Hundreds of New York comrades, family members, and admirers of Gilbert Baker, creator of the Rainbow Flag, bid him an emotional and spirited farewell on June 14 — Flag Day (his favorite day) —starting at the Stonewall Inn and marching with many of his banners protesting hate and affirming LGBT identity to Hudson River Park. There, his flag was raised high with a telescoping pole.
It was a gorgeous late spring evening when a heat wave broke and our hearts did, too, as we remembered this indispensable and indefatigable gay activist and artist who died on March 31 at 65.
On a stage backed by a huge Rainbow Flag, speakers gave voice to Baker’s words and to their love for him.
“Gilbert was a sweetheart,” said Ann Northrop, who opened the memorial. “I adored him, the guy who made this incredible symbol.”
Emcee and producer of the memorial, Bruce Cohen, producer of the movie “Milk” and the TV mini-series “When We Rise,” introduced nine speakers — one for each symbolic color on Baker’s original flag.
Cleve Jones, fresh from winning a Lambda Literary Award for his memoir, “When We Rise,” said, “One of the things we most agreed on was that the movement saved our lives.” He added, “And his flag saved millions of lives.”
Jones led a memorial to Baker at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on June 8 that drew 700 to celebrate him in the town where their activism was born in the late 1970s. The two men shared a friendship of 40 years.
Ken Kidd of Rise and Resist and Queer Nation said, “The difference between Gilbert and most people is that Gilbert knew he had to get up and do things to make the world a better place. He made sure he was in the center of it all but understood the concept of the collective better than anybody I ever met.”
Baker’s comrade Cathy Marino-Thomas of Gays Against Guns quoted him, saying, “It’s a visibility thing. Just to be able to exist. Power is when we say, ‘I am gay!’”
Alex Brandfonbrener, a youth activist from the LGTBQ public radio program “OutCasting,” had interviewed Baker about AIDS, and recalled that he told him, “I’ll be forever scarred by it.”
Brandfonbrener then added, “But he brightened when I asked about his activism.”
Baker’s close friend Richard Ferrara, who worked with Baker to popularize his flag on the East coast in 1994, said, “I learned from Gilbert what it is to give, never accepting anything in return.”
Ferrera recalled getting arrested with Baker when, without a permit, they organized 20 people to carry a big chiffon Rainbow Flag they sewed to their T-shirts down Fifth Avenue.
“Flags are torn from the soul of the people,” he quoted Baker as saying.
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah said, “The rainbow is a celebration of diversity. Gilbert was a lover of diversity, of outrageous action, of beauty, and of the messiness of human beings. We will raise the flag in his memory. We will fight for beauty in his memory. We will demand justice and peace in his memory. We will love in his memory. We will overcome in his memory.”
A joyous video of Baker’s life and work left many of us in tears —compounded by the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus singing “Glory” as well as by a soulful rendition of “Over the Rainbow” from actor and singer Larry Owens, host of “Broadway Sings for LGBTQ Equality” on June 19 at the Cutting Room.
Justin Sams, who played Sylvester, a Baker friend, in “When We Rise,” talked about how pink in the original flag stood for sex and recalled Baker telling him about finishing it up in time for “Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day” in 1978: “We didn’t sleep the night before and finished the final stitches of the two huge flags as the dawn broke and sunlight streamed into the top floor of the Gay Community Center. We weren’t tired. We celebrated by taking off all our clothes and rolling around on the soft cotton, infusing the fabric with the joy of sex, the most logical way to launch a flag for the lesbian and gay liberation movement. It really was all about sex. A spectrum of sexuality, and the freedom to express it, that we considered to be a human right.”
Lauren Cook Featherston, Baker’s niece, said her uncle was “larger than life and always had the soul of an activist.” She said, “Gilbert used this love of art to change the world. I am a high school teacher in Austin, Texas, and every day I see the impact that Uncle Gilbert’s flag has made. I see kids with rainbow shirts and binders, or patches on their backpacks. On every classroom door, there is a rainbow sticker that says ‘Ally.’ The students might not know who created the flag, but they know that it means love and acceptance.” Featherston quoted Baker saying of the flag in 1978, “I know this is the most beautiful thing I will ever do. And I know this is the most important thing I will ever do.”
Out gay Chelsea City Councilmember Corey Johnson called Baker “an activist’s activist” and said, “The legacy of Gilbert is his love for the resistance.”
The memorial concluded with waves of Baker’s banners carried in procession to the river: “Don’t Buy Trump’s Lies!,” “Stop the Hate!,” “Republican Hate Kills!.” and one emblazoned with “Dignity!,” made for the LGBTQ Catholic group.
Patty Baker, Gilbert’s mom from Conroe, Texas, was on hand.
“He was a very loving son,” she said. “We didn’t always agree but we respected each other… We need tolerance and diversity and to treat each other with respect. That’s what he what he would have wanted.”
Ardonna Cook, Gilbert’s sister from Houston, said, “He was always giving stuff away. You wanted something, he gave it to you. That’s rare.”
The legendary Rollerena said, “His flag and all the work he put into it brought us together. And nothing is going to turn us back!”
Also in the crowd was Baker’s dear friend, Charley Beal, an organizer of the event, who said, “It’s time for New York to come out of the closet and put the Rainbow Flag on a flagpole on the Hudson River where the world can see it,” as has been done for years in Harvey Milk Plaza in San Francisco. Baker submitted such a design to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s commission that is selecting a memorial to the victims of last year’s Pulse massacre in Orlando and other hate crimes. The competition closed in November, but no winner has been announced.
“If we are not visible, we are not free,” Beal said. “And if we don’t have a flag, all of New York is in the closet.”
On this day, Baker’s rainbows filled the streets where the modern LGBT movement was born, capped off by his friends raising his flag — if only for a few minutes — high above the Christopher Street pier.