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By Patrick Carney
The Rainbow Flag and the Pink Triangle go hand-in-hand as iconic symbols of the LGBTQ movement. The Pink Triangle is a remnant from one of the darkest chapters in human history, while the Rainbow Flag is, in contrast, positive and relatively new, having been born out of hope and optimism. The former is commemorative and the latter aspirational. They are the yin-yang of the LGBTQ community, at opposite ends of the positive-negative spectrum. Yes, the Pink Triangle has been usurped by the gay community as a symbol of defiance, courage, strength and pride, but its tragic history will always define how it is remembered. The Rainbow flag, however, will be forever known as a positive symbol without associations of past tragedy and hatred; it is a ubiquitous and hopeful emblem known round the world for gay liberation.
“We need another color to represent diversity in the age of Trump.” So began Gilbert Baker in a recent conversation. What a difference a few months make. In June, President Obama met with Gilbert in the Blue Room of the White House, where Gilbert presented Obama with a framed Rainbow Flag. It was followed by a ceremony in the ornate East Room to celebrate Pride Month. Gilbert was one of the few offered a private meeting with the president. It was a scene illustrative of how far the LGBTQ community has come over the decades.
A half-year later, Gilbert began sewing an additional color onto his original 8-color design, thereby creating a 9-color version of his famous flag, illustrating we are now firmly in resist-mode to Trump. He remarked, “Trump takes us back 300 years.” Gilbert has wanted to add lavender for “diversity” to the flag for quite some time, and the new president’s ascension (via the antiquated Electoral College) made for perfect timing.
Shortly after the Rainbow Flag was introduced commercially, my graphic-designer boyfriend had a rainbow flag hanging off his front porch; I asked if he made it and what it meant. He was surprised I didn’t know the story behind the “gay flag” or “freedom flag,” as he called it. Gilbert Baker, the self-described Betsy Ross of the gay movement, created the Rainbow Flag in 1978. Harvey Milk approached Gilbert to create something that would symbolize the community to fulfill Milk’s message of “hope”. Gilbert knew it had to be a flag since “flags have power, flags say something.” Gilbert reflects, “I love to sew. My craft is my activism. I had no money. I wanted to dress like the rock stars in the 70s, so I had to learn to sew to be able to express myself.”
Years later I feel fortunate to count Gilbert Baker as not only a friend, but also a loyal supporter of the Pink Triangle project, which I have presented and organized each year for 22 years on top of Twin Peaks. Gilbert has attended four of the Pink Triangle ceremonies.
When the Pink Triangle began, it soon became clear that many didn’t know its tragic origin, therefore I founded the accompanying annual Commemoration Ceremony that follows each installation. Those ceremonies still go on to this day, and I am honored to say Gilbert Baker has been present for many of them. For over two decades, the gigantic Pink Triangle has hovered on Twin Peaks as a visible, yet mute, reminder of man’s inhumanity toward man. This Holocaust symbol of hatred represented our community for so long, until Gilbert Baker created a new, uplifting symbol of hope.
How does Gilbert see the connection between the Rainbow Flag and the Pink Triangle? He recently told the New York Times: “The Rainbow Flag functions as a symbol because it’s beautiful, it comes from nature, it expresses our love; it expresses something really positive. Up until the Rainbow Flag, the Pink Triangle was used to identify gay people, but it comes from Hitler! It comes from a really negative place. We need to remember that. It’s happening again! The Rainbow Flag is the answer to that.”
Gilbert’s recent Holocaust themed “Untitled Series” exhibit, which included several concentration-camp-like uniforms with large pink triangles affixed, was quite controversial. As a result, he received a lot of feedback, including numerous negative comments. He spent a great deal of time on his “Untitled Series”; he says the uniforms are well made and well researched, and he was meticulous with the details. He calls it some of his finest sewing ever, and compares the quality of the craftsmanship to haute couture.
He wanted to scare people viewing the exhibit, so using a high level of accuracy was imperative. Some people looked at it and immediately rejected it, saying things along the lines of “The Shoah was so terrible, you just don’t go there. It cannot be used for entertainment or fashion.” Gilbert insists it isn’t fashion, but is art and is a warning. One woman even demanded he remove the display: “Oh please, take that down. Some things you simply do not touch. It’s a belittlement of history.”
Not one to back down, Gilbert wrote back: “No. I will not; its art and it’s a warning. It could happen again, starting with just your kind of art censorship. Open your mind to what’s happening now.”
He says art sometimes has to be controversial in order to have an effect. “Art is politics,” he explains. Receiving a negative reaction sometimes brings in more people to look at a work. A negative reaction can get people to think of the horror that occurred. It isn’t the art that is bad; it is the fact that the original act was allowed to occur in the first place. As with the gigantic Pink Triangle display on Twin Peaks, an ‘in your face’ tactic is sometimes needed in order to get people’s attention long enough for them to become curious and to be open to learning about unpleasant chapters in human history. The fact that gays were part of the Holocaust and were included on the long list of “undesirables” who were targeted for extermination isn’t known by much of the population, and is why the huge Twin Peaks display has continued so long.
The process of creating the “Untitled Series” Holocaust uniforms was cathartic for Gilbert. “As I was sewing, it was very Zen. I was thinking about the gays in the concentration camps who were forced to sew uniforms for other prisoners,” he says. Gilbert channeled all of that energy and put in the extra effort to make the uniforms as accurate and well-made as he could. He adds, “Parallel that to today. China produces more rainbow flags than anyone. My nightmare is there is a factory with nearly slave labor, forced to live within the factory complex and get up every morning and have to churn out more and more rainbow tchotchkes.” He says he didn’t create the rainbow flag in order for others to profit off of “rainbow junk”.
He is horrified by some of the things he has seen. He says, “Walking down Castro Street, I can’t pay my rent, but I see rainbow dildos in the shop windows and rainbow keychains, rainbow rings, rainbow candles and so on.” He said it is similar to when the best music ends up as elevator music. He is gratified that the power of the rainbow caught on as rings, but that power can be diluted by over-commercialization.
Another recent project of Gilbert’s was sewing the “Equality Across America” banner used in the National Equality March. He also personally hand-dyed each colored stripe and sewed them together to make the flag used in the recent ABC miniseries When We Rise. He said that his favorite line in the miniseries is “when the actor playing my character says, ‘What’s wrong with the Pink Triangle? Hitler!’”
Only 80 years ago, the “Degenerate Art Exhibition” opened in Germany. Hitler called out the ‘chatterboxes, dilettantes and art swindlers’ and called the art ‘cultural disintegration’. Much of the art was gathered up and burned two years later. Gilbert says, “For Hitler, it was simple. He only had to go after the papers and radio, and could then get away with what he desired. Trump has to face a much more expanded media, but, on his side, he has Fox News, Twitter followers, Facebook trolls and an army of fake news assistants; his chief strategist made a career of attacking others.”
Gilbert also has no love for former President Clinton, whom he says “threw us under the bus.” He also doesn’t think Feinstein has been on the frontlines either. However, he says, “Thank you Joe Biden!” The former vice president called for marriage equality before most, and helped Obama to evolve on the issue. He has praise for Nancy Pelosi as well, whom he says is always with us and helped him by hiring him to make flags for the 1984 Democratic National Convention when it was held in San Francisco.
What else does Gilbert’s think about the current situation in this nation? “America loves bullies and America loves violence,” he says. “Pick up the newspapers and nearly every week it seems there is another transgender murder. Never ending hate. That is our challenge; that is what we are fighting. War on the media, war on the justice system and the ‘so-called’ judges. For the first time in my life, I am serious about a ‘plan B’. I don’t want to live in fear.”
If there is a chance of war, he doesn’t want to be living in New York City, as he is sure it will be a target again. He says, “San Francisco still has civility, but New York is nuts.” He lived in San Francisco for 23 years; as of this year it has also been 23 years he has lived in New York City. He shared that he ideally wants to live in the country with a boyfriend. When asked where that countryside might be, he said, “Fire Island or Malibu.”
When Gilbert first came west, he lived in Occidental near Bodega Bay in a house with many others. It had no electricity and he would read by kerosene lamps. Now, however, he likes soft pillows and soft smooth sheets; no more roughing it. He said he has traveled enough to see the world, and knows how rich he is for having done that. He remarked he is lucky he is white, male and American, because that makes it easier to travel wherever he wants to without being questioned. He says, “That is the sad state of things and it isn’t right, but it is a fact.” He now lives in Harlem, and feels very fortunate to be a part of the community he has joined.
He spoke of the struggle after Stonewall and the decades since, and mentioned one area in which we never seem to succeed. “We have to confront Christian right-wing hate. Every time we try, we never get them. People in power with high positions and powerful voices won’t challenge the hate. Follow the money. The Battleground is evangelical religions. Trump will do certain things only because he owes the evangelicals. So much for ‘States Rights’; they do what suits their agenda. It really is a ‘Brave New World’ and we have to be smart, be can’t let our attention down.”
People resisted in stronger ways in the 1960s, he says. People will physically have to challenge the government. “We have to take a strong, aggressive, powerful stance to protect our bodies.” He then quoted Madonna: “Better to live one year as a tiger, than a hundred as sheep.” Her take on the ancient Tibetan maxim is the only quote Gilbert insisted be in this article.
I hear people talk about the “death of outrage,” so I asked Gilbert what he thought of that concept. “Large sections of the population don’t care about discrimination or even outside interference into our election,” he replied. Gilbert stated incredulously his shock when learning an estimated 20–24 percent of gays voted for Trump. “There is a lot to do this coming year to talk about diversity. Sharing our struggle with others’ struggles. Women are not valued and Blacks are not welcome. We have to get over that; that is what we have to work on. There is a lot of sexism and racism in the community. We certainly needed women when AIDS came along. Where would we have been without them? Where would we be now? We are one community!”
Gilbert says he can sleep well at night because he knows he has done all he can do, and continues to do so. In 2011, he suffered a stroke; he has difficulty walking and says he can barely sew, though he puts in the extra effort to be sure it is done right. The stroke certainly hasn’t dimmed his inner fire. “We have put our whole lives into changing society, but we are just starting,” he says. “This is an inter-generational process.”
Next year is the 40th anniversary of the Rainbow Flag. He is planning an exhibition at San Francisco International Airport. We discussed possibly working together on an exhibition titled “Enduring and iconic symbols of the LGBTQ Community: The Rainbow Flag and the Pink Triangle.” He suggested we start planning in April. The two symbols will be juxtaposed and intertwined as they represent the full range of the LGBTQ experience, from hatred, persecution and death, to all the beauty, love, hope and magic of nature and rainbows.
Gilbert hopes to be able to be on hand to attend and speak at the 22nd Pink Triangle on Twin Peaks the weekend of June 24–25. He suspects this will be a big year, as there is much to talk about during the ceremony, with resistance escalating in this age of Trump. I suspect many in the community share his urgency.
Patrick Carney is a Co-Founder of The Friends of the Pink Triangle. The group, with the help of many dedicated volunteers, constructs a gigantic pink triangle on Twin Peaks each year during the last weekend in June. Carney, who worked on the restoration of San Francisco City Hall, was appointed to the City Hall Preservation Advisory Commission in 2013.