Some flags — the Confederate and Nazi banners, for example — are designed to divide populations. But the late artist and activist Gilbert Baker wanted to unite people when he hand-dyed and -stitched the iconic rainbow flag as a symbol of universal rights back in 1978. The Kansas-born “Gay Betsy Ross” — who made San Francisco his home for decades before relocating to New York, where he passed away on March 31 — will finally get his due “hometown” tribute.
Baker’s longtime friends Tom Taylor (known as the “keeper of the flag” in San Francisco) and his partner Jerome Goldstein will celebrate the man and the banner-sized legacy he left behind with the Gilbert Baker Memorial Celebration at the Castro Theatre next Thursday, June 8. (Taylor and Goldstein are also well-known for putting together the bonkers, overdecorated “Tom and Jerry” house on 21st Street each holiday season.)
The event, which is free with RSVP, includes a benediction from the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence; performances from the S.F. Gay Men’s Chorus, the Thrillpeddlers and Connie Champagne; a video of Baker’s life and speeches from the likes of Senator Scott Wiener, veteran lawmaker and mayoral candidate Sen. Mark Leno, and activist Cleve Jones.
SF Weekly spoke with Goldstein and Taylor about their friendship with Gilbert, the difficulty of earning money from it, and how best to remember him. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
How did this celebration of Baker’s life come together?
Jerome Goldstein: Tommy and I are really his only family here, so when it came time to reckon with his death, everyone turned to us to make it right. So that is what we are doing.
Tom Taylor: What we’re trying to say is that no one stepped up to the plate. We had to rent the theatre and throw the event. Everyone loved the idea, but no one was doing anything.
Describe the nature of your friendship with Baker.
TT: I met him in ’79 or ’80 or so. I was working at a straight topless bar and I gave him a job sewing curtains and stuff like that. He was also working at the Paramount Flag Company prior to that, and that’s where the rainbow flag first came out on a commercial basis. When it took off, I worked with him for years on all these projects, including displays for then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein. He was the artist, and I was the technical person behind him.
Also, I have a workshop in San Francisco with many sewing machines, where [Baker] lived part of the time when he was here. Then when he moved to New York, he always came back and stayed at the workshop, because he had all the machines there.
Was the rainbow flag initially met with any resistance?
TT: Gilbert tried to talk the Rainbow Flag Company into commercially making them, and they fought him on it for a while. But when they finally came out with the first batch, they sold out.
Also, the Smithsonian has always been [difficult]. We’ve been trying to do something there, and they basically told us once, “Well, we have some shelf space for you.” Gilbert had an absolute fit. “You could take your shelf space and put it where the sun don’t shine,” he said. That was the way Gilbert was.
Did Baker ever benefit from it financially?
JG: The problem with the flag was that, unlike a lot of other things, a flag has no intrinsic, patentable, or copyright value to it.
TT: After the flag took off, Paramount Flag Company started making it, and then everybody started making it. Gilbert did not benefit financially from it; Paramount did. When you make a flag, unless it has your trademark or logo on it, you don’t make any money off of it.
JG: Gilbert’s idea of the flag was to do as much with it as you could to advance human rights as well as gay rights. It was a universal thing. One of the cutest stories, I think, was when Tommy and Gilbert took the flag to Italy. Tommy always commented about how repressed or homebound the Italian gay community was, because of the fear of the Church. So Gilbert said, “Well, Jerry, maybe we should just wrap the Vatican in a gay flag and have pink smoke come out the top.”
What inspired Baker’s move to New York?
TT: Gilbert had a lot of projects here in San Francisco. But, as he told me, it was too much of a small town, and he wanted to move to New York to be an artist and to further his career. He decided that the big stars here are the political people, where in New York, the artists and other people are stars. It was the center of art. He did get a copy of the gay flag that he made into New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection.
Tom, how did you become his representative here in San Francisco?
TT: My workshop became the center of everything, because I had sewing machines and a place to work. Then after he left, I had all of his spot, and just became a leg of him, a part of him here. So whenever there was something to do, he’d call me up and say, “Sew this up, do this, do that.” Then he’d come out and stay at my shop and finish up projects or whatever he wanted to work on. Because the two of us were always working together, when it came time to do anything here, people would call me, and ask, “Could we have a flag for this or that?”
How did you learn of his passing?
TT: Two or three very close friends of his in New York have come out here and stayed with me in the past, so I was the first one that they called.
JG: Then they called me, and I was on the phone a good 26, 28 hours listening to everyone, with their wails of disbelief. Gilbert had a stroke a few years ago, and he just didn’t take very good care of himself. I think what happened was he had a heart attack in his sleep and died very peacefully. His death was totally unexpected. He was due to travel in a few days, and then I got the call and I had to reel back and say, “What can we do about this? Let’s do the right thing.” So Tommy and I and the Diversity Foundation bankrolled spreading Gilbert’s ashes. We were his family and we were going to see that it’s done correctly.
How can we best remember Gilbert Baker?
JG: Honor the gay flag, honor its presence, fly it proudly, and remember one thing: AIDS will probably fade, political fights will fade, religious fights may fade, personalities and their bitch fights will fade, but the rainbow flag will last forever.
A Celebration of Life – Honoring Gilbert Baker (1951 – 2017), Creator of the Rainbow Flag, Thursday, June 8, 7 p.m., at the Castro Theatre. Free with advance registration.