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Remembering Gilbert Baker, the Man Behind the Rainbow Flag

HOST INTRO: Gilbert Baker, the man who invented the rainbow flag, died last week at 65. When he created the colorful emblem just under 40 years ago, he had no idea what it would come to stand for. Kristin Schwab has the story about how a handful of stripes lead a social and political movement.

SCHWAB 1: The Museum of Modern Art in New York is bursting with famous work: Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol. Among those is a name you might not recognize. Gilbert Baker. His piece is a cheery addition to the museum’s cavernous, grey lobby.

SCHWAB 1: So was the original this size?

FISHER 1: No the original was much larger. This is the Everyman’s version.

SCHWAB 2: That’s Michelle Fisher, the curator who helped the museum acquire one of Baker’s ubiquitous rainbow flags, which is now the symbol for LGBTQ rights. The version at MoMA is 3 by 5 feet. The original, by some estimates, was 30 by 50 feet. But it didn’t hold up. Baker’s first rainbow flag was made of cotton and was hand dyed.

FISHER 2: He talks about taking it to a local laundromat and turning each one of the washing machines a different color as they were fixing the dye and they had to run out of there sort of quickly after that.

SCHWAB 3: Most people are familiar with the rainbow flag. You see it at marches or outside gay bars. But few know how it evolved from yards of fabric to championed symbol to work of art.  

The flag was commissioned by gay rights leader Harvey Milk and the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade in 1978. Baker was paid $1,000—just enough for materials and supplies. At the time, the gay community had one identifier. And it was not a positive one. Here’s Baker on PBS series a few years ago.

BAKER 1: Really up until the rainbow flag the pink triangle was the dominant symbol that we used. But it came from the Nazi’s. It was put on us. It had a really horrible negative origin about murder and holocaust.

SCHWAB 4: Cleve Jones is a known LGBTQ activist and was a close friend of Baker. He helped dye the original flag. It was messy. It took weeks to wash the colors from his skin. But he says it was worth it, because back then the gay community needed a positive symbol to help recognize its existence.  

JONES 1: It was a very different time then. The people we now call LGBTQ were really beginning to understand how many of us there were. And that was quite still a revelation for us.

SCHWAB 5: Jones helped unveil the flag in front of the UN building in San Francisco that day in June 1978. He says it was a clear, blue day, with just enough wind to let the fabric fly.

JONES 3: And you could just see that everybody at that moment was just understanding immediately, without any explanation, that this was now our flag and our symbol. (0:10)

SCHWAB 6: Baker’s rainbow flag caught on immediately. Part of that was his ability to grasp this turning point in history, right before the AIDS crisis, when the gay community was coming into its own. But another reason, says MoMA’s Michelle Fisher, is that the flag feels universal. It transcends not just sexuality, but gender, race, religion. It’s why you’ll see people carrying it at all kinds of marches and protests today. And that was multiplied by Baker’s desire to share the flag with everyone, even if it meant not making a profit.

FISHER 2: I think really importantly the crux of it, it was never trademarked. He certainly could have monetized it later on and chose not to.

SCHWAB 7: The version you see today is not quite like the original. It has six stripes instead of eight. Pink and turquoise were taken out because the dyes were too expensive for mass production. But the symbolism? That is very much the same. Baker didn’t invent the rainbow, of course. But he did reinvent it. And turned it into a political statement. Here’s Baker again at the end of the PBS special.

BAKER 3: Together, we’re changing our world, our planet from a place of hate, violence and war to a place of love and diversity and acceptance. And that is why we’re here. That’s the big long rainbow, from before me to well after me.

SCHWAB 8: Forty years ago, Baker could not have imagined this simple flag would someday be hung out of apartment windows in San Francisco, waved defiantly in places like Russia, where peaceful gay rights activism is cause for arrest, or displayed in the lobby of MoMA as art.

Kristin Schwab, Columbia Radio News.


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