Rainbow Warrior: My Life in Color by Gilbert Baker
c.2019, Chicago Review Press
$26.99/$35.99 Canada, 256 pages
At its most basic, it’s just a piece of cloth.
A nice poly-blend, perhaps, or a hank of nylon in a fade-resistant color. There are holes in one end to fasten to a pole or rope, but it’s otherwise just a piece of cloth. Yet, people have died for it and, as in the new book Rainbow Warrior by Gilbert Baker, that flag could be the fabric of revolution.
Even as a small child, Gilbert Baker knew that he was gay.
He grew up in Kansas, a child who loved to draw, create, wear fancy dresses, and dream of being an artist. Alas, art wasn’t a career in his parents’ eyes. So Baker, as a young man, lied about his gayness and enlisted in the Army, where he quickly realized he was in for years of abuse (at best) or Vietnam (at worst). He “lived in terror” before filing as a conscientious objector; the Army instead listed him as a medic and sent him to San Francisco.
It was the perfect accidental gift.
“When I got to San Francisco,” he said, “I knew I wasn’t ever going back to Kansas.”
Five days a week, Baker worked in an Army laboratory; the rest of the time was his to fall in love, explore his new city, and work on his sewing skills. Stitching became an obsession and by 1977, he was making costumes and banners for demonstrations. When he was asked to make something special for the city’s Gay Freedom Day Parade of 1978, he thought about the rainbow as a flag, and dived right in.
While that first flag was a big hit, Baker writes that the symbol didn’t take off quite as much as he’d hoped. Still, it was present in every “street activists” event he was part of, at every parade, and protest. “One pair of scissors” and a mile of fabric could “change the whole dynamic,” he wrote later. It was “a pure act of rebellion.…”
Rainbow Warrior was compiled from several manuscripts that the late author, Gilbert Baker, left after his death in 2017, a fact that would have been helpful to have, early-on. You’ll be more forgiving of the overly-florid prose, knowing that.
Aside from that annoyance—one appearing throughout the book—readers may also notice a bit of pretentiousness, lots of snarky fighting, endless drugs, and getting naked in Baker’s narrative, which is likewise forgivable because much of it takes place post-Stonewall, post-Summer-of-Love, pre-AIDS.
And thus is the appeal here.
Baker was one of the more ferociously involved protesters, by his own account, and his anecdotes are priceless. He gives readers a good first-person look at early efforts for gay rights, and eye-opening, sometimes jaw-dropping, behind-the-scenes peeks at life as a young gay man during an uprising.
It’s a lively, outrageous look at outrage, in an account that seems not to have held one thing back. That makes Rainbow Warrior readable and entertaining and, despite its overly-ornate verbosity, a good look at revolution cut from a different cloth. ▼
Terri Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was three years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Always Overbooked, she lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 15,000 books.