You don't design a flag, says Gilbert Baker. "It's torn from the soul of the people."
Baker's a vexillographer, a flag-maker. He's done work for the president of the Philippines, the president of Venezuela, the Democratic National Convention, civic events. His first flag, though, has become a symbol for LGBT people internationally.
Hot pink, for sexuality. Red, for life. Orange, for healing. Yellow, for sunlight. Green, for nature. Turquoise, for art. Indigo, for harmony. Violet, for spirit. Those are the original eight colors he built into the two huge flags [pictured with Baker on this week’s cover] that rode on either side of his friend Harvey Milk's car. It was June of 1978, Gay Freedom Day in San Francisco and a proud moment in Baker's life. "Harvey had just been elected to office, and it was really this great moment of gay power," Baker says. "We had an elected official."
After Milk's assassination, the flag took on another meaning. "It was like, We're not going away," Baker says. "We're here."
The pink and turquoise stripes were eventually dropped from the design in part to increase the ease of manufacturing. Before the rainbow flag, a pink triangle was the symbol of the LGBT movement. It was used in Nazi concentration camps to identify homosexuals. "It's still important," says Baker. But "it was put on us. There was this feeling that we should have something that comes from ourselves."
Baker describes himself as a big drag queen and a hippie. "I was young. I was beautiful. I could never afford the clothes I wanted to wear." He had to learn to make his garments, and it easily took him a decade to become any good at it. "I love to sew. That's my craft, and it's something I became incredibly passionate about. My craft is my activism, and I feel really lucky."
Between his early years fashioning gowns and his eventual career stitching flags, Baker, a Vietnam veteran, also sewed protest banners. And as talk of an October LGBT march on Washington brews, he finds himself behind his sewing machine in Harlem making banners again. "I went back to my roots," he says. "I did upgrade to, like, really fabulous silk and sequins. They're stunning in the great tradition of revolution, but they certainly have the detail of a couture evening gown."
He's coming to Albuquerque to grand marshal this year's pride parade, and he's bringing a message. "People are really waking up to the importance of a new and fresh approach to activism," he says. "It's not just marriage and the military. It's full equality. We have a big struggle, and people around the world look to us. It's important that we show up for ourselves."
What were the first pride flags made of?
Cotton. Hand-dyed. Totally organic—1978, girl! We're talking organic. Organic dye. Organic fabric. Big, giant, huge mess, oh my god. I made them at the gay community center, which was on Grove Street then. I knew I was making a flag, and a flag should have a certain providence. I thought it was important for the birth of the flag to happen at the center of the community. So I sewed them there.
How big were they?
“Whether they like the rainbow flag or not, we have a movement, and that means we have to move something.”
The first ones were two 30-by-60 feet. Huge.
You did it on a sewing machine, I assume.
On a Kenmore. A Kenmore and a Singer.
Do you remember how long it took you?
Oh, I think a couple of weeks, start to finish. I didn't kill myself on them. A lot of ironing. The cotton, Jesus, you had to iron it twice.
Do you still have those early ones?
No. They lasted a couple years and completely fell apart. I saved some pieces and made some smaller little flags, but ultimately, no, gone, gone. Cotton in that scale, it's beautiful, it's unbelievable. But it got slightly damp in the moisture. One of the colors ran a little bit. And then it just shredded.
What's beautiful about cotton when it's that big?
Very bright. I used a really thin cotton, so in the wind it looked like silk. You could see through it. Lovely. And it has a different flat mat. It's not shiny like nylon. But of course it doesn't have the life or the luminousness that nylon does.
You made the first two. Did you continue to make more after that?
Oh, sure. Yes. Right away, I knew it was a hit. It changed my whole life. I went and got a job at a flag factory to find out about flag-making. That's how I got into the vexillography world. I worked there for 10 years, and I really learned a lot. Through that time I was able to interest other manufacturers [in the rainbow flag] and pursue it as an industrial art project, if you will. And yeah, it took a few years. It caught on pretty quick, though.
When you were designing this symbol did you realize it would become what it is?
I didn't really know. I hoped it would. I didn't really know until the minute they were actually up in the air flying like flags. And then I could see in the people and in their eyes that they owned it. People just looked at it, and like I said, it went right to their soul. That's what makes a flag a flag.
Is it an international symbol now or limited to certain areas?
It's everywhere worldwide. I mean, it's in the places where it can be. There's a lot of places where putting up a rainbow flag can get you killed.
Can you tell me about the symbolism of the rainbow?
It's ancient. We're certainly not the first people to use the rainbow. It goes back centuries, to the Chinese and the Egyptians. It certainly goes into Native American culture. It's all over the place. In the Bible, it's the covenant between God and all living creatures in Genesis.
It's an ancient symbol of hope and an ancient symbol of freedom and life and beauty. So it fit us. I kind of changed it a little bit; ours is eight colors. But the point of the rainbow is it fits us as a people. It fits our diversity—our sexual diversity, our gender diversity. And it connects us to nature. That's why it works. It's not a word. It's something that everyone knows everywhere, and people can look at it and appreciate it and share it.
Why does the gay community need a flag?
Because visibility is important. Visibility is still our No. 1 job, as a matter of fact. The rainbow flag helps in that matter. Certainly, it's incredible, the way people have interpreted it and used it. That visibility is important because it puts our message out. People see a rainbow flag and they know it's gay, even if they're not gay. That's due to our great work.
It's important that we claim power, and part of that is not being invisible. The rainbow flag, you put it up on your house or you put it on your bumper sticker or you put it on your T-shirt, you're taking direct action. You're saying something as an action.
Some could say, It's just a rainbow. What's the difference?
Those people really need to get a life. Every rainbow is special, and we're special. Not everybody is going to like the rainbow flag. It's simple, and on some levels, I suppose people can have their criticisms. But it works for the job it was intended to do, and that's to become a visibility tool for the gay community so that our presence, our turf if you will, is established. People see that rainbow flag, and they know that it's a safe place, that there's a friend there. If people don't get it, that's their problem. Plenty of gay people do get it. Plenty of people around the world know exactly what that means.
Do you know of any controversies within the community about the flag?
What? Are you asking me to step on my own dress?! You're a reporter. You want dirt, go get it.
People love it. There's five people in the world that think it's, you know, icky and who are over gay pride and think it's all tired and boring. Those people need to fucking get a life and get off of my shoulders. I didn't spend my life fighting for their rights so they can have that kind of attitude and not be involved. They owe it. Jump in. Whether they like the rainbow flag or not, we have a movement, and that means we have to move something.
You're coming to Albuquerque to grand marshal our parade. Have you become somewhat of an ambassador?
The older I get, sure. You get older, you get respectable [laughs]. I'm very honored.
Have you ever known of a government building wanting to run the pride flag?
Sure. It's flown on various state capitals. It's been on parliament in South Africa. It's been on many government buildings. Not the U.S. capital. It hasn't been there yet, or at the White House, but maybe someday. Who knows?
Who can run the flag?