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CHICAGO (WBBM) – They wave it. They wear it. They put it on their cars. It’s even on their pets. The Rainbow Flag is the symbol of the international Gay Pride movement and will be prominent fixture in Gay Pride parades and festivals this weekend across the country and in Chicago.
But how and why did it come to be? WBBM’s Steve Grzanich spoke with the creator of the flag, Gilbert Baker.
“The rainbow came to mind almost instantly as an obvious expression of diversity and acceptance,” said Baker. In 1978, the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade commissioned Baker to come up with a new symbol that could be used year after year.
LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Steve Grzanich reports
“The rainbow is a part of nature and you have to be in the right place to see it,” Baker said. “It’s beautiful, all of the colors, even the colors you can’t see. That really fit us as a people because we are all of the colors. Our sexuality is all of the colors. We are all the genders, races and ages,” he said.
The culture of San Francisco, which had made an impression on Baker, also impacted the flag’s design. The atmosphere was fueled by an explosion of socially progressive politics and sexual liberation as people came out of the closet to live openly and freely. “And that’s what our movement is about, liberation and equality,” Baker said.
In his 20’s at the time, Baker, who was born in Kansas, settled in San Francisco after being discharged from the Army following a tour of duty in Vietnam. He taught himself how to sew and began using his new talent to make banners for gay events and marches. That’s how he met and became friends with Harvey Milk, who became the first openly-gay elected supervisor of San Francisco in 1977. Milk rode under Baker’s flag when it debuted to the public during the 1978 pride parade. Milk was assassinated later that year.
LISTEN: Full Interview With Gilbert Baker
The first design of the Rainbow Flag included eight stripes, each a different color with its own symbolism. Pink represented sex, red represented life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, blue for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for the human spirit. Pink had to be dropped because at that time, it was not a commercially available color. Indigo would later be removed so that the flag would have an even six stripes.
The Rainbow Flag has become the international symbol of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movement and is arguably one of the most recognizable symbols in the world. While Baker is proud of his creation, he is humbled by its status as the flag of a worldwide movement.
“A true flag is not something you can really design. A true flag is torn from the soul of the people. A flag is something that everyone owns and that’s why they work. The Rainbow Flag is like other flags in that sense, it belongs to the people.”
Like other flags, the Rainbow Flag is in the public domain, which has allowed endless commercial reproduction. It has appeared on just about every surface imaginable, from underwear to dog collars. Google lists more than 9-million references to the Rainbow Flag and catalogues 30-million image results.
“I think the Rainbow Flag will survive forever, primarily because it’s the perfect flag, regardless of whatever political meaning it may have or evolve to. A rainbow is something in the sky, so a rainbow flag fits,” Baker said. The basic design remains unchanged but Baker does tinker with it occasionally like when he added it to the outline of every U-S state and territory to help promote voter registration.
On the current status of the gay movement? Despite progress on many fronts including gay marriage and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Baker said the LGBT community has much more work to do.
“We have a long ways to go. Let’s remember that in 80 countries it’s still illegal to be gay and in ten countries or so it’s a death penalty. Our oppressors, our enemies if you will, the people who are trying to stop us, are formidable with their religions and their laws and their hatred. They will never stop.”
Baker spoke to Newsradio WBBM from San Francisco where he will be honored today during that city’s Gay Pride parade. He moved to New York where he is writing a book about his life as the Rainbow Flag creator. In 2008, he returned to San Francisco to recreate his original banners from the 70’s for the Academy Award winning film “Milk.” Sean Penn portrayed Milk.
Baker also holds the world’s record for creating the largest flag, one that stretched sea to sea from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean in Key West.
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