Collections Data Manager Gareth Watkins describes how an LGBTQI+ rainbow artwork by the famous flag maker Gilbert Baker has found a home at Te Papa.
Te Papa has recently acquired a small but significant rainbow artwork gifted by myself and Roger, my husband. It was created in San Francisco by the late Gilbert Baker, the original designer of the internationally recognised LGBTQI+ rainbow flag.
Gilbert Baker and Harvey Milk
In the mid-1970s Baker met Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected official. Milk, along with Baker’s friend Artie Bressan, challenged him to devise a symbol of pride for LGBTQI+ rainbow communities. The result was an eight-colour flag that celebrated and reflected our diversity.
Thirty volunteers helped Baker hand-dye and stitch two large rainbow flags which were flown for the first time during San Francisco Pride in June 1978. Five months later, Harvey Milk was brutally assassinated in City Hall.
After Milk’s death, the use of the rainbow flag greatly increased. It began to be seen at rainbow events both in the United States and around the world.
One of the unique aspects of the flag is that Baker did not copyright the design. Instead, he offered it up as a gift to the world, to be freely used by anyone, anywhere.
Inspired by Baker’s generosity and the idea that when offering a gift, you select your most precious taonga (treasure), Roger and I approached the New Zealand Histories and Cultures curatorial team about donating Baker’s artwork to Te Papa.
We had acquired the rainbow artwork during a trip to the United States almost ten years earlier. It was a special occasion – it marked my 40th birthday and we were going to get married in New York City.
At that time, we couldn’t legally wed in New Zealand – or for that matter in San Francisco. In fact, for most of our twenty-plus-year relationship, marriage had never been a possibility.
We arrived in San Francisco just before the annual Pride festivities in late June 2012, staying in the Castro District which has a long and proud rainbow history.
We were fortunate to meet photographer Daniel Nicoletta who had worked in Harvey Milk’s camera shop as a teenager and radio journalist Randy Alfred who documented rainbow communities in the 1970s and 80s – covering early Pride events and the emergence of AIDS.
We walked the Castro and visited the GLBT Historical Society Museum where we saw the sewing machine Baker used to make the first flag. We even felt comfortable enough to hold hands for the first time in public.
On Castro Street, we entered a pop-up store raising funds for AIDS charities. There, selling some of his iconic rainbow artworks was Gilbert Baker.
Baker was being honoured in the upcoming Pride parade. It was such a delight to meet him in person.
He graciously signed the 6×4 inch artwork and wished us a happy Pride. And it was. Happiness, elation and that feeling of just being able to be yourself was indescribable.
There was another beautiful moment a few days later when we were married at City Hall in New York City. On a standard City Hall weekday, along with hundreds of other diverse couples (each ceremony lasted the same 3-minutes), we were treated as equals – no more nor less of a couple proclaiming their love for each other.
We travelled back to San Francisco – our marriage becoming invalid/valid as we flew across States with differing laws.
In New Zealand, both the Department of Justice and the Department of Internal Affairs couldn’t tell us if we were legal or not – instead advising us to talk to a lawyer. Fortunately, and quite by chance, MP Louisa Wall’s marriage amendment legislation was introduced into Parliament just a month later, and our marriage was officially recognised in New Zealand in 2013.
Raising the flags
Over the last decade, the rainbow flag has been seen increasingly throughout Aotearoa. There are now a number of rainbow pedestrian crossings and many cities and towns proudly fly the flag.
In 2016 it was raised on the forecourt of Parliament for the first time to mark the 30th anniversary of homosexual law reform, and in March this year, Te Papa flew the rainbow flag for the very first time.
A way to go
But while the visibility of the flag has increased in this country, the underlying acceptance of diversity still needs work.
While Roger and I felt comfortable holding hands in San Francisco, we have not in New Zealand.
Just a couple of weeks ago during the Covid-19 Level 4 lockdown, we were stopped on the street by an unknown man who shouted at us “F.cken homosexuals.” He raised his hands in the shape of a gun, pointed individually at our heads and stated, “headshot, headshot”. Shocking and distressing – but not the first time we have been targeted.
And then on the other hand, recently I was labelled a troll and “Satan” on a local rainbow social media page for daring to ask a question relating to the current Conversion Practices legislation. Cancel culture has been increasing in rainbow communities over the last five years.
Both these incidents make me feel like I don’t fit in anywhere. It is a sad feeling and far removed from the joy that we experienced in 2012.
Removing the labels
So in these times I reflect and look towards a brighter tomorrow. I think about the words of New Zealand rainbow activist Philip Patston, who in 2011 imagined a future where “we don’t need to label ourselves anymore because we recognise each other without the labels”. And I look towards the rainbow flag and think about its power and limitless potential to bring people together.
In the words of Gilbert Baker describing the rainbow flag, “We’re all the colors, all the sexes, all the genders. Infinite people. Infinite colors.”
- The rainbow flag on Wikipedia
- Gilbert Baker’s profile on Wikipedia
- The assassination of Harvey Milk on Wikipedia
- Randy Alfred’s profile on Pride NZ
- More about the Gilbert Baker Pride Founders Award on the Bay Area Reporter
- The rainbow flag origin story on gilbertbaker.com
- Daniel Nicoletta talks about his photographic career, the Castro in the 1970s, and his time with Harvey Milk and Scott Smith