Gilbert Baker's flag is internationally recognized as a symbol of LGBT rights, much to the fury of conservative Christians. One described it as "the worst example of cultural appropriation in history."
Today, on the fifth anniversary of his death, I will raise a glass in my rainbow-bedecked local bar to Gilbert Baker, described by California State Senator Scott Wiener as a man who “helped define the modern LGBT movement” after the artist’s death in 2017.
I first wrote about Baker, whom I’d once had the pleasure of meeting in San Francisco, in a column for Round Town News, a weekly newspaper on the Costa Blanca in Spain.
Within hours of the paper hitting the streets, the editor received a furious email from a reader. Without identifying the name or gender of the complainant, she asked me if I would care to respond to the angry Christian, who wrote:
Firstly, I must state that I usually enjoy reading your newspaper. However, this week I find that I must comment upon your column writer Barry Dukes’ (sic) latest rant. Please note that I am writing this in the most polite fashion I can muster and am biting my tongue as I type!
We are all entitled to our own opinions, of course. Barry Dukes is allowed to express his freely in your paper. However, this does NOT give him the right to insult the MANY Christians who read such publications. Yes, there are quite a lot of us out there; probably many more than Dukes thinks.
I realize that he was irritated by the comments of Bryan Fischer but he could have expressed this annoyance without resorting to calling God ‘mythical’. For Christians the world over God is very real indeed.
I should point out that I mentioned in my piece that, in the same week that Baker died, hate preacher Fischer, above—an American Family Association spokesperson until his sacking—declared:
The worst example of cultural appropriation in history is the LGBT community stealing the rainbow from God. The rainbow is God’s. God invented the rainbow—look at Genesis 9:11-17 – He invented it, it’s His thing … it’s His idea and you need to give it back.
In May 2010, according to Wiki, the hate preacher falsely claimed that Adolf Hitler was a homosexual, that “the Nazi Party began in a gay bar in Munich,” and concluded by claiming that the Holocaust (which actually included gay victims of Nazi persecution) was caused by homosexuals in the Nazi German military:
Nazi Germany became the horror that it was because it rejected both Christianity and its clear teaching about human sexuality.
On American Family Talk radio, Fischer repeated the claim that Hitler was a homosexual, and stated that Hitler recruited homosexuals to be stormtroopers, because:
Homosexual soldiers basically had no limits and the savagery and brutality they were willing to inflict.
I ended my column by saying:
Well I have news for Fischer and hate-filled religious imbeciles like him. A talented, compassionate gay man, not some mythical god, conceived of the rainbow flag to combat bigotry and intolerance and we’re not going to give it back. EVER!
The person who took exception to my article continued:
For the record, I am not anti-gay and have a number of gay friends but this has gone beyond the pale. WHY did the Editor allow this to be published? Respect for people should work both ways. Mr Dukes makes enough fuss about gay rights. How about some courtesy being shown to those of Christian faith? An apology would be most welcome.
I immediately fired back:
Christianity comes in many guises. I admire the forms of it that have ditched biblical literalism, thus becoming more tolerant and open to diversity, but I abhor the fanatical ideals of fundamentalists such as Bryan Fischer. It was Fischer, and his brand of hellfire rhetoric I was attacking in my latest column, not Christianity as a whole, which admittedly has some good bits in it. But these were stolen from far earlier cultures.
In response to my stating that the rainbow flag was not created by ‘some mythical god’, your complainant said ‘for Christians the world over God is very real indeed’. My response to that is that Ganesh, the elephant-headed god is ‘very real indeed’ to Hindus the world over. Does the complainant think that this conviction actually makes Ganesh real?
If your complainant answers no, she or he would be displaying breathtaking arrogance by insisting that her/his god is the only real one and all others are false. If she/he accepts that Ganesh is real, then the thousands of gods of all other religions, some now extinct, must be just as real. Which is an outlandish notion.
I then threw in a quote from The God Delusion:
I would rather stick to my lifelong belief that humans created gods to provide answers to mysteries science has since solved to an astonishing degree, and not the other way around, and that we would all be far better off by casting away silly supernatural ideas.
Study after study has shown that the most prosperous and advanced societies in the world today are also the most godless. Theocracies, on the other hand, are the most under-educated, and are plagued by poverty and human rights abuses, especially against women, homosexuals and those of other faiths.
And I threw in another quote:
Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime; give a man religion and he will die praying for a fish.
I wound up by saying:
Your complainant tries to draw a comparison between those of the Christian faith and the gay community. These are two completely different issues. People get to choose their faith but not things like their gender, sexuality or the color of their skin.
All humans come into this world as atheists. But through indoctrination, or family or cultural pressures, far too many succumb to superstition. In doing so they should not be surprised if their beliefs are exposed to vigorous critical analysis, something I have been doing for more than half-a-century. For that I shall never apologize.
Reaction to the Pulse Club atrocity
Following the June 12, 2016 terrorist attack on the Pulse gay club in Orlando, Florida, in which 49 people died, the rainbow flag was raised across the globe in tribute to the dead and the 53 who were injured.
This prompted British human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell to say:
I can’t think of any other symbol that has such global recognition and adoption. Since the early 1990s it’s become ubiquitous. It shows the diverse spectrum within the LGBT community, but also reflects the diverse spectrum of the wider community.
I had the pleasure of meeting Gilbert in 1980 in his home city of San Francisco when he was 27 and I was just four years older. Neither of us, at that time, had any inkling that his flag, created in 1978, would have such an incredible impact on the world, nor that it would, in 2015, be included among the exhibits at SF’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
Gay and gay-friendly establishments in every country in which the rights of gay communities are respected, from Spain to South Africa, proudly display the flag as a gesture of welcome, and it serves as a beacon to anyone traveling abroad in search of places where they know they will get a warm reception.
Now here’s a word you’ve probably unfamiliar with: vexillography. It’s the art of designing flags, and I’d never heard it until Baker told me with a wry smile that he was a vexillographist. Later, he went on to design flags for countries and heads of state, including one for the King of Spain.
Before the rainbow flag took off, the symbol adopted by the gay community was the pink triangle, appropriated from the Nazis who used it to identify gay people. A yellow star was chosen to mark out Jews.
Baker said that because the pink triangle had come “from such a horrible place of murder and Holocaust and Hitler we needed something beautiful, something from us.”
The rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in terms of race, gender, ages, all of those things. Plus, it’s a natural flag—it’s from the sky! And even though the rainbow has been used in other ways in vexillography, this use has now far eclipsed any other use.
If he’d been alive during the Covid-19 outbreak, he would have been extremely gratified to see stores in many parts of the world putting rainbow face masks on display. In my hometown of Benidorm, on the Costa Blanca in Spain, people immediately began snapping them up and wearing them with pride.