Gilbert Baker’s legacy: The rainbow flag

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Gilbert Baker in 2006 at Interpride conference
Gilbert Baker in 2006 at Interpride conference

The rainbow might come and go, as mentioned in a recent book by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt, but the rainbow flag is here to stay. Lifelong activist and artist Gilbert Baker made the original eight-color flag, back in 1978, in San Francisco. It took him two weeks to complete the project. During the following years, as the flag was being mass-produced, Baker found out that dyes for two of the eight colors—magenta and turquoise—were difficult to find, hence, had to be eliminated for practical reasons.

Although we might be familiar today with the six-color flag, there are different versions of the rainbow flag. For this year, Baker was planning on including the ninth color, lavender, for diversity.

Gilbert Baker, Rainbow Flag creator at 2012 San Francisco Pride festival
Gilbert Baker, Rainbow Flag creator at 2012 San Francisco Pride festival

Sadly, Gilbert Baker died suddenly earlier this year, on March 31, at the age of 65. To remember him, friends and family gathered together on Flag Day, June 14, for the Gilbert Baker Memorial Rally and March, “Raise the Rainbow!” in New York City, outside the Stonewall Inn.

Charley Beal, an activist and Baker’s longtime friend, and Bruce Cohen, also an activist as well as an Academy award-winning producer, helped organize the event. Bruce Cohen was one of the producers of the movie Milk, and one of the executive producers of the miniseries When We Rise, which touches on the story of how Baker created the flag.

“As we were thinking about a memorial that Gilbert [Baker] would have loved and wanted, especially at this time, we thought that this memorial needed to be a march, a rally,” Cohen says.

Gilbert Baker during San Francisco Pride festival in 2012
Gilbert Baker during San Francisco Pride festival in 2012

“Gilbert [Baker] was an activist,” Beal adds. “He had an edge. He was not afraid to express his opinions [about what needed to be made right].”

Hence, the #RaiseTheRainbow event memorialized Baker, as well as shed light on all the issues that need our attention right now. The event can be watched live on Facebook.

While commenting on the memorial, Cohen and Beal also remember the founder of the rainbow flag through personal stories and memories.

“One of my most beautiful memories was when we were filming When We Rise,” Cohen says, “when we wanted to re-create the moment in history when the flag was raised for the first time. There are actually two huge rainbow flags that we wanted to go up on the pole at the U.N. Plaza in San Francisco — one was the eight-stripe flag, the other one had a square with stars in the corner, like the U.S. flag. And so, we got permission from the City of San Francisco to shoot the scene at the exact spot [and re-create] the scene from 1978. We wanted the exact replicas of the two flags. So, [we asked Gilbert Baker to make] these flags from scratch. Getting to spend time with him, and then standing with Gilbert the day when we were shooting, and seeing the actor playing him raising those flags…that was really quite a thrill.”

One of Beal’s most significant memories was in 1994, the year of the Stonewall Riots’ 25th anniversary, and the year he met Baker. “We had been prevented from carrying [the rainbow flag] on Fifth Avenue by the then newly elected mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, [to avoid parading the flag in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral],” Beal recalls, explaining that they were allowed to carry the flag on First Avenue instead. “And Gilbert, after completely unfolding the one-mile flag on First Avenue, took a pair of scissors and cut [the flag] into 200-ft pieces. Meanwhile, ACT UP was creating an illegal march with [thousands of] people on Fifth Avenue. By putting these pieces of the flag in the ACT UP activists’ backpacks, [to avoid] the police, we were able to reassemble about 1,000 feet of [the flag] and march it in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in defiance of Mayor Giuliani and the Catholic Church. Those pieces of the flag were [then] given to pride groups from around the world. One year later, at Pride, you saw the rainbow flag, the symbol of gay rights in the U.S., becoming the symbol of gay rights all around the world.”

The rainbow flag is Gilbert Baker’s legacy. The flag is a universal symbol of peace and unity, but also of activism for equal rights.

“The flag will always be around now, which is extraordinary in and of itself,” Cohen says. “But it’s our job to make sure that the generations that come after us understand what the flag means, and, especially now, understand the importance of the fight for justice for everyone.”

In terms of legacy, some compare Baker with Betsy Ross, the woman who made the first U.S. flag in Philadelphia. Baker embraced the idea for a while, but then moved away from it. The difference here is that Betsy Ross was hired to make the flag, whereas Baker “was an artist and activist who never stopped creating art, fighting for justice until the day he died,” Beal explains. “I think that the flag will outlive him, [it] will outlive us all.”

One of the last projects that Baker worked on was a design he submitted to a design competition for Hudson River Park LGBT Memorial to the victims of the Orlando attack, and other hate crimes. (Winners are yet to be announced.) Baker’s design was a rainbow flag that would spring from a pink triangle made of granite. “The pink triangle is a symbol of our oppression,” Beal explains, “and out of that oppression rises hope.”

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Learn more about the #RaiseTheRainbow rally and march at facebook.com/gilbertbakermemorial