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SFO opens exhibit marking 40th anniversary of the rainbow flag

by Matthew S. Bajko

Gilbert Baker with a portion of the mile-long rainbow flag on Market Street during the LGBT Pride Celebration in San Francisco June 18, 1995. Photo by Mick Hicks courtesy SFO
Gilbert Baker with a portion of the mile-long rainbow flag on Market Street during the LGBT Pride Celebration in San Francisco June 18, 1995. Photo by Mick Hicks courtesy SFO  

A new exhibit celebrating the creation of the rainbow flag 40 years ago and Gilbert Baker, who devoted his lifetime to seeing that it become a global symbol for LGBT rights, is opening at the San Francisco International Airport.

Called "A Legacy of Pride: Gilbert Baker and the 40th Anniversary of the Rainbow Flag," the exhibit will open Saturday, April 14, in a pre-security exhibit space in the International Terminal Main Hall Departures Lobby. The exhibit is free and accessible to anyone visiting the airport.

It comes as the city is set to rename Terminal 1 at SFO in honor of the late gay supervisor Harvey Milk, who was a friend of Baker's. Mayor Mark Farrell is set to finalize the terminal naming decision at a signing ceremony Monday, April 16, at City Hall.

The Bay Area Reporter last June first reported that the SFO exhibit was in the works as an honor to Gilbert, who died at the age of 65 last March at his home in New York. His death was caused by hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, according to the New York City medical examiner's office.

In the late 1990s Baker first broached the idea of an exhibit at SFO, which has its own museum and mounts various art exhibits in its four terminals. He wanted to it to incorporate American flags he had created for the 1984 Democratic Convention that decorated the ceiling of the Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco.

As the B.A.R. story noted, Baker and his close friend, Cleve Jones, had scheduled a meeting in September 2001 with the airport's then-deputy director, Peter Nardoza, a gay man who had been a mayoral aide to Dianne Feinstein. (He died in 2011.) But it came just days after the horrific events of September 11, when terrorists hijacked four airplanes, flying two into the World Trade Center in New York City and one into the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C. The fourth crashed in a field in Pennsylvania due to the actions of the passengers, including gay San Francisco rugby player Mark Bingham.

The U.S. flags had wires sewn into them so they could be manipulated into various shapes. But due to new security measures instituted at airports across the country following 9/11, Baker's plans for the airport installation were shelved.

He had returned to the airport exhibit idea last year prior to his death. Baker wanted it to mark the history of the Pride flag to coincide with the 40th anniversary.

Following Baker's death, Jones and other friends of his, including gay District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, approached SFO officials about mounting the exhibit. It is comprised of historic images taken by photographer Mick Hicks and recollections about Baker from friends Tom Taylor, Charley Beal, and Jones.

SFO museum officials consulted with the GLBT Historical Society on the exhibition. Included is a rainbow flag Baker created for the ABC television miniseries "When We Rise," which was based partly on Jones' memoir of the same name.

In a press release about the SFO exhibit, Jones recalled that when the rainbow flag was first unfurled in 1978, Baker "knew at that moment that it was his life's work." It was Baker's "gift to the world," added Jones, as he did not seek copyright protection for it.

The now iconic six-colored rainbow flag was first flown under a different design 40 years ago at the 1978 Pride parade and celebration in San Francisco in late June. The first two flags were the result of a collaboration between Baker and his friends Lynn Segerblom, who now lives in southern California, and James McNamara, who died of AIDS in 1999.

Segerblom, known then as Faerie Argyle Rainbow, and Baker co-chaired the decorations committee for the 1978 parade. As she recently recounted in a first-person account in the Los Angeles Blade and in an interview with the B.A.R., Segerblom said she chose the eight colors that made up the first flag: pink, red, orange, yellow, green, aqua, royal blue, and violet.

The design for her "stars and stripes" rainbow flag, as she wrote in the Blade piece, included "a lamé star stitched to the aqua stripe, silver lamé on one side, gold lamé on the other side."

Following that year's parade, it was Baker who pushed for the redesigned rainbow flag, minus the pink and aqua colors and stars, to be adopted by the LGBT community as its symbol. His doing so earned him the moniker "the gay Betsy Ross."

"It was Gilbert, and Gilbert alone, who conceptualized the rainbow flag as the flag for our community and our movement," Jones recently told the B.A.R. "While many, many people, including many women, assisted him in those efforts, no one can claim to be the co-creator of the rainbow flag as the symbol for our community."

The SFO exhibit will remain through January 6, 2019.

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