By PoojaI (IG: @bypoojai )
“What I liked about the rainbow is that it fits all of us. It’s all the colours. It represents all the genders. It represents all the races. It’s the rainbow of humanity.”
The “gay Betsy Ross”, that is how Gilbert Baker was known in the LGBTQ community all over the world. He never trademarked or copyrighted the flag, which is now flown by communities all over the world. A flag that you might see hanging on someone’s bedroom wall, outside a café or club and you know that you will be safe there. A sigh of relief is what we breathe when we see that combination of colours. We can thank Gilbert Baker aka Busty Ross for that.
After an honourable discharge from the military, he learnt to sew from fellow activist friend, Mary Dunn. As an artist, he decided to use his skills for activism, creating banners and posters for anti-war and pro-gay marches in California. Before the rainbow, the pink triangle was the symbol used. That was too dark, a reminder of a time in history of a Nazi tool of oppression. The LGBTQ movement needed something positive, something celebratory.
Baker saw the flags flying on government buildings. He thought of the American flag with it’s stars and stripes, how it was born from rebellion and revolution, he realised that this is what the community needed as well. The Rainbow was a conscious choice. A natural flag from the sky. Originally called “New Glory”, the eight-stripe rainbow flag was designed by Baker, hand-sewn, and hand-dyed with the help of 30 volunteers.
Sex. Life. Healing. Sunlight. Nature. Magic. Serenity. Spirit. Baker gave each colour a meaning, and even with the various modifications over the years for practical and inclusive reasons, the general meaning of it remains the same. It represents us, our identities, our history, our struggles and fight for equality, and our acceptance and empowerment.
The flag was not the only part of Baker’s activism. He dedicated his whole life to activism and creativity. A part of his legacy that is lesser known is his part in the drag community. Always fascinated by clothing and fabric, Baker created dozens of drag ensembles he wore to protests since the 70s. Charley Beal, Baker’s friend said, “Gilbert knew the power of fashion in a ‘Devil Wears Prada’ kind of way. He used that power to make statements, quite often-political statements.” Baker’s drag, like his politics, was not traditional. Instead of gender-illusion, Baker’s humorous and irreverent approach was rebellious in both performance and ideology.
He sparkled as Lady Liberty, flaunted with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, paraded as Pink Jesus, and trooped in the striped concentration camp uniform. He was never just the creator of the Pride flag. He was an artist, designer and activist. He inspired the community to create every known symbol we have now in the LGBTQ rights movement. His accolades and activism kept growing through all his years. This was only amplified after the 2016 elections in the US. Baker created a powerful response: a collection of Holocaust outfits emblazoned with pink triangles, the symbol that identified homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps, exhibited at the Art Saves Lives Gallery in a San Francisco in early 2017.
Baker passed away peaceful in his home in March 2017. We may publicly celebrate his contributions every year on the anniversary of the flag with a Google doodle or a special font. However, every time we glimpse the rainbow flag hanging or even use that little emoji in a text we know that he created something that makes us feel safe and content, and we are grateful to him for that always.