Last week I was privileged to interview the remarkable LGBT activist Cleve Jones about his moving new memoir, When We Rise, the inspiration for a major prime time miniseries currently showing on ABC. During the course of our conversation I asked him about his good friend, the artist Gilbert Baker. “Gilbert is alive and well. I spoke to him only a few days ago,” came the reply. Baker died on Saturday, aged 65 in New York.
Among Baker’s commissions were works for the Chinese Premier, the King of Spain, the presidents of France, Venezuela and the Phillipines and the Democratic National Convention, but it is for one design that he will remembered. In 1978, at the behest of San Franciscan City Councilman Harvey Milk, Baker created the Rainbow flag.
His simple design, originally in 8 colours, assigned each a specific meaning; from pink (for sex) to yellow (for sunlight) to indigo (for harmony). Since it first flew above San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade, a precursor to the modern Gay Pride march, Baker’s flag has become a worldwide beacon of acceptance, inclusivity and welcome. It flutters above clubs, bars, city halls, bookshops and beaches. Last year its colours lit the Brandenburg gate and the Eiffel Tower to remember those killed in the Orlando nightclub massacre. In 2015 it famously illuminated the White House to celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision to sanction gay marriage in the US, and it flies today above the cottage in Oxfordshire where I am writing this. Baker generously declined to trademark his design. He wanted it to be seen by as many people as possible.
There are of course still many places in the world where Baker’s flag does not fly. Until this year they included British embassies in countries where LGBT citizens are regularly victims of state sanctioned abuses, including beatings, rape and murder. Former Foreign Secretary Phil Hammond defended the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s decsion saying, “The FCO has a very clear policy on flag flying: it is to fly the Union flag at the FCO and all its embassies, high commissions and consulates at all times. The only other flags that are flown are of the constituent countries of the UK and the UK overseas territories on significant days for them, and the European Union flag in certain countries. The UK is a member of, or supports, many organisations and associations, but does not fly any other flags.”
Responding to the FCO Select Affairs Committee which criticised the decision as a “deprioritization of Human Rights”, the FCO has now reversed the ban. It will be left to individual Ambassadors to decide whether or not to fly the flag in support of local Pride, but I very much hope that all will decide to do so.
A good place to raise the flag would be above the British Consulate in Ekaterinburg, which serves Chechyna, where 100 plus ‘suspected’ gay men were rounded up by the authorities and thrown into jail at the weekend. Although these reports were denied by Alvi Karimov, spokesman for Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a bearded Russian bodybuilder still wearing a tracksuit he probably borrowed from a chap he met down the gym. He based his denial on the claim that there are no gays in Chechnya. “You cannot detain and persecute people who simply do not exist,” he concluded with the certainty of an idiot.
The simple sight of Baker’s flag offers safety, hope and unity to people so often denied them by their own governments. To mark Trump’s election LGBT activists redesigned the flag (usually flown with the red stripe uppermost) replacing ‘orange’ – the literal colour of Trump – with a black stripe, to signal allegiance with the Black Lives Matter campaign. Elsewhere across the globe colours have often been inserted (or removed) to match the political campaign colours of policicians who support the movement for change.
On a practical level the Rainbow flag has long offered refuge to gay travellers. I have come across it in the most unlikely locations; from back streets bars in Marrakech to a B&B in Botswana. It offers safety, comfort and acceptance. It is difficult to think of a more outward display of solidarity and welcome, and seeing one always make me smile. Even in London where we take simple freedoms for granted.
Here in Abingdon on Thames a decision last year by the council not to allow the flag to be flown above our magnificent town hall in support of nearby Oxford’s Pride celebrations resulted in furious lobbying and an online petition that quickly resulted in a change of heart. New (Lib Dem) Mayor Jan Morter has assured the local community not only that Baker’s flag will be hoisted this summer but that for the first time ever, Abingdon will host it’s very own gay Pride celebrations.
The Council defended it’s original decision on the grounds that flying a flag would set a dangerous precedent. About bloody time. For hundreds of years local dignitaries have assembled on the roof of Abingdon’s town hall to hurl stale buns at the local population in celebration of high days and holidays. A far more dangerous precedent surely. In the grand scheme of things a cheerful pennant, signifying unity and love is unlikely to cause much fuss, and certainly less likely to take someone’s eye out than a council-led bun fight.
– In memory of Gilbert Baker, 1951-2017 –
A week after writing this column I returned to the countryside to be greeted by the following front page headline on the local Abingdon Herald: ‘Rainbow Ban to Stay’. It turns out this little corner of England, just one hour from London and 20 minutes from Oxford University, is not yet ready to join the 21st Century after all. Ignoring pressure from many thousands of local residents, signatories to an online petition, and even the local MP Nicola Blackwood, two local Conservative councillors, both retired, have dashed any hope that Abingdon might be considered the modern, inclusive town it aspires to be. A town like any other, in fact.
At a meeting last week, Conservative councillor Mike Badcock voted, with a Conservative colleaugue, to maintain the ban on flying the flag above the old town hall (now a museum). Lib Dem councillor Neil Fawcett, who put forward a motion to reverse the ban explains: ‘A working group meeting was scheduled to look at the issue of flag flying in the market place. On that group were three Conservatives and two Lib Dems. The meeting was called during normal working hours. One Conservative and both Lib Dems were unable to attend due to work committments. The two (retired) Conservatives voted to keep the ban in place.’
I relayed Cllr Badcock’s suggestion that the Lib Dems could have nominated a ‘substitute’ to vote on their behalf. ‘That was certainly not made clear to me. In any event the final decision was taken at a full council meeting and all Conservative’s voted against my proposal,’ says Fawcett.
Cllr Badcock insists that ‘the Lib Dems just didn’t turn up. They didn’t apologise, nothing’. After asking Cllr Badcock (who, like his daughter, is a former Mayor of Abingdon) why he voted against lifting the ban, Badcock first reprimands me for my ‘aggressive manner’ before insisting the Council’s long-standing policy is to fly just six flags, ‘otherwise we’d have to fly hundreds’. When I ask how many requests to fly a flag have been made, Badcock insists there have been ‘at least half a dozen’. Clearly Cllr Badcock is no fan of bunting.
When I point out that local (Conservative) MP Nicola Blackwood is very much in favour of flying the rainbow flag, Badcock tells me that ‘we have taken Nicola’s comments on board’, before presumably jettisoning them as inconvenient.
His comments seem to prove once again, that local Conservative Associations often lag light years behind the parliamentary party on a range of social issues, which presumably is why some Conservatives are elected to parliament, while others are destined to keep getting their knickers in a twist over issues that (seemingly) offend only them.
Undeterred, Badcock claims ‘that the majority of people back the town council on the vote’. A claim that is dismissed laughingly by Fawcett.’I’m not aware there has been anything I would describe as polling carried out. As important as I find the issue, I’d be surprised if anyone has commissioned a poll in Abingdon!’
Fawcett suggests this is not the end of the matter. Rather ‘it’s about the town council demonstrating its support for LGBT equality, and I remain surprised by the level of opposition there is to the idea. It doesn’t strike me as particularly controversial’.
Perhaps, once the amiable Fawcett, who is clearly as sincere as he is committed, has served his local community for as many years as Cllr Badcock has, he will cease to be surprised and come to the stark realisation that when it comes to equality, and sex, some Tories simply don’t get it!