O'er the Castro
By Joel P. Engardio
When Gilbert Baker set out to create the first gay pride flag in 1978, his vision of the rainbow was a little different than what everyone else sees in the sky. In addition to the seven hues in the color spectrum -- red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet -- Baker saw fuchsia. And turquoise, too. So he went to his sewing machine and made an eight-color rainbow flag with hot pink at the top, turquoise wedged between the green and blue, and no indigo.
Baker's rainbow flag has since become world famous as a symbol of diversity and gay pride. But not in its original form. When Baker took his homemade prototype to a flag factory, he found out that it cost too much to use all eight colors. Not only that, but the specific shade of fuchsia Baker wanted was not available for mass assembly at the time. So Baker compromised, settling on the six traditional colors that adorn today's ubiquitous rainbow flag.
Now, more than 20 years later, Baker has decided it is time to bring his initial design out of the closet. Using $3,000 in donations from last year's Castro Street Fair, Baker bought enough material to make a new banner to replace the giant six-color version that flies in Harvey Milk Plaza at the corner of Castro and Market streets. On the new 20-by-30-foot flag, Baker included bright fuchsia and turquoise stripes. And to better complement the additional colors, Old Glory Red was replaced with Canadian Red, and Emerald Green simply became Bright Green. "I love the eight-color flag; the fuchsia is lovely and very gay, and I find the turquoise quite magical," Baker says. "They don't call me the gay Betsy Ross for nothing."
But the new-old flag, which was unfurled with no fanfare or explanation on Valentine's Day, left many Castro residents and tourists puzzled.
"It's probably the most asked question in the Castro: 'What's with the flag?'" says Morgan Gorrono, co-owner of the popular gay bar the Bar on Castro. "I guess [Baker] decided he wanted to change it, but the big question is why change it now? Now the flag on the plaza doesn't match all the flags up and down Market and Castro. It only confuses people, and I have to explain it every day to tourists. I wish he'd just change it back."
Patrick Batt says the prospect of having to revert to an eight-color flag after more than 20 years of using the six-color version is cause for major headaches. As president of the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro, Batt says he fought hard to get approval and funding for the uniform rainbow flags that currently hang from Castro District lampposts. To change those flags -- even though most are routinely replaced every year due to wear and tear -- is out of the question, Batt says.
"Absolutely not! I've already got 200 in storage, and they cost $200 apiece," Batt says. "It took too much time, effort, and money to get those banners up in the first place, for Gil Baker to come out of left field after all these years and say the flag is wrong. If it should've historically been eight colors, you'd think something would've been said or done before this February."
While there has been debate over who first came up with the idea of a gay pride rainbow flag, it is generally accepted that Baker created the original design. "Being a vexillologist -- an expert in the study of flags -- I know the rainbow is a symbol of liberation that goes back thousands of years. And I know a flag is in the public domain and it belongs to everybody. I'm aware that my authorship of the rainbow flag predates me," Baker says. "But the reality is I sat down at a sewing machine in 1978 and made it happen."
Baker says his inspiration for reissuing the original design was the 20th anniversary observances of Harvey Milk's election as the nation's first openly gay official in 1977 and his assassination in 1978. It took a few years for Baker to raise the money and turn out enough flags to fly over the plaza for at least a year. (Each flag only lasts about two months before high winds and pollution sully it.)
"It is really fitting that we fly an original flag from Harvey's time at the flagpole which serves as a monument to Harvey," says Baker, who handmade eight-color flags while Milk was alive before switching to the six-color commercial version in 1979. "Harvey would know this flag."
Allen White, a longtime friend of Baker who helped in the effort to get a flagpole in Harvey Milk Plaza in 1997, says he hopes Baker can profit a little from the original eight-color flag since Baker has earned nothing on the six-color flag he made famous.
"Maybe this time around, Gil can make some money for his retirement. Now he can say implicitly, 'This is the one I created.' Not to be crassly commercial, but people sure have done a lot less and made a lot more," White says. "The gay community needs to realize that they owe this man. What he contributed has become a symbol around the world. He qualifies as a hero."
So far, Baker says he does not plan to insist that all the rainbow flags flying in the Castro be changed to show their true colors; only the big one honoring Milk. "The idea of the rainbow is what counts," he says. "It doesn't matter whether there are six, eight, or 80 stripes. It is the beauty of the rainbow that represents us."