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The Rainbow Warrior

David Lewis | June 14, 2019 | People Story Culture

It was 1978, and Harvey Milk was looking for a powerful symbol to celebrate the burgeoning LGBTQ movement—an emblem that would officially announce a new gay nation. There was only one person for the San Francisco supervisor to call: Gilbert Baker, the community’s colorful, go-to guy for protest art. While gazing at the flags flowing in the city’s United Nations Plaza, Baker quickly realized that this new symbol for gay consciousness needed to be a flag too. But the challenge was enormous: designing something that would be positive and celebratory, yet also a nod to revolution, like the iconic American and French flags.

The answer came shortly thereafter—in an unlikely place. Baker and friends were at the Winterland Ballroom on Post Street, dancing the night away during a psychedelic funk-a-thon that could happen only in San Francisco. “Everyone was there,” Baker wrote in his upcoming memoir, Rainbow Warrior: My Life in Color ($26.99, Chicago Review Press). “North Beach beatniks and barrio zoots, the bored bikers in black leather, teenagers in the back row kissing. There were long-haired, lithe girls in belly-dance get-ups; pink-haired punks safety-pinned together; hippie suburbanites; movie stars so beautiful they left you dumbstruck; muscle gay boys with perfect mustaches; butch dykes in blue jeans; and fairies of all genders in thrift-store dresses. We rode the mirrored ball on glittering LSD and love power. Dance fused us, magical and cleansing. We were all in a swirl of color and light. It was like a rainbow.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Later in ’78, with the help of fellow artists, Baker stitched rainbow flags that became a sensation when they were unfurled in U.N. Plaza. Today, the rainbow flag is one of the most recognizable flags on the planet—for straight and gay folks alike. If you go to Germany, you may not speak German, but when you see the rainbow flag, you know what it means. “The flag is an achievement that cannot be replaced as a symbol of our equality and justice,” says Terry Beswick, executive director of the GLBT Historical Society. “My guess is that billions of people know what the rainbow flag symbolizes. That’s incredible. Pride has to be claimed. We have to own it. The flag has helped us to do that.”

Baker died in 2017, but, these days, his place in history as the gay Betsy Ross is drawing more attention. On June 4, his posthumous memoir is scheduled to be released, retracing key moments of his life and his journey with the flag. And this October, the GLBT Historical Society Museum in San Francisco will present an exhibition that will put the flag in context by focusing on Baker’s artistic and activist influences. “We know the rainbow flag,” says Charley Beal, creative projects manager for Baker’s estate. “Now we want people to know the person who created it.”

Baker was born June 2, 1951, in the conservative enclave of Chanute, Kan., and grew up in nearby Parsons, another Bible Belt town close to the Oklahoma border. For a boy who was interested in art and fashion, not wrestling or rodeo, southeastern Kansas proved to be an inhospitable place, one where classmates taunted him.

When he was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, Baker hoped for an end to the oppression, but he was horribly bullied at basic training. To escape, he opted to become a military medic, an assignment that sent him to San Francisco, the countercultural capital of America, a mecca where gay liberation, women’s rights, black power and social justice were changing the national psyche. Suddenly, the boy from Kansas—who had never fit in anywhere—was in the right place at the right time, a theme that would resonate for the rest of his life. And his burning desire to sew, discovered as a youngster at his grandmother’s clothing store, would no longer be a life-threatening liability, but, instead, a calling card to greater things. “He was over-the-top and prone to melodrama. In short, he was impossible. And I loved him,” says longtime close friend and fellow activist Cleve Jones. “I miss him every day. He was quite a character, a crazy queen. But what often gets lost is how hard he worked. He was always sewing.”

After his military service, Baker became a fixture on the city’s counterculture scene, whipping up lively banners for anti-war and pro-LGBTQ demonstrations. So it was only natural that Milk and other community leaders drafted Baker to come up with the consummate symbol of the gay movement. Only two years earlier, in 1976, America had celebrated its bicentennial, and U.S. flags had appeared, literally, everywhere. Baker had considered it all overkill but came to realize the flags had a power that could not be denied. With the right one, the gay movement could be transformed. At the Gay Community Center on Grove Street, Baker and his volunteer army of friends and artists hand-dyed and stitched together two rainbow flags. Then there was a test run at U.N. Plaza, days before the crowds arrived. There were worries that the flags would rip, so, afterward, Baker took them to the Paramount Flag Company and had them reinforced.

On June 25, 1978, the flags debuted at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade, and Milk gave his speech about coming out, which would become an anthem of the LGBTQ movement. “The moment they flew the flags, people were going crazy,” Beal says. “The rainbow flag could only have started in San Francisco—the same place that the Summer of Love happened. It’s when Harvey Milk gave his excellent speech. He was our own MLK, and that’s what that day was about.”

Jones—who, as the founder of The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, knows about the importance of symbols—recognized immediately that the rainbow flag was a game-changer. “To be there that day, when the parade entered Civic Center Plaza, you could just feel it,” he says. “When everyone saw the flag, their eyes lit up with joy. There was no explanation needed; everyone knew this was our symbol.”

The prominence of the rainbow flag would keep growing after the historic march of 1978—first around San Francisco, then around the nation, then around the world. “In 1978, many people knew about the flags, and they were showing up in the gay neighborhoods of the city,” Beal says. “But the 1979 parade catalyzed that in a major way. There were 400 flags on Market Street that year, which really cemented the legacy of the flag. Gilbert worked at Paramount (the flag company) and convinced them to make rainbow flags. People were coming in there, asking for the flags. He thought, ‘This is taking on a life of its own.’”

In the mid-1980s, the flags caught on in New York and, eventually, other gay bastions in the U.S. “Since I was back in high school and the rainbow flag came out, it’s been a part of my adult life,” says Beswick, of the GLBT Historical Society. “It’s been part of how I identify myself and my community.”

That community would be put to the ultimate test during the AIDS crisis, and Baker was on the front lines of protests, even as he continued stitching flags, not only of the rainbow variety, but also for the 1984 Democratic National Convention and many other events. For ACT UP, the direct action advocacy group to help those with AIDS, Baker would create colorful and memorable costumes—such as the Grim Reaper and Uncle Sam—that TV cameras couldn’t resist. During this devastating era, the rainbow flag remained a potent symbol of LGBTQ power in America, but Baker helped give the flag an international dimension in 1994 with the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall bar uprising, regarded as the beginning of the gay liberation movement.

It’s near this time, in New York in 1993, that Baker met Beal, whose brother was friends with both Abbie Hoffman and Baker. Beal, the art director for Milk and other Hollywood films, and Baker hit it off immediately. For the anniversary celebration, Beal helped procure workshop space so Baker could pull together a milelong rainbow flag, which would require 5,000 people to carry. “He cut that flag into 200 pieces and sent them around the world,” Beal says. “The flag went from a national symbol to an international symbol.”

The power of the rainbow flag would never be more evident than in 2015, when the Supreme Court approved gay marriage, one of the biggest civil rights decisions since the 1960s. To mark the occasion, the White House was lit up at night in rainbow colors—a testament to Baker’s grand concept. (Little known to the public, Beal says, is that the White House secretly tested the display weeks before the anticipated decision, one rainbow color at a time to avoid detection.) Jones says that with the flag, Baker came closer than anyone to creating a unifying symbol for a diverse community that often can’t decide exactly who it is.

On June 9, 2016, less than a year before Baker died, the flag-maker was invited to the White House, where he presented President Obama with a hand-dyed rainbow flag. It was a crowning achievement for Baker, who had dedicated his life to activism, with a sewing machine always nearby.

Yet Baker hoped the future of the rainbow flag was just beginning. “Right after Gilbert died,” Beal says, “some young kids of color got kicked out of a gay bar in Philadelphia. They created a flag of their own with brown and black stripes to represent people of color. Gilbert always believed that the flag should be used by other people. He thought that the flag should be flexible and should be a living thing—it shouldn’t be frozen. It’s a flexible, organic, growing thing.”

Baker, who never trademarked the flag and, thus, never made any real money off it, was of two minds when it came to his legacy as the gay Betsy Ross. On one hand, he did tongue-in-cheek drag impersonations as “Busty Ross,” yet he had a reverence for her, even paying his respects to her historic home in Philadelphia.

“I wonder if there would even be a rainbow flag if it were not for the American flag,” he wrote in his memoir. “Without the American Revolution, would there be a gay rights movement—or any human rights movement at all? Did Betsy Ross see past all the borderlines of nations, race, and gender, sewing the concept of equality, true brotherhood, and sisterhood, in every stitch? Betsy Ross, your revolutionary act is the ultimate example of the artist as instrument, the hand of God—visible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco

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Photography by: Photography Courtesy of: Tristan Fewings/Stringer