Maker of iconic rainbow flag weeps when Supreme Court issues same-sex marriage ruling
Gilbert Baker says he grew up ostracized in Kansas, struggled with suicidal thoughts
First rainbow flag flew in 1978 in San Francisco's United Nations Plaza
Gilbert Baker was overwhelmed when he saw the White House lit up like a rainbow.
“I thought, ‘I don’t have to worry about making the rainbow flag a success anymore.’”
The creator of the multicolored banner marveled as nearly 30 million people on Facebook turned their profile photos into rainbows. Niagara Falls, the Empire State Building and bridges and city halls across the nation celebrated the rainbow, too.
Baker, 64, wept in San Francisco when news broke Friday of the Supreme Court’s historic decision to allow same-sex marriage in all 50 states.
“It was very emotional,” he says, “I cried. We’ve been working on this for decades. It was more than a relief. It was transformative.”
Baker’s life story, like that of the gay rights movement, is one of resilience and transformation. Of being ostracized and bullied as a boy in small-town Kansas. Of struggling with suicidal thoughts. Of becoming a medic in the U.S. Army before officially coming out to his parents on Christmas.
“I came out because I fell in love,” he says. “It wasn’t a terrible, horrible, damn thing. I was in love with somebody, and I wanted to scream it from the rooftops.”
It would take another three decades, he says, before he and his parents would reach “some kind of loving place” in their relationship. His father died four years ago; his mother is still living.
“When I was young, they thought I was from outer space,” he says. “I was the only gay person they probably knew, and they struggled with that. Everybody knew I was gay. They just didn’t want to talk about it.”
The rainbow flag came about in the 1970s. The gay and lesbian community wanted a symbol beyond the pink triangle – the symbol Nazis had put on gays. The gay community had used the symbol as a source of empowerment but was looking for something completely new, a symbol that didn’t have such an awful history.
Baker had landed in San Francisco as an Army draftee around 1970. He served as a medic at an orthopedic hospital in the Bay area where Vietnam veterans underwent skin grafts and amputations. He was eventually given an honorable discharge without being sent to Vietnam.
“I certainly saw up close my share of the horror,” he says of tending to the wounded. “It profoundly changed my ideas about politics, about war.”
He decided to stay in San Francisco and became immersed in the gay community. As he puts it, “I had to find my own, gay family.”
Baker became friends with Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California. Milk served on the city’s board of supervisors, and they talked often about needing a new symbol. Milk urged the creative Kansan to develop a design.
Baker drew inspiration from the American flag. The nation was celebrating its bicentennial in 1976 and he saw the flag “being put on everything,” from shirts to front porches.
“It really put the seed in my head. I was like: ‘Wait a minute, we are a global tribe, and a flag really fits our mission.’”
He got to work, designing, sewing and stitching in San Francisco’s gay community center. The original design had eight stripes: pink stood for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for the sun, green for nature, turquoise for magic, blue for harmony and purple for spirit.
The first flag was 30 by 60 feet and flew on Gay Pride Day on June 25, 1978, in the United Nations Plaza in San Francisco, a spot he and other community members chose to acknowledge “it’s a global struggle.”
“When it went up and the wind finally took it out of my hands, it blew my mind.”
It was hypnotic, magical even. He soaked in the moment for a few minutes. “I saw immediately how everyone around me owned that flag,” Baker says. “I thought: It’s better than I ever dreamed.”
Hundreds of thousands of people passed the flag that day, “and they knew it was our new symbol. That was a day that changed my life forever. I knew that was going to be the most important thing I ever did.”
He was just 27.
The next year, he dropped two of the colors to mass produce the flag. Pink was too expensive to make in mass quantities, and he thought it best to go with an even six colors.
Today, the flag – with its red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple stripes – has stood the test of time.
“We needed something to express our joy, our beauty, our power. And the rainbow did that,” Baker says. “We’re an ancient, wonderful tribe of people. We picked something from nature. We picked something beautiful.
“How do you argue with that? People want to argue about it, but I say: ‘The rainbow’s in the Bible. It’s a covenant between God and all living creatures.’”
He knows the struggle of gays and lesbians. He lived it at a time when his sexuality could have landed him in jail or mental institutions. He lost half his friends in a single year in the 1980s to AIDS. His friend Harvey Milk was assassinated along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone just five months after that first flag was unfurled.
Baker encourages gay youth to not be afraid to come out of the closet.
“You can live in this light of the truth. It’s totally liberating,” Baker says. “You don’t have to live a lie. Living a lie will mess you up. It will send you into depression. It will warp your values.”
He adds, “My message would be: Don’t give up hope. It does get better.”
It is through that prism that the renowned flag maker sees last week’s events. He was at a pride party when someone approached him and asked if he’d seen the White House lit up. Baker had not. When Baker saw what he calls his favorite house lit in the colors he chose that helped define a movement, he said simply:
“Oh my God.”
When he saw the viral editorial cartoon depicting the Confederate flag coming down and the rainbow flag rising, the drag queen who goes by the name “Busty Ross” took particular pride.
“The rainbow flag is beautiful because it’s about love,” he says. “The Confederate flag is ugly because it’s about hate. It’s pretty simple from the art level: beautiful versus ugly.”
Baker has designed many other flags over the years, for the Democratic National Convention, for the Super Bowl, and for heads of state – from the premier of China to the president of Venezuela to the king of Spain.
Baker’s iconic rainbow flag was recently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art and added to its design collection.
Will the recent Supreme Court decision lead to good tidings in his life?
He and his best friend have known each other for the last 21 years and “love each other deeply.”
“I don’t know if I’m the marrying kind,” Baker says. “I think I’ll drive somebody crazy. Maybe it’s better to just stay friends.”
At least now he has that choice anywhere in the United States.