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How San Francisco Artist Gilbert Baker Made The Rainbow Flag An Enduring Symbol Of LGTBQ Pride

by Betty Yu and Molly McCrea

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- In June 1970, gay rights activists gathered at Aquatic Park near Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. About 30 gay men, lesbians, and transgender individuals – then called by the press "hair faeries" - took part in San Francisco's first Gay Liberation Movement Demonstration.

The group marched down Polk Street to City Hall, where they defiantly entered a nearby straight bar and began to slow dance. The following day, about 100 supporters engaged in what was known as a "Gay-In" in Golden Gate Park. What they didn't have would unfurl eight years later: the iconic Rainbow Flag.

To understand its origins, it's important to remember the role of Harvey Milk, who moved to San Francisco's Castro District and was a pioneering gay rights activist.

Another name to remember, Cleve Jones, who was a protégé of Milk's and involved in the burgeoning Gay Liberation Movement. Also in the city during that time, Cleve's roommate and best friend, artist Gilbert Baker.

"He has these big eyes, and big ideas and big hair and big dresses," chuckled Jones.

"He was like this hippie drag queen activist who was just fearless," remarked fellow artist Mark Rennie.

"Gilbert was a true artist, and we forget that a lot of people in the early movement were geniuses in the art of political theatre," noted LGTBQ advocate Jeff Sheehy and former San Francisco Supervisor.

In 1977, Milk became the first openly gay elected official in the state of California when he was elected a San Francisco Supervisor. Before the 1978 Gay Freedom Day took place, Milk and others turned to Baker.

"Harvey and a few other people just implored him, 'You're an artist. We need a new symbol. We need a new symbol. The pink triangle was such a downer!' recalled Charley Beal, who now runs the Gilbert Baker Foundation.

The LGBTQ community at the time had been using an inverted pink triangle to symbolize their movement. The pink triangle was initially used at a badge of shame by the Nazis who forced homosexuals to wear it in concentration camps, designating them in the camp hierarchy as the lowest of the low. While the LGBTQ community decided to actively reclaim the symbol, for many it was depressing.

Baker took up the challenge.

"I remember him sketching out these very dramatic drawings of those rainbow flags that were to fly at the two giant flagpoles at the United Nations Plaza," said Jones.

"The first flags were all hand-dyed. He buys the fabric for 99 cents on Mission Street at the cheap fabric store," recalled Rennie, who was not initially convinced the flags were a good idea.

"I hated the rainbow flag. I really did. I said it's too bright! It's too tacky! I was very much 'art world,' right? And Gilbert said 'No you're wrong! It's got to be bright! It's got to be, Bam! In their face!'" said Rennie. "And you know what? Gilbert was absolutely right. It was brilliant. The rainbow flag was brilliant."

A team of friends jumped into action, as detailed in Gilbert's passionate personal chronicle, entitled "The Rainbow Warrior." Sheehy knows the story well.

"They dyed mounds and mounds of tied dyed cloth into the colors of the flag, and stitched them together," recounted Sheehy.

Early morning on the day of the parade, they brought the huge flags out.

"I helped him hoist them up the pole and was with him when the wind took them," said Jones.

Rennie couldn't believe what he saw – two giant flags unfurling above the city.

"I just walked up and these things were just going! Oh my God, this is insane!" said Rennie, his eyes widening as he spoke of the memory.

"Tens of thousands of people marched beneath them on their way to Civic Center Plaza," marveled Jones.

"And it was spectacular, and it just blew people's minds," added Rennie.

For the decades that followed, Baker spread the message of the rainbow flag near and far; from the mile-long flag carried by the crowd during a PRIDE parade in New York to presenting a framed Rainbow flag to President Barack Obama at the White House.

"Gilbert devoted his entire life to making these enormous flags and giving them away to communities all over the world," noted Jones.

Baker passed away four years ago.

"Gilbert like to say, was famously quoted once, that you can't design a flag. A real flag is torn from the soul of the people," recounted Beal.

Beal pointed out that when anyone sees a rainbow flag, to try to remember the battle for equality and freedom for all in the LGBTQ community is far from over.

"There are places all over the world where they're fighting and struggling just to put a rainbow flag on their apartment balcony or to carry a flag out in a parade," said Beal. "And putting out that flag is an act of courage."

The original flag had eight stripes. Each color held a meaning, but the hot pink and turquoise stripes were subsequently removed. The pink was taken off because it was difficult to source fabric of that color, and turquoise stripe was removed because the organizers wanted a flag with even numbers.

For more information, visit the Gilbert Baker Foundation

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