I’ve been on the verge of tears all afternoon. All evening. I surrounded myself with my closest friends and we re-watched “Milk,” and, then, I cried. But only a little. Only in the confines of my home, alone at last, did the tears really start to flow.
I’ve never shared this story before, but I hope you’ll read and listen. Symbols are often panned. Who needs mere symbolism when there’s “real work” to be done, some might ask. Yet, sometimes, symbols are more powerful and more life-altering than anything you can imagine. And such is this story.
On Friday, March 31, 2017, the world learned of the passing of Gilbert Baker, the creator of the rainbow flag — the single-most widely-known, international symbol of the LGBT Liberation Movement. From Facebook to Twitter to the New York Times, I watched from my computer as the world slowly, steadily, quickly gave pause to remember a man who offered to the world a gift that will last generations. A gift that has given strength and fortitude and identity to a people, to a cause, to a movement — to me.
It’s hard to explain why I feel so much emotion for this human loss.
I never knew Baker.
Never met him.
But I did know, intimately, the symbol he created.
And he might as well have created this symbol personally for me.
I was 14 years old. Newly “out of the closet.” Alone. Scared. A gay boy in small-town Winston-Salem, N.C., with only an inkling of exposure to a broader world of LGBT people like me. I’d watched the the Millennium March on Washington on CSPAN, where I saw rainbow flags light up the National Mall and where I was first exposed to the idea of a gay-straight student club, an idea months later I’d put into action as a high school freshman intent on creating change at my high school.
But that summer, before I started high school, I was still alone. Stuck at my family’s home and still surrounded by a deathly, suffocating anti-LGBT religious dogma that nearly killed me.
I wanted to feel a part of something — something larger and grander than my solitude… a community with purpose and identity.
That rainbow flag.
Loud and clear.
That colorful banner waving across the CSPAN broadcast on my bedroom TV set was the symbol of a movement to which I belonged… a movement which said I belonged.
I searched high and low for a rainbow flag that summer. In local art stores. In local book stores. In local department stores. I searched on AOL, in a time before online shopping was ever a thing, and came up empty. And, with no car and little money, my searches ultimately turned up nearly fruitless.
I eventually, though I don’t remember how or why, somehow found out about a chain of LGBT bookstores called White Rabbit, with locations at the time in Greensboro, Raleigh and Charlotte. I looked up their Greensboro phone number in the phone book and gave them a ring. They had rainbow flags, certainly. The clerk on the phone was more than happy to sell me a flag over the phone and mail it out to me, since I couldn’t drive the next city over to buy it in person. But it was too expensive, especially with the extra postage.
I knew I wanted that flag. I knew that flag was my banner. My symbol. My community. And I had no way to get one.
So, I did the next best thing I could. I created one myself. I took on old pillow case and cut it down to a small flag-sized cloth. With crayons — red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple — I set about drawing out the iconic colors I’d seen flashing across my TV. When one side was done, I flipped the cloth over and colored in the other side. I had my flag, finally.
It was June. Gay Pride Month. That crayon-drawn, pillow-case flag flew from my parent’s front porch flag pole, which usually held the American flag, for just a few hours. A family member on the same street called my mom, then out of town or at work (I can’t remember which now), who then called and told me to take it down.
I packed that personal rainbow flag away somewhere. I haven’t seen it in years. I have no idea where it has gone.
But, I know this: That rainbow flag, though not entirely on its own, saved my life. It gave cause and purpose and identity. And I’ve committed nearly every waking hour of my breath and mind and spirit to this community since that fateful summer when I was 14.
I didn’t know who Gilbert Baker was at the time. I probably might not have even cared. But I knew that flag meant something. And it’s meant something every single day of my life for nearly two decades since.
Gilbert… Rest in Pride. You made more of a difference in this world than you’ll ever know.
Even for that queer kid in small-town North Carolina.