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    Gilbert Baker’s Gift to the World

    By Zoe Dunning

    Gilbert Baker (1951–2017) remains an icon of the LGBTQ movement, particularly given the importance of the rainbow-striped Pride Flag that he designed. This symbol of our community was unveiled on June 25, 1978, at the San Francisco Pride Parade, with its usage and significance growing ever larger over time.

    Like so many leaders in the LGBTQ community, Baker was a military veteran who spent a year in college before he was drafted into the Army. He served as a medic and was eventually stationed in San Francisco, where he stayed for several years after leaving the Army in 1972.

    The flag that he designed six years later was a source of personal pride for Baker. According to The New York Times, he refused to apply for a trademark for his creation. San Francisco’s very own LGBTQ activist Cleve Jones called it Gilbert’s gift to the world. “He told me when the flag first went up that he knew at that moment that it was his life’s work.”

    The Rainbow Flag has significance and memories for nearly every LGBTQ person all over the globe. It is a universal symbol for inclusion, peace and love. There are many symbols for our movement—the pink triangle, the lambda and even the Human Rights Campaign’s bright yellow equal sign on a dark blue background. But I argue none is as universal as Gilbert’s Pride Flag. It even spawned the creation of the Leather and Transgender Pride Flags.

    Symbols are important. In the 1980s, when I was a closeted lesbian serving on active duty in the Navy, I searched for ways of expressing myself without giving myself away and risking investigation and discharge. I would wear a lambda pendant on a chain around my neck while on leave. It was something I bought from a mail-order catalog, since there were few places you could physically go for those sorts of things back then.

    I have a distinct memory of changing from civilian clothes to my Naval Academy midshipman uniform in an Oakland Airport restroom in 1984, getting ready to fly on a Space Available military charter to the Midwest. I was with another woman I had met on the BART ride to OAK, a cadet attending West Point. She saw the necklace and asked me what it was. I was mortified! Thinking quickly on my feet, but not cleverly, I responded, “A Chinese wishbone.” (How the hell did I come up with that?). She responded, “Huh.” I was terrified she would look it up and turn me in. Instead, we have become great friends over these past 30 years, and she is now the faculty rep for the LGBTQ cadet group at West Point!

    Fast forward to 1991, when I was stationed in Washington, D.C. On my last day of active duty, I drove home, parked my car, and the very first thing I did to celebrate my new freedom was to place a rainbow flag sticker on the back bumper of my 1984 Honda Accord. I felt so free, so proud, and so excited to express myself through that symbol. It was a fun and, at that time, somewhat secretive way to show your support for LGBT rights, since the flag was not as universally recognized then as it is now. I loved seeing it on my car every day, and kept it on even while serving in the Navy Reserves, and even driving on military bases with it.

    After moving to the Bay Area, I loved going to the Castro and seeing colorful pride flags everywhere. I marched with the Alexander Hamilton American Legion Post 448 in the 1993 San Francisco Pride Parade, right behind the color guard that marched with the American flag, the flags of each branch of military service, and the rainbow Pride Flag.

    When my wife joined the board of SF Pride in 2013, it was time for all of the Pride Flags up and down Market Street to be replaced. These flags, as well as the giant Pride Flag in Harvey Milk Plaza, are maintained by the Diversity Foundation, which was founded by Tom Taylor and Jerry Goldstein (the infamous “Tom and Jerry” of outlandish home holiday decorations).

    We had the opportunity to spend one Saturday in their work loft, helping to organize and fold the new flags while Tom diligently sat hunched over at a sewing machine attaching the final pieces needed to hang the flags. The room was awash in colorful fabric, and it seemed like almost a spiritual rite of passage to participate in such an endeavor. I smiled when I saw the bright new flags going up, replacing the faded old ones.

    Symbols have meaning. I am grateful to Gilbert Baker for having the vision and creativity to gift us a timeless flag that can represent all of us in our broad diversity. We as a community will miss him greatly. Rest in peace, brother.

    Zoe Dunning is a retired Navy Commander and was a lead activist in the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. She served as Co-Chair of the Board of Directors for the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club and as an elected Delegate for the Democratic National Convention. She is a San Francisco Library Commissioner and is the former First Vice Chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party.