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A Bolt of Lightning
On June 25, 1978, San Francisco awoke to a cool morning with sharp, clear skies. I watched the sunrise with my friends Faerie and James through the windows of the Gay Community Center, a block away from city hall. We had been up all night, driven by the exuberance that comes with youth and heightened expectation, lovingly putting the final touches on my creation: the Rainbow Flag.
I was twenty-seven. I loved to sew and imagined myself an artist. The idea for the Rainbow Flag had come to me in a dance to a tribal beat, on the wings of angels. Infused with the colors of God's covenant with humanity, the Rainbow Flag was more than mere cloth; it was a visual metaphor and an active proclamation of power, created and dedicated to gay and lesbian liberation. It declared that sexuality is a beautiful expression of nature, a human right.
The weather felt more than perfect that morning. I was floating on adrenaline as we headed to the place designated for the birth of the Rainbow Flag: San Francisco's United Nations Plaza. The site was crowned by two flagpoles eight stories high and a hundred feet apart. These slender sentinel towers of bronze and steel symbolically formed a colossal ceremonial entrance gate from Market Street to the Civic Center and the broad plaza beyond, extending all the way to city hall.
On each tall flagpole, we attached a thirty-by-sixty-foot flag. We paused once in our ritual to offer one final embrace of the carefully folded bundles. Then we raised them and they ascended like sails. As they unfurled, a Pacific zephyr suddenly whipped up, powered by invisible ancestors, and pulled the flags from our arms into God's. The twin Rainbow Flags were now as uncontrollable as the forces of nature that pushed them up into the sky.
At that moment, life breathed the song of the Great Spirit into the flags. For a second, frozen in time, we flew high with it, our hearts blowing glorious trumpets of beautiful joy. Their first moments of flight were astonishing to behold: The wind-painted colors in explosive motion, a wild flame-like flickering, a magical, rippling, psychedelic, cotton-aerial dance.
The few people at United Nations Plaza who witnessed its birth were now staring up with wonder at the fruits of our long labor. They were getting it, owning it, feeling it as a part of them, understanding the diversity of sexual freedom it represented for everyone: gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, straight, whatever your sex, whatever your color. Visible, with liberty and justice for all.
That moment felt like a bolt of lightning that I surely knew would change the course of my life. What I didn't know at the time was how the Rainbow Flag would change the world.CHAPTER 2
Dreaming of a Life Over the Rainbow
When people find out I'm from Kansas, they often ask me, jokingly, "Oh, are you a friend of Dorothy?" I always tell them, "I am Dorothy."
My father, Lyle Phillip Baker, was from Johnson City, Kansas. He was born August 31, 1929. My mother, Patricia Lou Carson, was born July 10, 1932, in Chanute, where my parents were married in 1950. I was born there at Neosho Memorial Hospital on June 2, 1951.
I was born gay and I always knew it.
I was a smart child, and my parents were thrilled when I learned to read and write before I even started school. But by the time I was in kindergarten, I had also developed a drag routine. In my bedroom, when no one was looking, I would pull the sheet from my bed and wrap it around me, then tie the pastel percale all different ways and play with the soft fabric billows. (Even then, fabric fascinated me; whenever I touched it, I went to another place, a nirvana.) Then, wrapped in my colorful bedsheet, I would dance to the radio. When I heard someone coming, I would quickly put the sheet back on the bed — putting my secret life back in my mind's box.
Then one day, I discovered my aunt's old prom dress in a hall closet outside my bedroom. Excited by my find, I waited until everybody was out of the house so I could try it on and dance around and around like a grand lady. I did it again and again. But one day, while I whirled and twirled, my parents came home unexpectedly and caught me in the act.
My father spanked me and scolded me, saying, "Stop acting like a girl."
After that day, my mom and dad would yell at me whenever I acted out in a feminine way, asking me, "Why can't you just be normal?"
But I didn't stop. Instead, I led a double life, one on the outside and one on the inside. That strategy might have worked, but I was far too wild a child, a free spirit compelled by nature to fly into the freedom of my imagination. When I was alone, I didn't have to act like a boy, however a boy was supposed to act. I wondered if that was because I was really a girl. If I was a girl, then why wasn't I born that way?
I had been baptized in a Methodist church. I believed in God, read the Bible, recited the Lord's Prayer, and went to Sunday school. But in my soul, questions burned: Did God make me gay and love me, or was I going to hell for a sin?
All those around me thought I was hopeless, my fate predestined. Alone in my childhood spiritual crisis, I crawled under my bedroom covers, considering ways to commit suicide. I had heard of ways to do it. But I feared the pain of using a razor blade or the difficulty of swallowing pills. So I pushed those plans aside. Somehow, I learned to cope with the pain of rejection and the shame of failure that filled my childhood and teen years. But the dark thoughts of taking my own life never ever left me. From time to time, alone at night, I would return to that lonely, hopeless place, and pray that God would take me back. And when he didn't answer my prayers, I would fall asleep and dream of a life somewhere over the rainbow.
But while I coped with the terror of feeling mentally deformed, I had another, more obvious problem: I had only one testicle. The other had never descended and was still tucked up in my stomach. Physically, then, I was also a freak. Mom and Dad eventually told me that it could all be corrected with surgery and I'd be just like all the other boys. But I knew that other boys didn't dress up in their aunt's prom dress. Would that operation fix everything about me?
* * *
By the time I was five, two sisters had joined our family. Gail was two by then, and my younger sister Ardonna was a toddler. We had moved to Topeka, where my father was attending law school. We lived in army buildings that had been turned into student housing for veterans on the GI Bill. My mother worked part time at a local five-and-dime store. The previous Christmas, she'd bought us our first television.
In 1956, not every family had a TV. So the house filled up with neighbors when something important was on, like the Democratic or Republican National Convention. President Eisenhower was from Kansas and he was running for his second term, so my mother let me watch these political events with the grown-ups. I was mesmerized by the hoopla of bunting and balloons and thrilled by the pageantry. I especially loved the parade of state delegates, each group carrying signs and banners created in crepe paper. There were crazy hats and pretty girls in sashes of stars and stripes, the national anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance. I was especially moved by the sight of the American flag.
Inspired by the patriotic beauty of the conventions, I devoted myself to drawing crayon pictures of what I had seen. Then I became fascinated with the Miss America pageant, which was just starting to be televised. I loved designing elaborate ball gowns for Lee Meriwether, Miss America 1955. She was the most beautiful person I'd ever seen. What I wanted most for my birthday was a strapless ball gown in taffeta and tulle.
But this, after all, was Kansas in 1956. It was not considered normal to imagine greatness and beauty. Being an artist was bad in the same way that homosexuality was bad. Anyone who took up that kind of career was a sexual suspect. When I first told my parents that I wanted to be an artist, they responded in extremely negative terms. It was as if I had told them I was also gay. (And maybe in a way I had.) So while I was obviously talented with my hands and had a strong visual sense, there was not much hope for me becoming a fashion designer or a painter. Dad and Mom had a solution — or, rather, a distraction: instead of a gown for my birthday, they gave me an Erector Set (manufactured, ironically, by the Gilbert toy company) to channel my creativity into more masculine areas.
Eventually, my father started his own law practice and we moved to the big city of Wichita. I did well in my new school, but my imagination and dreams took me to other worlds far away. By the time I was nine, I needed to know more about myself and my "condition." I went to the local library and found a book about Freud and abnormal psychology. It explained the concept of "delusions of grandeur." I convinced myself that I was the one Freud was writing about. I started to wonder if I might be mentally ill. This idea that I might be psychotic made me afraid that my parents would send me to a mental institution. I struggled to tone down my behavior and pretended to be interested in girls. But I was consumed by the weight of the lies that I told every day just to survive. So I acted as if everything in my waking life conformed to the ordinary. To keep my parents' love, I pretended to be someone I wasn't.
In fifth grade, I finally had the operation on my testicle. I woke up in St. Joseph's Hospital with steel sutures holding my gut together. An elastic string was taped to my knee. It was attached through my scrotum to my newly lowered testicle to keep it in place. The nurses gave me morphine at first, and then some pills. But I was black and blue for two months and could barely walk. People now had another reason to laugh at me.
Eventually, the stitches came out and I was given the all clear on the male apparatus. But my hope that the operation would be successful on all parts of me was dashed. I hadn't been cured; I still wanted to sketch fashion, create art, and dance around in dresses. I was still different, not like all the other boys at all.
I finally got up my nerve and went back to the library. Deep in the back of the stacks, I took out the same book that explained Freud and abnormal psychology. I read further and began learning about homosexuality. I knew I was one of them too, and I wanted to know more.
I now had a name to explain why I felt the way I did. My parents had told me for years, "We're all just plain people, no different from anyone else." But I wasn't like them or anyone I knew. I felt so alien that I wondered if I had been adopted. I was a homosexual. I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to be famous. I wanted to live in Paris, not Wichita. I hated my life.
But then a miracle happened that lifted my spirits and gave me hope. I entered a school art contest and won a scholarship to an art academy in the old part of Wichita. Resigned that I was never going to be a doctor or engineer, my parents finally relented. On Saturdays, my mother would drive me there for the classes that were held in a rundown, 1920s Italianate mansion. I loved the homes in the area; each featured a different style of architecture, and all of them were beautifully laid out, one after another, on spacious lots connected by broad, tree-lined streets. They looked so different from where we lived. In my neighborhood, the new part of town, there weren't any trees and all the tract houses looked the same.
The art academy had turned the first floor of the mansion into a gallery. Paintings and sculptures of naked people were on display. I was fascinated with the male nudes. It turned me on to look at them. Secretly, I began to draw little abstract versions of penises and testicles. I knew what they were, but my classmates just looked at them blankly.
* * *
A few miles away from our house, on the outskirts of town, was the Boeing aircraft factory where they made B-52 bombers. The US government had also initiated plans to surround Wichita with missile sites. The missiles were designed to launch in retaliation when the inevitable Russian attack happened. One crisp October afternoon when I was eleven, we were all sent home from school early. My parents and some neighbors were sitting tensely in front of the television, listening to President Kennedy announce some kind of war with Cuba. He talked of Russian missiles that were placed in formation to hit every town in America. The Boeing facility in our own city of Wichita was named as a primary target of the Russian missiles.
As the dramatic events of the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded, we stayed glued to the television. Reports from Washington offered terrifying instructions on what to do in the event of an atomic war. My family discussed how we would jump into action to save ourselves. Dad created a plan that we rehearsed over and over again: When the sirens went off, we were supposed to run directly home from school. All five of us — Dad, Mom, me, Gail, and Ardonna — would get into my mother's 1955 Chevy sedan. I would make sure we brought along my dog Bruiser, a large AKC brindle boxer. We would get out of town on the back roads and drive all the way to the Oklahoma Panhandle to be with relatives in Enid. (That area was not a Russian target, we were told.) That's as far as the plan went; it wasn't clear what would happen after that. But I felt confident that Bruiser and the bow-and-arrow set that I got for Christmas would protect me from the hydrogen bomb.
For many years afterward, I would have recurring dreams in which the government would alert us of impending doom and urge us to evacuate. After a long and arduous escape from Wichita to Enid, we suddenly would be blown up in a nuclear mushroom cloud. I would die in a terrible flash of light, holding my beloved Bruiser.
About a year later, I was in seventh-grade gym class. The period was almost over and the instructor had sent us to the locker room for showers. I hated gym class, and I was always afraid I would get a hard-on in the showers in front of the other boys. I was discreetly drying myself off when an announcement came over the intercom, telling us all to proceed to our next class — there was an emergency. Over a classmate's transistor radio, I learned that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.
Not too much later, another announcement came: President Kennedy was dead. School was suspended for the rest of the day. I went home and sat with the family in front of the television. In a trance, I watched the coverage nonstop until the next morning. Kansas was a bastion of the Republican Party, so many people took the shooting in stride, as if it was destined. Kennedy was a Catholic, and there was something about him that went against the Kansas grain.
That Sunday, we traveled to my grandparents' house in Chanute, about a hundred miles east of Wichita. Around noon, all the relatives gathered in the dining room for prayer before the meal. My uncle Dale, the most devout, called everyone to silence. There was a national crisis going on, he said, and this moment was going to bring us all together. He began to say grace. In the living room, the black-and-white television was still on, broadcasting the news from Dallas. Kennedy's assassin was being transferred to the county jail. I hoped that the prayer wouldn't go on too long, because I wanted to get back to the tube. As we all bowed our heads, I turned in time to watch as Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. Everyone heard the shot and gasped, and suddenly my parents and aunts and uncles all began reciting the Lord's Prayer.
The next day, Kennedy's funeral was on TV, and it was riveting. Never had I seen such incredible pageantry and solemn rituals acted out. Later, when everything had reached a numb plateau, I would run off into the woods near our house. I would dress up like Jackie Kennedy and pretend to light the eternal flame at the grave of the dead young president.
Death became my obsession. Only one thing seemed certain about my life in Kansas: I would either be blown up by a nuclear bomb or die from boredom. One day, I found a book of cartoons by Charles Addams featuring his creations the Addams Family. I wanted to live like they did, with everyone dressed in black and weird looking. Mad magazine was another favorite. Satire became an acceptable forum for my anger. My own drawings soon reflected my darkening mood.
I went to school and continued studying art. Everything else I learned from the television. One night I was watching The Tonight Show. One of the guests was a hilarious woman named Phyllis Diller. She dressed outrageously and had a long cigarette holder like a whacked-out Cruella de Vil. Her jokes were all about her husband Fang, the squalid, meaningless lives they lived, and their attempts to put on airs and conform to the all-American, suburban status quo. It was, I realized, a satire of my own family's striving middle-class background. Phyllis Diller has always been one of my idols, because she reinvented herself as the original acid-trip housewife.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Rainbow Warrior"
Copyright © 2019 Gilbert Baker Estate.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Dustin Lance Black ix
1 A Bolt of Lightning 1
2 Dreaming of a Life Over the Rainbow 3
3 I Am Not a Homosexual 13
4 A Door Opens 23
5 Stitching a Rainbow 33
6 Victory and Backlash 51
7 Raining on My Parade 57
8 Life at the Clown Hotel 63
9 The Birth of Sister Chanel 2001 71
10 Bobbi Took Off His Socks 81
11 Working for the Enemy 87
12 Stoning the Pope 95
13 Rock Bottom and Rebel Rebirth 101
14 Pink Jesus and the Holy War 103
15 Spreading My Wings 111
16 Dorothy Goes to Gotham 115
17 Defending the Rainbow 125
18 Russians, Bobbins, Flashbulbs, and Tears 131
19 The Winter of My Discontent 143
20 Clash of the Divas 153
21 An Affair to Remember, a Night to Forget 163
22 Last Shift at the Sequin Mine 167
23 A Bump in the Road 173
24 The Chiffon Rebellion 179
25 A Day in Court, a Night at Stonewall 189
26 A Magician, a Mile of Scarf, and a Pair of Scissors 199
27 The Hatchet Is Buried 215
28 Invisible, with Liberty and Justice for All 221
Epilogue: Gilbert Baker's Later Years 225