On November 18, gay activist Gilbert Baker took to the streets to protest during Russia day at Wall Street. For the occasion, he sewed a 100-foot rainbow banner that required nearly 30 people to carry it. A message emblazoned on it read “Human rights Yes; Russian thugs Yes. NYSE WTF?” according to Baker.
“The message is to make our point to the very people that are doing money trading there,” he said. “I think what’s going on with the Olympics, and what’s going on in Russia. I think it’s important to show that Russia isn’t good in terms of human rights.”
Baker, 62, is a driver in LGBT advocacy and has used his sewing skills to raise global awareness. In 1978 in San Francisco, he constructed the rainbow flag with eight pieces of colored fabric. Each color stands for a meaning: pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, blue for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for the human spirit. Eventually, Baker constructed the flag with six colors and stopped using pink and indigo.
For Baker flags are about visibility and power as well as a beacon of hope. Before he created the rainbow flag, the sole gay symbol was the pink triangle that came out of Nazi Germany. Since this symbol had such a negative stigma Baker sought to give the community a symbol of hope with his rainbow flag.
While Baker has seen advances in gay rights since he first got involved in marches and activism in the late ‘70s in San Francisco, he thinks there’s still a tremendous way to go.
“We really have a global human rights problem. It’s not just Russia. Sure, it’s great to be gay in Miami, New York, in San Francisco, but it’s not possible to be gay in a lot of places,” he said. “Look at the gay situation in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, Indonesia. We have a human rights problem, yes, we have made some progress, but we really have a long difficult struggle ahead.”
“You can’t protest in Russia, but in America we yell and scream and make our point. The other side that hates an open sexual orientation says that we are going to hell. We also get backlash from gays that think we are rocking the boat. Gay people are not united, there’s class and race that divides us. But when you push buttons, you get pushed back. But it doesn’t stop me,” he shared.
At times Baker looks at the struggle for equality and thinks he’s up against the impossible, even though he refuses to give up. “I feel like a lot of times that I’m not getting anywhere, and that the situation is hopeless, I feel that way often, but then I have to look at the global picture like the guy in Uganda wearing a rainbow scarf. Now that makes me happy,” he said. “I hope that the world will change for the better, but it’s not going to happen in my lifetime. I use my art to make statements that I can have fun with. I am happy when I’m sewing, making things, and on the street. I’m happy when I’m solving things and making art and not thinking about the world’s problems.”
The small Kansas town bred activist lives in New York. While he’s known for creating beautiful banners and flags, he’s in the process of scoping out a new way to deliver his message for gay rights.
“I’m looking into printing designs on streets. I love making giant flags, but they don’t last that long. Printing the flag image along a street has this horizon to horizon, sea to sea, larger than life appeal,” he said. “The problem with flags is they wear out. They don’t last – even my big flagpole projects. I love them but you have to constantly change them since they fade. Imagine printing my flag on asphalt, it’s more permanent. So that’s what I’m looking into now.”
Visit www.GilbertBaker.com for more information.