Artist, activist, and creator of the Rainbow Flag, Gilbert Baker died on March 31, 2017. But his legacy endures in the instantly recognisable and universal symbol of LGBTIQ+ visibility.
Scroll down for the video: Performance, Protest & Politics: The Art of Gilbert Baker.
Today the Rainbow Flag created by Gilbert Baker is universal. It flutters gaily on the wind at numerous Pride marches and festivals. Cities across the planet illuminate landmarks in the six iconic colours to mark important LGBTIQ+ milestones. It is a symbol of Pride but also of aspiration for a less cruel world as illustrated by images of oppressed queer Ugandans waving the flag despite the real dangers they face under the autocratic rule of a homophobic president. Or racing car drivers donning rainbow helmets to protest murderous middle-eastern regimes. The Rainbow Flag also serves to signify defiance as shown by the queer Ukrainians taking up arms to defend their country against a cruel and avowedly homophobic invader.
Why such acceptance? Perhaps Gilbert Baker said it best.
“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! And even though the rainbow has been used in other ways in vexilography, this use has now far eclipsed any other use that it had.”
Gilbert Baker designed the Rainbow Flag at the suggestion of his friend Harvey Milk. He took inspiration from the oceans of stars and stripes proudly waved during the 1976 American Bicentennial. Fittingly, he took his drag name, Busty Ross, from Betsy Ross, anecdotally credited as making the first American flag.
The first eight-coloured Rainbow Flag flew in San Francisco in 1978. Gilbert Baker later cut back to six colours to enable mass production of his popular creation.
To celebrate 25 years of the Rainbow Flag, Gilbert Baker and volunteers sewed a flag a mile and a quarter long for the 2003 Key West PrideFest. Later, he cut the flag into sections and sent those to more than 100 Pride organisations around the world. Brisbane Pride was the only Australian organisation to receive a section and proudly displays it at the beginning of the annual Brisbane Pride Rally and March.
In the years since Gilbert Baker first designed the Rainbow Flag, many variations and new flags emerged to represent different sections of the LGBTIQ+ communities. Wonderfully, the Gilbert Baker Foundation embraces that diversity.
“Flags aren’t just pieces of fabric. They’re symbols of safety and strength for all to rally around. And the Rainbow Flag was just the beginning.”
So, whatever your place in our glorious communities, whatever acronym or umbrella term you choose for yourself, whatever flag you wish to march under — get out there and wave that flag — in the spirit of Gilbert Baker and the enduring symbol that is his legacy.
And remember his words.
“We needed something to express our joy, our beauty, our power. And the rainbow did that.
“We’re an ancient, wonderful tribe of people. We picked something from nature. We picked something beautiful.”
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