Gilbert Baker, Rainbow Warrior: My Life in Color. Chicago Review Press, 2019. 256 pp.
The late Gilbert Baker was a revolutionary advocate cut from a different cloth. With a “#14 needle, 1,000 yards of muslin, 10 pounds of natural dye in eight colors, and 100 pounds of salt and ash,” he raised an international symbol of LGBTQ+ freedom and truth. Baker’s memoir, Rainbow Warrior: My Life in Color, recounts his journey from his upbringong as a gay boy in small-town America to unfurling into the creator of the Pride Flag and as an artist, and flying high as an outspoken activist. The story of his uncommon journey is full of camp, delightfully irreverent, and escpecially poignant given the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising this year.
Baker deftly threads his oppressive and stifling childhood in 1950’s Kansas, and his equally terror-ridden military experience, into his narrative. He recounts secretly dancing in his aunt’s old prom dress and obsessing over art and music. Conflicted by the “pain of rejection and shame of failure,” he coped with dreams of a life over the rainbow. These dreams were overshadowed by protests from his parents over why he couldn’t be normal. Baker needed an escape, being gay in Kansas wasn’t safe.
His escape came through a two-year Army enlistment. Lying about his gayness, Baker signed up for terror and abuse at the hands of his commanding officer before filing as a conscientious objector. Instead, the Army listed him as a medic and ordered him to San Francisco, just as the gay rights movement was gathering momentum. Baker knew he was never returning to Kansas.
Barely 30 pages in, the universe was in ecstatic motion and Baker was the current flowing within.
\He offers readers an intimate look at the early LGBTQ+ rights movement with all its glorious political infighting and the seesawing between grassroots activists and corporate sponsors. It’s also an intimate portrait of a gender-free individual redefining gender and power during a civil rights uprising. Energy for sexual liberation and the struggle against social injustice pulses throughout the book.
Rainbow Warrior is a lively and dramatic read through the eyes of the larger-than-life and passionate creator of the iconic Pride Flag. Smartly composed, his infectious charisma oozes through anecdotes as he recalls fast friendships and his early activist days with the likes of Harvey Milk and Cleve Jones. Rainbow Warrior devotes much of its time to Baker’s association with each of these LGBTQ+ activists.
Milk convinced the city of San Francisco to support the pride march in 1978 and requested a more celebratory symbol for the LGBTQ+ community. It only too Baker eleven days to hand-sew that symbol and launch the rainbow flag’s trajectory as a community icon and raise an “active proclamation of power” for the LGBTQ+ community. As Baker writes, the rioters at Stonewall just years before would have “their own symbol of liberation.”
Milk’s assassination not long after and Reagan’s presidency would threaten the “lavender tolerance and social acceptance” LGBTQ+ activists, like Baker, were fighting for. Baker survived prejudice through his art. First, it was through challenging social injustices and creating inclusive spaces with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and later, through theater during the AIDS epidemic. Baker bore witness as the virus claimed many of his friends’ lives.
Most of the rest of the book is devoted to Baker’s creation of his record-setting, mile long pride flag for the 25th anniversary of Stonewall. He documents his often-contentious friendship and partnership with Cleve Jones, who secured funds for the project through a sponsorship from Stadtlanders. This colossal undertaking gave Baker a shot at consolidating the Pride flag’s legacy. Through anecdotes as colorful as his creation, he describes then newly-elected Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s attempt to push the anniversary march, and by extension the LGBTQ+ community, to the margins of New York City, as well as his often-fraught partnership with both Jones and Stadtlanders.
No spoilers here, so you’ll have to pick up your own copy to discover what came of the project and the aftermath.
Baker’s memoir is a pleasant read against the backdrop of the political progress for the LGBTQ+ community in the fifty years since Stonewall. We’ve witnessed marriage equality, a record and marked increase in representation in elected offices, sweeping bans on conversion therapy, and more states adopting gender-neutral designations on identification cards. While these wins signal a cultural sea change, the election of President Trump and recent anti-LGBTQ+ policy efforts demonstrate the potential dangers one election can present. Rainbow Warrior reminds us of the collaborative revolutionary steps the LGBTQ+ community must take to reclaim our power and ensure our survival.