pink triangle was used as a sign of pride in the 1970s, but that’s a symbol that refers to very specific events, namely the concentration camps of the Nazis and thus to persecution and oppression. “It came from such a horrible place of murder and holocaust and Hitler,” Baker sighed in the MoMA interview, “We needed something beautiful, something from us. The rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in terms of race, gender, ages, all of those things. Plus, it’s a natural flag - it’s from the sky.”

Shortly before he was killed, Milk did see this sign of gay pride on June 25, 1978 at the Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco, as Baker took action and put more than thirty volunteers to work at the Gay Community Center San Francisco to sew the first two flags. The original version had eight colors. In Baker’s eyes, they all had a separate meaning. Hot pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for spirit. When Baker approached the Paramount Flag Company to produce the flag commercially, the pink fabric turned out to be too rare and too exclusive, and therefore too expensive for mass production. For the Gay Freedom Day Parade in 1979 the indigo also disappeared, as the organizing committee wanted to divide the colors into two flags so that they could be raised on the two opposite sides of the street. The flag with six colors first took San Francisco by storm, and the rest of the world soon followed. Today, we cannot imagine a world without it.

Gilbert Baker & President Obama, 2016








 
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