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Pride Events Honor Memory Of Gilbert Baker And His Rainbow Flag


June is LGBT Pride Month. That means you may see an unusual number of rainbow flags at this time of year. The symbol of gay pride was invented by Gilbert Baker. He died in March at the age of 65. He's being remembered at Pride events from San Francisco to New York this month. From New York, KristinSchwab looks at how the colorful stripes contributed to a social and political movement.

KRISTIN SCHWAB, BYLINE: The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan is bursting with famous work - Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol. Among those is a name you might not recognize - Gilbert Baker. His piece is a cheery addition to the museum's cavernous, gray lobby.

So was the original this size?

MICHELLE FISHER: No. The original was much larger. This is the everyman's version.

SCHWAB: Michelle Fisher helped the museum acquire one of Baker's ubiquitous rainbow flags. This version is 3-by-5 feet. The original, by some estimates, was 30-by-50 feet. But it didn't hold up. Baker's first flag was made of cotton and was hand-dyed.

FISHER: He talks about taking it to a local laundromat and turning each one of the washing machines a different color as they were fixing the dye in there. And they had sort of run out very quickly after that.

SCHWAB: Most people are familiar with the rainbow flag, but few know how it evolved from yards of fabric to champion symbol. The flag was commissioned by gay rights leader Harvey Milk for the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day parade in 1978. Baker was paid $1,000, just enough for materials and supplies. At the time, the gay community had one identifier.


GILBERT BAKER: Up until the rainbow flag, the pink triangle was the dominant symbol for our movement.

SCHWAB: That's Baker speaking at the American Civil Liberties Union in 2009.


BAKER: But it was negative. It had a depressing origin. You know, Holocaust and murder was put on us by Hitler. We needed something from us.

SCHWAB: The version you see today is not quite like the original. It has six stripes instead of eight. Pink and turquoise were taken out because the dyes were too expensive for mass production. Baker chose the rainbow because he wanted a symbol that came from nature.


BAKER: A true flag isn't designed. It's torn from the soul of the people. It's a direct action that people are taking all around the world today with the rainbow flag.

SCHWAB: Cleve Jones helped dye the original flag. He's an LGBTQ activist and was a friend of Baker. He says it was a messy project. It took weeks to wash the colors from his skin. But he says it was worth it because back then, the gay community needed a positive symbol to help recognize its existence.

CLEVE JONES: It was a very different time then. The people we now call LGBTQ were really beginning to understand how many of us there were. And that was quite still a revelation for us.

SCHWAB: Jones helped unveil the flag in front of the U.N. building in San Francisco on June 25, 1978. He says it was a clear, blue day with just enough wind to let the fabric fly.

JONES: And you could just see that everybody at that moment was understanding immediately without any explanation that this was now our flag and our symbol.

SCHWAB: Baker's flag caught on quickly. Part of that was his ability to grasp this turning point in history right before the AIDS crisis when the gay community was coming into its own. But another reason, says the Museum of Modern Art's Michelle Fisher, is that the flag feels universal. It transcends not just sexuality but gender, race, religion. And that was multiplied by Baker's desire to share the flag with everyone, even if it meant not making a profit.

FISHER: I think really importantly, at the crux of it, it was never trademarked. He certainly could have I think monetized it later on and chose not to.

SCHWAB: The rainbow flag has become an universal symbol for peace and acceptance. The flag is a Facebook profile photo staple, is hung out of apartment windows and at gay bars and is waved at protests and celebrations around the world. For NPR News, I'm Kristin Schwab in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CAVE SINGERS SONG, "BEACH HOUSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: June 27, 2017 at 11:00 PM CDT
In a previous version of this story, Kristin Schwab's byline was misspelled as Kristen.
Kristin Schwab