The Rainbow Pride Flag has become one of the most recognized symbols in the world, powered by a message of liberation and inclusivity. This iconic banner was created by Gilbert Baker, an artist who grew up in the conservative town of Parsons, Kansas in the United States of America; a town which, to this day, finds itself struggling to accept its own citizens who identify as LGBTQI+.
In order to celebrate Gilbert’s important vision and to highlight this struggle on a global scale, ReportOUT and the Gilbert Baker Foundation will be launching their first joint partnership together titled the ‘Flag in the Map’ Project. The project will aim to pin the Pride flag into world map, and providing a visual representation of the the different ways in which different communities of sexual and gender minorities use the Pride Flag to advance their struggle for liberation and inclusion across different nation states.
As part of the Memorandum of Understanding a number of key aims and objectives have been agreed which include:
· To develop an online campaign for the public to send in their photographs of how they have flown the Pride flag within different geographical locations and settings.
· To create a bank of short case studies discussing the lives and motivations behind some of the submitted photographs.
· To collate a collection of geographically, socially and culturally varied photographs and short case studies.
· To combine the photographs and case studies into a ‘coffee style’ photobook which will be both an educational tool, and ideally, an income generator for both non-profit organisations.
· To host an exhibition in Pride Month (2022) in a physical location to gather public interest in the project and to elevate the work of both ReportOUT and the Gilbert Baker Foundation.
With the Memorandum of Understanding signed between the two organisations, we spoke to Aaron Casserly Stewart from the Gilbert Baker Foundation’s Board of Directors, to find out how he felt about the new partnership and also take the opportunity to find out more about the fascinating insight into the pioneering man who not only created such an important Pride flag, but also left behind a legacy as well.
Welcome Aaron! You must be very excited about this new partnership between Gilbert Baker Foundation and ReportOUT?
Yes, it is a great project that we are excited to be collaborating on. Here at the Gilbert Baker Foundation, we have been wanting to be involved with more human rights issues, so the timing of this project is perfect.
You yourself as part of the Board of Directors are also a co-creator of the Gilbert Baker Film Festival as well, so what has that been like to work on?
That came about when I was City Commissioner and Mayor in Parsons, Kansas. Gilbert and I grew up in the same town and went to the same high school, but he attended 15 years earlier than I did, so he and I never met. I didn’t even know Gilbert Baker existed or even that he created the Pride flag until I moved back to my hometown 30 years later. I came out when I was 17 years old and throughout my adult life I had no idea about Gilbert’s connection to the Pride flag, so when I came back to Parsons, a classmate of his, who is a mutual friend named Les Hamet, told me the story about Gilbert and I couldn’t believe it. As a result, I then immediately contacted Gilbert and told him I was going to be Mayor and that I wanted him to come back to Parsons because he hadn’t been there since he left high school. He was very reluctant to come back because of it being a very conservative area where when he was back in high school, he would receive a lot of ridicule, teasing, bullying and all of that and understandably he wanted nothing to do with Parsons. But I told him ‘I am here now, come back! I am openly gay and I want to honour you by giving you the key to the city’.
His classmates were even planning on having a celebration for him for when he returned so he said ‘well if I am going to come back, I really want to start something there’. Neither one of us knew at the time what we were going to do, but then Gilbert came up with the idea of having a film festival. He wanted to have something lasting that could also leave a legacy too rather than just coming back. So, we had planned it all then about a month before he was to return, he died. There were plans for him to speak at the film festival, but we went ahead and had it anyway. Unfortunately, he and I never met, but we had a lot of calls and talked a lot, which was great in its own way, but equally sad that I never had the privilege of meeting Gilbert in person.
When you think about the journey the Pride flag has taken, what makes you happy, but also makes you sad?
I think the thing that makes me happy is its effect globally. I mean everyone knows the Pride flag whether they are gay or not and whether they are homophobic or not. It is a symbol that everyone knows around the world, so for that to have come from a kid that grew up in rural Kansas that is pretty major especially as it is one of the most recognisable symbols in the world so that makes me very happy. On the flip side of that, you know, it causes so much controversy as well. Even in where Gilbert graduated in high school in our hometown of Parsons, we are still fighting with them with even just putting a plaque up about him. There is still the stigma and fear that if you fly a rainbow flag that you are gay, or whatever the stigma is that surrounds it. So, I think that is what makes me sad that he has not been honoured in Parsons like he should. There is a committee now that is working on putting a plaque up commemorating Gilbert, and there are people that fly rainbow flags in Parsons, but it should be something that the city is incredibly proud of and celebrate yearly.
Can you remember what it was like when your eyes were drawn to the Pride flag for the very first time?
For me it was a symbol of, ‘ok that is a safe place to go’. I am living in England now out in the countryside with my husband and we live outside of a small village, but even in their city hall which is a very small building they have the Pride flag flying now. When my husband and I were walking and we saw it, we couldn't believe it. It brought so much Pride especially with my connection to Gilbert because it showed that even here in rural England it is something which is being recognised and sends a message that this is a safe place for anyone who is gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender and queer. So, yeah for me, I feel it has always been a symbol of acceptance and a place where I can feel safe to be myself.
What is actually quite nice about this new partnership between Gilbert Baker Foundation and ReportOUT is that you are continuing this conversation on a global scale where you are exploring other people’s perceptions of what it means to honour the Pride flag where they are based. What are your thoughts on that?
You know that is something that is so unique. Particularly in the USA the gay culture can be very narrow minded in the sense that it is not recognising what is happening in the rest of the world especially in terms of what is happening to the LGBTQI+ community that could be killed, beheaded or jailed or all of the other human rights issues we tend to forget about. Drew (Chair of ReportOUT) and I were talking the other day actually and I called them ‘first world problems’ because we can get so zoned in and drawn into our own little world and celebrating our identity that we forget that not everybody is able to do that in other countries. So, the reason I am so excited to be a part of this project is because that education needs to happen, and those images need to happen. People in the LGBTQI+ community need to recognise that not everyone has the same privilege that they do and that we are not all equal yet. We have a lot of work to do and that is why I am behind this new partnership so strongly because of that education that needs to happen.
From that both Gilbert Baker Foundation and ReportOUT will also be able to create a photobook and an exhibition as well which will be quite powerful in its own way because for example while we here in the UK may have Pride Months, on the other side of the world they don’t have that luxury.
Exactly and you know people have a lot more bigger things to be worried about other than just what they are going to wear to the club, it is a bit more than that haha! Like I said there are people that are dealing with living under just horrific circumstances if they were to outwardly be gay or fly the Pride flag where they run the risk of becoming persecuted because of it. That is an important message and a thing that needs to be acknowledged.
I think what is very important is that the Pride flag is not just a once a month thing, it is actually a day to day reality of the breakthroughs and the challenges they have to endure, which is the reason for their tears and scars but also the reason for their strength and identity.
Absolutely it is! It is everyday like you said. We live this daily, just like people of colour live in their skin daily and we can’t change that, so I am glad to be part of this project and I hope it is the first of many collaborations that we do with ReportOUT.
How can we as an international community, regardless of where we live, work together to align ourselves to keep Gilbert’s vision alive?
I think it is by education because that is really what it is all about. I will use myself as an example, like I said previously, I am from the same town and had no idea who Gilbert Baker was, so it is about education, it is about supporting each other and also celebrating each other. The Pride flag is kind of like the mother of all flags in the LGBTQI+ community but we also recognise that there are flags that represent the lesbian community, the bisexual community, or the transgender community. We just launched a campaign and an exhibition celebrating those other flags. We are all in this together and that is what Gilbert wanted. He didn't want to be exclusive, he wanted to be inclusive, so we celebrate and welcome the other flags and forms of connections so that people from the other areas see themselves reflected because everyone is important. So, like I said it is about education, celebration, supporting and realising that we are all in this together.
Sending our thanks to Aaron. More details about the ‘Flag in the Map’ project will be announced in due course. In the meantime, and to find out more information about the important work of the Gilbert Baker Foundation, please visit www.gilbertbaker.com
Article By Thushara S. Chandrasiri