Gilbert Baker: "I love going to cities around the world and seeing the rainbow flag"

Kristina Backer meets Gilbert Baker, the man who came up with the globally famous symbol of gay pride

Thursday 19 June 2008 00:00 BST

Walk down any street in a gay village and you are likely to spot countless rainbow flags outside shops, cafes, cinemas, bars and clubs. Whether it's in London's Soho, Manchester's Canal Street, or Istanbul's Taksim village, the flag is on display to guarantee that those in the know will know where to go and that those less familiar with this gay iconic symbol will at least remember the area as somewhat colourful.

"I love going to cities around the world and seeing the rainbow flag, knowing that it's a safe place where I can be myself," says Gilbert Baker the man who created the flag 30 years ago.

Since its birth in San Francisco, the flag has become the international symbol of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans (LGBT) movement. So embedded in LGBT culture is the rainbow flag that it seems somewhat strange that one man alone came up with the idea.

"In 1978, when I thought of creating a flag for the gay movement there was no other international symbol for us than the pink triangle, which the Nazis used to identify homosexuals in concentration camps. Even though the pink triangle was and still is a powerful symbol, it was very much forced upon us," says Baker.

"I almost instantly thought of using the rainbow. To me, it was the only thing that could really express our diversity, beauty and our joy. I was astounded nobody had thought of making a rainbow flag before because it seemed like such an obvious symbol for us."

Born and raised in Kansas, Baker was drafted into the US army at 19 and served as a nurse in Vietnam for two years. While in the army Baker fell in love with a fellow soldier, an experience he describes as the most transformative moment of his life. "When I fell in love, all the shame and guilt I carried with me for years suddenly vanished."

After his tour in Vietnam, Baker moved to San Francisco, a vibrant and socially progressive city that was full of culture, and where individuality was celebrated rather than repressed – very much the opposite to his native Kansas.

Gender-bending glam rockers, hippies and beatniks were flocking to San Francisco at this time and for Gilbert it was the passion for fashion and a lack of cash that sparked his interest in sewing. To his own amusement he quickly became known as the "seam master" on the gay scene:

"I would be the guy they'd call up when they needed banners for demonstrations. That became my role in the gay movement and I am very proud to say that my craft was my activism, it still is."

It was at this time Gilbert met Harvey Milk, a vocal gay rights activist who became the first openly gay elected supervisor of San Francisco in 1977. "Harvey was an inspirational man. He had the ability to voice all our feelings and concerns," says Baker.

It was at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Parade on 25 June 1978 Baker's rainbow flag had its first public outing. "I will always remember Harvey riding through the streets under the giant rainbow flag waving to the crowds. It was an incredible moment of joy and we all felt that we were going to change the world."

But only months later, Dan White, an outspoken anti-gay conservative and ex-colleague of Milk's on the Board of Supervisors walked into the City Hall with a loaded gun and at close range shot and killed Milk and the Mayor George Moscone.

"It was a devastating moment, we had lost a great leader, but in a way it also prepared us for the difficult times to come where many of us would loose so many friends to Aids," says Baker.

Even though LGBT people in the west have gained increasing civil and human rights over the past 30 years the same cannot be said for LGBT people across the globe. "The most difficult issue for any gay person is still to be able to 'come out', it's an emotional struggle that we all share. In many places around the world our brothers and sisters would be killed because of their sexuality, so there is still progress to be made."

Although proud of being the designer of the Rainbow Flag, Baker is humble about his role in creating the most recognised LGBT symbol in the world.

"The rainbow flag has become far more than just a flag, it gives people hope. When LGBT people across the world fly this flag they are saying something, they are taking action."

Gilbert Baker has collaborated with Absolut Vodka to create a rainbow coloured bottle to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the rainbow flag. Part of the proceeds will be donated to Inter Pride who organise Pride Festivals across the world. 'Milk' a film about the life of Harvey Milk, starring Sean Penn and directed by Gus Van Sant will be released later this year

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