Today, the rainbow flag flies everywhere.
But in 1978, it was a dream borne out of love and LSD.
In his new, posthumously released memoir Rainbow Warrior: My Life in Color, Pride flag designer Gilbert Baker recalls a psychedelic night spent dancing in a San Francisco nightclub, noticing the colors all around him: black leather, pink hair, blue jeans.
“We rode the mirrored ball on glittering LSD and love power,” Baker writes. “Dance fused us, magical and cleansing. We were all in a swirl of color and light. It was like a rainbow.”
That, Baker notes, was “the moment when I knew exactly what kind of flag I would make.” And make the flag he did, first sewing it by hand and eventually popularizing the rainbow as a global LGBTQ symbol.
Published earlier this month, Rainbow Warrior is as colorful as Baker’s most famous creation, full of resplendent anecdotes about the early decades of LGBTQ activism.
The rainbow flag, after all, was created at a pivotal turning point in LGBTQ history. In 1978, Baker sewed the first rainbow flag—which had eight colors instead of six—in large part because legendary gay rights leader Harvey Milk and filmmaker Artie Bressan Jr. wanted a more joyous symbol than the Holocaust-era pink triangle to represent the fight for equality.
Milk was assassinated the following year, prompting Baker to sew even more rainbow flags for the 1979 parade in San Francisco, even though, as the artist writes, “everybody was ready to paint it black.”
“You have to give them hope,” Milk had said—and Baker took that message to heart.
But Baker’s life story had to be stitched together from various drafts of his autobiography left behind when he passed away in 2017 at the age of 65.
Most of Baker’s extant writing focused on his creation of a world record-setting, mile-long version of the rainbow flag for the 1994 Stonewall25 rally in New York City. He devoted special attention to his often-contentious friendship with fellow LGBTQ activist Cleve Jones, whose book When We Rise covers a similar time period.
However, Baker’s writing tapered off significantly after he suffered a 2012 stroke, and he ultimately left his memoirs unfinished.
Fortunately, just in time for Stonewall50, Baker’s friends assembled his multiple drafts into a cohesive manuscript. In an afterword to Rainbow Warrior, Charley Beal, manager of creative projects for the Gilbert Baker estate, describes the project as a “massive editing job,” one that took journalist Jay Blotcher months to complete.
The hard work paid off: Rainbow Warrior is a vital volume for anyone whose life has been touched by Baker’s design—and by this point, that’s virtually every LGBTQ person on the planet. The timing of the book, too, could not be more poignant.
“In a moment when the struggle for human rights of all kinds seems to be rolling backward, the revolutionary acts necessary to move forward again will demand collaboration,” Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who wrote the book’s foreword, tells NewNowNext. “A history like Gilbert’s, and the unifying, ever-expanding symbol he gave our community and world, reminds us of the power of diverse people locking arms, fighting back together, and what it means to truly have each other’s backs—not despite our diversity, but because our combined, magnificent differences are what build the power necessary to win justice and equality for all.”
Even though the Trump administration banned U.S. embassies from flying LGBTQ Pride flags this month, many are finding ways to defy that order. Meanwhile, more corporations than ever seem to be selling rainbow-themed merchandise for Pride month, raising questions about which brands actually support LGBTQ people and which are just looking for a quick cash-in.
Were Baker with us today, he would not be surprised that his flag remains a potent and much-discussed political symbol. Indeed, throughout much of Rainbow Warrior, he describes the delicate process of securing—and maintaining—a corporate sponsorship from Stadtlanders pharmacy for his mile-long “Raise the Rainbow” project in 1994.
On one hand, Baker says that the radical HIV/AIDS advocacy group ACT UP wasn’t thrilled with the idea of a pharmacy underwriting a rainbow flag for Stonewall25.
“There was a clear consensus,” Baker recalls. “Rainbow Flag? Hate it.”
On the other hand, the pharmacy representatives got increasingly skittish as political controversy around the Stonewall25 event grew: Then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani insisted that the march go down First Avenue, rather than the more central Fifth Avenue route.
“[Giulani’s] get-tough policy and bad comb-over were both extremely Caesarean,” Baker writes, with characteristic wit.
Ultimately, Baker and his fellow activists raised the mile-long flag on First Avenue, before cutting off sections of it to be taken to an unofficial protest that went down on Fifth Avenue anyway. Helicopter images from that day remain some of the most powerful in LGBTQ history.
But the view from Baker’s perspective on the ground was reportedly just as stunning. Indeed, Rainbow Warrior’s most joyous moment comes when the artist—after months of planning, sewing, and infighting—can finally run beneath the mile-long flag as thousands of LGBTQ marchers hoist it into the air.
“The sun shining through the flag projected an intense, glittering light on the street,” Baker writes. “I was walking on diamonds.”
As the LGBTQ community marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, it is easy to take the ubiquity of the rainbow flag for granted. In 2019, Baker’s design appears not just on flags, but on sneakers, underwear, and even airplanes. Sometimes, it can seem as though the LGBTQ rainbow, much like its natural counterpart, appeared out of thin air, ahistorical and fully formed.
But behind it all was an artist with a vision and a Singer sewing machine who spent a lifetime making flags on two coasts. In Baker’s own words, it was a labor of “hard work, sweat, and glitter.”
In his foreword, Black movingly describes the magic of hearing his old friend’s “dazzling, dreamy voice again, not just from across an ocean but from the great beyond—from that rainbow-striped heaven I feel certain he feels quite at home in now.”
And from heaven, Baker is surely smiling at the continuing spread of his rainbow—just as he did in 1994, when he saw it “on white t-shirts, on hats, on scarves, on every conceivable garment and accessory.”
“I always loved that stuff,” Baker quips.
If only he could see the rainbows at Stonewall50.
Rainbow Warrior: My Life in Color is available now from Chicago Review Press.