It’s a controversy that’s blown across America, from Boston to Boise to the Bay Area itself — San Francisco, home of Gilbert Baker’s iconic 1978 Rainbow flag: whether to replace his original with a new progressive banner supporters say better represents the diversity of today’s LGBT communities.
“I see the Progress flag and I see the evolution of something that is morphing into present times. It is symbolic of more current events in our world,” said Aiyana Angeni González, chairwoman of the Miami-Dade LGBTQ Advisory Board, which Feb. 3 voted to recommend the updated flag be flown over County Hall in downtown Miami every June throughout Pride Month.
Baker designed his flag — originally eight colors (hot pink, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, blue and violet) representing “sex, life, healing, sunlight, nature, magic, serenity and spirit” — a year after the singer and Florida orange juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant led a 1977 campaign to repeal Miami-Dade County’s newly passed law that banned bias in jobs, housing and public accommodations on the basis of “affectional or sexual preference.”
Following the 1978 assassination of gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, demand soared for Baker’s Rainbow flag and he reduced the number of stripes first to seven (hot pink became an unavailable fabric color), and then to six for an even number of colors (goodbye, turquoise).
For 40 years, Baker’s Rainbow flag has been the global standard-bearer for generations of LGBT people who lived through the worldwide AIDS crisis and political challenges including adoption bans, the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and marriage equality. In June 2015, MoMA in New York City added the flag to its official design collection.
Baker himself sometimes altered his original design for special purposes, such as adding a black stripe in 1986 and calling it his “AIDS flag,” according to his longtime friend, Charley Beal, who serves as board president of the Gilbert Baker Foundation.
“And in 2017, in reaction to Donald Trump's election, after attending the women's march — and he was just kind of horrified by what Trump was doing — he designed a nine-color flag, which was the original eight colors and a lavender stripe for diversity,” Beal said. “This was not meant to replace the world-renowned six-color rainbow flag.”
The original eight-color rainbow flag by Gilbert Baker. Submitted photo.
Baker, 65, died in his sleep on March 31, 2017, two months after Trump became president.
As the progressive political movement quickly evolved during the conservative Trump years, a new coalition of LGBT people — many younger, transgender and/or Black and Brown — said they do not feel fully represented by the original Rainbow flag.
On June 8, 2017, a modified version of Baker’s flag — adding a black stripe and a brown one — was raised for Pride Month over Philadelphia City Hall.
“The black and brown stripes are an inclusionary way to highlight Black and Brown LGBTQIA members within our community,” a source at the time told Philadelphia magazine.
The Philadelphia pride flag. Submitted photo.
Last June, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor (an out lesbian), along with local LGBT activists including Equality Florida Executive Director Nadine Smith, raised the Philadelphia Pride flag over City Hall.
In 2017 and 2018, artist Daniel Quasar of Portland, Oregon, again modified Baker’s flag, adding “both black/brown stripes, as well as the trans stripes,” according to the artist’s website.
Quasar’s website sells his Progress flags (ranging from $21 to $60 each), along with similar products including T-shirts, stickers, buttons and socks.
Baker never copyrighted his original design, didn’t sell flags and died “dirt poor,” Beal said.
“He didn't copyright it because he wanted it to be free for people to use. By the way, Daniel Quasar did copyright his flag, and I hope these people buying these flags understand that,” Beal said. “Let’s get something clear, And I had to get this from our lawyers: Flags cannot be copyrighted. Works of art can, designs can. Like the American flag — anybody can sew it onto a shirt, use it for a piece of artwork. You can burn it as a matter of fact. It’s legal.”
In the past few years, progressives and others have lobbied to fly alternate Pride flags, even in cities such as Baker’s beloved San Francisco, where he lived from the 1970s through the mid-'90s.
Last August in the aftermath of George Floyd’s May 25, 2020, murder in Minneapolis, the Bay Area Reporter (BAR) wrote:
“Raising a new flag design could be an opportunity to launch a comprehensive campaign that includes pledges from all businesses in the district that they are welcoming to everyone — LGBTQ and straight alike; Black, Brown and Indigenous people; Asians, Native Americans, and those with disabilities; young and old — without the epithets, misgendering, and other terrible things that people have experienced over the years.”
It’s Quasar’s Progress flag that’s recently been raised at Miami Beach and Hollywood city halls. And it’s the one being recommended to be flown — the first LGBT pride flag ever — at Miami-Dade County Hall, the downtown 28-story Stephen P. Clark Center.
“It’s not a matter of choosing this or that, it’s a matter of using what’s most representative of the times we live in,” said Gonzalez, the LGBTQ Advisory Board’s chairwoman. “And neither is it about erasing what was.”
The Feb. 3 vote followed much discussion, both from the public and board members.
“While I applaud the spirit of Daniel Quasar’s reinterpretation to allow for greater inclusion, I ask that you keep the original flag,” said activist Shed Boren of Coral Gables, who co-produced “The Day It Snowed in Miami,” a 2014 documentary about Anita Bryant and the South Florida gay-rights movement.
“During the research for this film, I discovered that Gilbert’s Pride flag was explicitly created to be used as political theater as a result of what happened in Miami in 1977. Yes, Miami played a role in creating the flag that Mr. Baker created in 1978,” Boren told the board.
Gonzalez, who is trans, said during the board discussion that followed: “This is not about taking any credit from Mr. Gilbert Baker. And this is not about removing any of the significance of what Mr. Gilbert Baker created and what its intention was. It is a matter of moving that forward and adding more. That’s all it is.”
Darrell Burks told fellow board members why he prefers the Progress flag:
“I’m an African-American gay man who has gone through many stages of being recognized as an African-American gay male. I was born in this world as a Negro. That’s what it says on my birth certificate. So, I’ve gone from listening to my mother say ‘Colored’ — that’s what she was called — to being a Negro, and then being Black, African American and then recognizing that I am a Black American.
“As I look at this issue about the flag, this is a progression of where we are now and as we move forward. I think it reflects our society as we are now. We are recognized — the trans community and now the Black and Brown community — and it’s a step forward and not a step stuck in time.”
Board member Robin Schwartz at first said she was “torn because for me the traditional flag has always already included trans and Black people.”
“What I think is helping me to now lean towards the Progressive flag is like what Darrell said, right? It doesn’t matter what I think, because I’m a white privileged person,” Schwartz said. “For me, even though the regular flag already includes Black and Brown people, and trans folks, if they don’t believe it, then I don’t know it’s representing what we want to accomplish. For me, those who have been oppressed for so long deserve every sign of acknowledgment that we can possibly give them.”
As the discussion wound down, board member Jerry Chasen asked to speak:
“Given the sensibility of the committee, it seems pretty clear that the Progressive flag is going to be the one that we recommend. I want us to be sensitive to the fact that, as you heard from the speakers who spoke at the onset of the meeting, myself included, there may be some people who are offended by the substituting of the original flag.
“We need to be responsible in our communication about why we chose to recommend the Progressive flag instead of the traditional Rainbow flag, so that we can be clear and some of the sentiments that were expressed by my colleagues are put before the public, so that there may be some understanding about why we chose what we did.”
The board then voted 9-2 in favor of flying the Progress flag. Chasen and newly appointed member Damian Pardo, both longtime LGBT activists, voted against the motion. Pardo’s vote, however, was disqualified because not all his new-member paperwork had cleared, Gonzalez said.
On Feb. 19, the advisory board sent a Pride Month “urging” to Miami-Dade commissioners, said Gabriel Paez, the panel’s program director.
Paez said the commission will decide whether to fly the Progress flag, the Baker flag, both flags or no Pride flag at all.
“This is really going to show if we have the support at the county level,” he said. “I would hope so, because it’s the urging of an advisory board.”
Journalist Steve Rothaus covered LGBT issues for 22 years at the Miami Herald.