As I write this, I’m midway through “Rainbow Warrior: My Life in Color,” the autobiography of Gilbert Baker which was published posthumously. Gilbert, you may or may not know, is the creator of the now ubiquitous rainbow flag.
In addition to giving the fascinating details of the birth of our community’s flag, the book is an invaluable look into queer history from San Francisco’s point of view, from just prior to Harvey Milk becoming a city supervisor on.
Harvey was among several voices who encouraged Gilbert to come up with a symbol for the queer community that was positive, unlike the rosa winkel from the Holocaust. The pink triangle that branded gay men in Hitler’s Germany served soley as the symbol or our community until Gilbert created the rainbow flag in 1978. One night, while dancing, Gilbert was inspired by the spectrums bouncing off mirrored balls to make the representation of the (later to be called) LGBTQ+ community a rainbow.
A question I’ve pondered for a while was answered in the pages of Gilbert’s book. How would he feel about the changes people have made to the rainbow flag? There have been recent version of the flag that include other colors in an effort to make it more inclusive; a puzzling move when the “Gay Betsy Ross” intended the flag to be symbolic of diversity, to represent everyone. There are also versions of the flag to represent specific communities such as transgender, bears and leather, and I’m no doubt missing a few.
Interestingly flag designs are in public domain. A designer cannot patent, trademark or copyright their design. Drink that in for a moment. Think about how ubiquitous the rainbow flag has become. T-shirts, patches, koozies, undies, pet costumes, bandanas, dildos, sneakers, beach towels—I’m only scratching the surface here. Hell, I even have a onesie at home – ironically, hanging in my closet. Again, the design is in public domain; Gilbert Baker did not see a percentage of the sales, there is not an estate collecting residuals from sales.
When Gilbert was told flag designs are in public domain, he was unphased and immediately at peace that the rainbow flag belonging to everyone for them to do with as they wish. Over his life, he would ruminate on this phenomenon as he would design major installations which involved flags of various nations including our own—most notably for the 1984 Democratic convention where Gilbert used the Stars and Stripes as a work of art filled with impotent wishes that a miracle would happen and Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro would rise victorious over the charismatic juggernaut Ronald Reagan.
Gilbert’s flag was there for me when I was coming out of the closet, which was more like wading through a vat of Jell-O than dramatically bursting through the door as many of my friends did. I bought a thin stripe rainbow cling in Orlando’s since-gone ViMi District and I put it in the back window of my shitty Nissan. Primarily it was a way of letting the boys know I was on their team, but gained a deeper meaning in the wake of Matthew Shepard’s death. In fear for her son’s life, Mom asked me to remove it. I refused and an activist heart was stoked; a tender activist, mind, but an activist nonetheless. Around that same time, a friend was asked by a homophobic relative about his rainbow license plate. He said he had it because he liked rainbows. It was the ‘90s, we chose our educational moments carefully, but Gilbert’s flag was there coaxing those discussions. I’m fairly sure the relative absorbed my friend’s answer with skepticism and probably never stopped thinking about it.
Corporate America has used Gilbert’s flag to get to our wallets through our hearts and sometimes doing so to deflect from missteps. When we see Target’s giant display of rainbow items at the front of their store each June, we don’t bother to remember how recently they were backing homophobic candidates for “business reasons.” Corporate America has also made wise use of our Pride parades by sponsoring to the tune of hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars. During Gilbert’s time, he recounts when Miller Brewing Company backed the campaign of raging homophobe Jesse Helms only to then turn around and throw money at San Francisco’s parade (with mixed results thanks to protests by activists like Gilbert).
In Orlando we have used the rainbow flag to wrap our ongoing grief in the wake of the June 12, 2016 massacre and, at times, I have wondered if that is such a good thing. Does coloring everything rainbow give us armor against dealing with the larger harder issue of gun violence and violence in general? Our local governments have colored crosswalks and business tax receipts rainbow knowing they are impotent to do anything real in the face of the legislature the powerful gun lobby has craftily put in place. Ironic that we have hidden behind a symbol that was intended to make us more visible.
“Who owns an idea? Who owns a vision?” Gilbert asks when recalling how Cleve Jones would claim full credit for The Names Project – AIDS Memorial Quilt. Among the many achievements in a remarkable life, Gilbert sewed the first real panel of that quilt. “Ideas are the properties of those who make them realities,” Gilbert asserts.
I would add that those ideas become the responsibility of those who inherit them. Learn about the history that has brought us to this moment and honor it as best you can. Yes, by all means, wear your rainbow-striped speedo proudly, but remember Gilbert when you do. Remember Stonewall when you wave his flag. Remember Christine Jorgensen when you rub on that temporary tattoo. Remember Bayard Rustin when you slip on your onesie. Remember all our colorful trailblazers as we continue to make our Pride a reality.